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Why the media keep getting Pope Francis all wrong

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 07, 2013

Readers beware. The quality of reporting on the Vatican by the secular news media—never high—has plummeted to an all-time low in recent weeks. Scarcely a day goes by without some sensational new headline.

The Pope is going to appoint a female cardinal! He’s going to poll the Catholic public! He’s going to use the poll results to alter Church doctrine! He’s going to end priestly celibacy! He’s going to drop the Church’s opposition to same-sex marriage!

The headlines are inaccurate, as are the accompanying stories. But because they’re sensational, they capture attention. Only rarely do the media outlets correct their errors, and even when they do, the corrections do not capture the same amount of attention. Meanwhile, after the eye-catching stories have appeared in the big media outlets, they filter down through the copycat outlets. So the inaccurate headlines keep popping up, long after the stories have been debunked.

Why is there so much bad reporting about the Vatican? You can complain all you want about the Vatican’s public-relations strategy, and I won’t stop you; over the past 20 years I don’t think any Catholic commentator has criticized the Vatican’s PR efforts more than I have. But even if the Vatican’s handling of these stories has been maladroit, I don’t blame the Vatican for the current boom in bad reporting. Several other factors are at work.

First, Pope Francis has become enormously popular, and drawn the attention of the world’s media. There’s more coverage of Vatican affairs than in the past. Since the coverage is nearly always inaccurate, more coverage means more inaccuracy. Q.E.D.

Second, the mass media still don’t know exactly what to make of this new Pontiff. Pope Benedict XVI was a known quantity; he had been in the public spotlight for years. He was known as a staunch defender of Catholic orthodoxy, and so—even when reporters realized that he had been badly mischaracterized as a stern martinet—no one expected him to make significant changes in Church teaching. In the case of Pope Francis, however, reporters don’t know what to expect. (As the co-author of a book about the new Pope, I can assure you that Pope Francis will not break from Catholic orthodoxy. But if the mass media took their cues me, you wouldn’t be seeing all these inaccurate stories!)

Third, Pope Francis has produced a series of surprises, mostly with his own personal gestures. Vatican-watchers are expecting further changes, and competing to be the first to spot a new development. Secular reporters generally—wrongly—think that “change” must necessarily mean doctrinal change, so they speculate about the possibilities along those lines. Dozens of stories in recent weeks have solemnly announced that the Pope “might be thinking of” various major changes. Unless you can read minds, you can’t absolutely contradict such stories, but they’re based on nothing but the reporter’s speculation.

Fourth—and regrettably—Catholics on both ends of the spectrum are encouraging the media to think of Pope Francis as a revolutionary. One group, still longing for radical changes in doctrine, encourages speculation that the Pope will grant their wishes. Another group, frightened of the changes that might be in store, seizes every opportunity to complain that the Holy Father is abandoning time-honored traditions. The “hermeneutic of rupture” that Pope Benedict XVI decried, once applied to Vatican II, is now being applied to Pope Francis. Extremists on both sides, for their own separate reasons, portray the Pope as a radical. Their hyperbolic statements—gleeful on one hand, morose on the other—provide secular reporters with the juicy quotations they need for stories depicting Pope Francis as a radical.

Folks, we all need to calm down. Take a few deep breaths. If you read the Pope’s actual statements, if you watch his behavior, you realize that although he has a striking and often provocative personal style, he is no revolutionary. He is, rather—as he has described himself—very much “a son of the Church.” There will be changes at the Vatican under his leadership, but not radical changes, and certainly not changes in doctrine.

To understand this pontificate, employ the “hermeneutic of continuity.” Assume that Pope Francis is not trying to undo the good work of Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but doing his best to carry out their plans. Often he may attack problems from a different angle, but it’s a mistake to conclude that he has fundamentally different goals. The secular media might fall into that error every day, but faithful Catholics shouldn’t be misled.

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  • Posted by: Defender - Nov. 07, 2013 10:37 AM ET USA

    The Vatican needs to return to the days of old when it comes to the press. Part of the problem, it seems, is that the Church has its own spin doctors and they don't do their jobs very well at all. LOR even gets into the act with its articles on rock stars, etc - what, there aren't enough "church" things to write about?

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