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Three errors to avoid in media coverage of the conclave

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Mar 13, 2013

With over 5,500 accredited journalists on hand, the Vatican has undoubtedly reached an all-time high in media coverage. But more is not always better; uninformed commentators can do more harm than good. As the hours and perhaps even days pass without a glimpse of white smoke, the commentators will be forced to reach deeper into the storerooms of knowledge about the Catholic Church—and in many cases the shelves of those storerooms were nearly bare when the conclave began.

So these are dangerous days, when countless millions of people, caught up in the excitement of the papal election, are likely to become seriously misinformed. To guard against the danger, keep these few things in mind:

1) Reject simplistic explanations. TV news anchors love to wrap up stories in neat packages, but the motivations of cardinals voting in the conclave are complex. This is not a contest between two opposing forces, like the Democrats vs. the Republicans. It is an effort by 115 serious, dedicated men to discern who will be the best leader for a huge, complex institution with many different needs.

Yes, I realize that in an earlier post I suggested that this conclave would see “the clash between two incompatible visions of how the Catholic Church should present herself to the world.” I still believe that to be the most important question the cardinals confront this week. But it is only one among many questions, and it is a question that does not allow for a simple answer.

There is no “reform party” within the conclave, although there are certainly many cardinals hoping for reform. There is no “curial” party, although of course there are cardinals from the Roman Curia. Actually some of the curial cardinals are fully dedicated to reform, and some of the reform-minded cardinals would probably lean toward a papabile with curial experience, since he would know the ropes and be better equipped to supervise the needed reform.

Similarly, while there are many Italian cardinals now sitting behind tables inside the Sistine Chapel, they are not likely to support “the Italian candidate”—for the simple reason that there is no Italian candidate. There are Italian papabili, and Italians who support them, but there are also Italian prelates who back non-Italian candidates, and even among the Italians there are presumably differences as to which of the cardinals would be the best choice. By the same token, African cardinals might be delighted to see an African Pontiff, but they will not vote as a bloc, nor will they vote on racial lines. They will vote for an African if they think he is the best choice. The same applies to the Latin American and Asian cardinals.

Some cardinals are seen by observers as liberals, others as conservatives. But these are rough, inaccurate classifications; the categories of secular politics do not apply well to ecclesiastical affairs. A few of the papabili might have expressed thoughts on theological questions (or, yes, even political questions) that raise concerns among their colleagues. But only a few. The cardinal-electors are not primarily concerned about the orthodoxy of their colleagues. They take that for granted, and in any case the new Pontiff will not change any fundamental teachings of the Church. The key questions are whether the papabili have the experience and the pastoral instincts necessary to steer the Church in the right direction. The electors are not asking themselves whether Cardinal X is a liberal or a conservative; they are asking themselves whether Cardinal X can effectively promote Christian unity and evangelization.

2) Expect the unexpected. Every commentator has his list of leading papabili, and the lists look very much the same. But do not assume that those lists are accurate or exhaustive.

John Allen has explained how reporters compile these lists of papabili: by talking with cardinals before the conclave and by talking with other reporters (who have been talking with other cardinals). Fair enough; when the same names keep coming up, one can safely infer that there are the names of plausible candidates.

Such inferences should not be treated as established facts, however, because such an informal system leaves large gaps for misinterpretation. Many cardinals give reporters absolutely no hints, and so their thoughts are not included in the tentative consensus. Those cardinals who do mention names may be doing so for their own reasons: to gauge reactions, perhaps, or to draw out more information about the candidates. In other words the cardinals may be playing the same game as the reporters: using these informal chats to make their own lists.

Imagine that you are a cardinal-elector, and you would like to know more about Cardinal Y, whose name has been mentioned by others. In the days leading up to the conclave, you could spend some time researching his background. Or you could simply mention his name to a friendly reporter, ensuring that that name would appear on the list of papabili and dozens of reporters would begin doing your research for you!

Even assuming that the list of leading papabili was substantially accurate when the conclave began, the names could change once the cardinals begin voting. We have no way of judging the dynamic inside the Sistine Chapel. Especially if the first few rounds of voting have not produced a clear favorite, the cardinal-electors may begin looking beyond their original list of candidates. By Wednesday night, after the first full day of balloting, if a Pope has not already been elected and a clear favorite has not emerged, the cardinals may be ready to re-think their approach. The longer the conclave lasts, the more likely an unexpected result.

3) Remember that the story doesn’t end with the new Pope’s appearance. The reporters will decamp from St. Peter’s Square after the election. The TV coverage will end. But the new Pope will remain, with a formidable job on his hands. The cardinals are acutely aware of this; the reporters are not.

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced his plan to resign, commentators began to ask: Is it time for the Church to select an African Pope? A Latin American Pope? Maybe it is, but not because he is African or Latin American. My friend Jean-Marie Guenois made the perceptive observation that a conclave brings out a boomlet of popular support for an “exotic” papal candidate. Reporters can be caught up in the enthusiasm for a cardinal who, by reason of his unusual background or personality, catches the fancy of the Italian public.

Yes, it would be exciting to see an African Pope step out onto the balcony of St. Peter’s. Or a bearded Capuchin Pope, or a young Filipino. But the excitement would fade after one or two news cycles. The electors will not choose a Pope simply to satisfy the appetites of the mass media. For reporters, the ideal papal candidate is the one whose election would provide the most dramatic story line—to be wrapped up quickly, before the press rushes off to cover another event. Cardinal-electors, thank God, will take a longer view.

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