University tackles the great Church-media gap

06 May 2009

By The Record

The Pontifical University of the Holy Cross is not only training priests for the needs of the world, but journalists for the needs of the media, as Peter Rosengren writes.    


The main meeting room of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Vatican. Journalists attending the Rome-based Pontifical University of the Holy Cross’s week-long seminar for media professionals listen to a CDF official brief them on how the CDF works, its history and its internal decision-making the church up close


It’s a little bit unusual to sit in the inner sanctum of the Church’s top doctrinal watchdog, the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, in its Vatican surroundings and try on for size the chair used for weekly meetings by its former head, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger. Readers of Dan Brown might be left gasping in anticipation as they wonder where the secret trap doors leading to the torture chambers might be.
The temptation, as it turned out, was too much. Several journalists attending a week-long intensive seminar for media professionals organised by the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome did exactly that late in 2008 when the conference itinerary took them for an afternoon to meet CDF officials to learn about what the CDF actually does in its service of the Church.
During the visit Monsignor Charles Brown, a young American theologian from New York with a quick sense of humour, took journalists through a short history of the CDF and the nature of the work it does, including the weekly briefings, progress reports and internal decision-making processes that help the CDF stay on top of the numerous swag of problems it is called on to investigate and assess for the Church’s top leadership all the way up to the Pope.
In essence, the talk helped de-mystify for journalists who often have to report on it the institution notoriously descended from the Inquisition and still dogged centuries later in the popular imagination and in the minds of many media professionals by a reputation as some sort of dark and sinister Vatican secret police.
The CDF visit was just one of a number of highlights of the seminar organised by the Pontifical University’s Institute for Social Communications, designed to help the Catholic Church come to terms with the modern means of communications – and journalists and editors to come to terms with the Church.
The seminar was not only an example of an often media-inept Church finally beginning to address a serious inadequacy in its dealing with a key issue, but also of innovative and proactive thinking by a University that is among the most impressive Catholic tertiary education institutions currently in existence.
Locally, the Church appears to have emerged from several torrid years at the hands of what could accurately be described as vendetta journalism from one Perth newspaper apparently gone rogue. Things had got so bad that journalists from the paper contacting Church offices in Perth for comment from senior Church leaders were signalling that in addition to the questions they were asking for their own stories there were additional questions they revealed they were being ordered to put by the paper’s editor.
Globally, the papacies of Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI have also been dogged by media controversy and, often, hostility. After his death, a flurry of stories appearing in media outlets around the world condemned the late John Paul II for having condemned millions to death by refusing absolutely to accept the use of condoms as preventative measures against the spread of HIV/AIDS.
It was not true and never had been, but journalists across the globe, raised and formed by a culture dominated by show business, now take it almost as Gospel that the Catholic Church is harsh, repressive, domineering and uncaring in issues revolving around human relationships and, especially, gender and sexuality.
Their constant reiteration of that one basic message has been a powerful factor helping to make the Church seem irrelevant to generations of young people.
Having been raised and formed significantly by the post-1960s culture of television soap operas, sit-coms and dramas and, now, the Internet, they naturally default to assuming that the Church’s pronounced opposition to artificial contraception in marriage, for example, means that it is wedded to the letter of the law rather than the spirit. The Church’s attitude, they assume, is a kind of ‘If-millions-must-die-to-maintain-the-Church’s-teaching-then-so-be-it’  indifference to the human costs.
Benedict XVI’s pontificate has been notable almost as much for media controversies as for other highlights such as his extraordinarily illuminating books, encyclicals and international visits.
Examples include his speech at Regensberg, comments last Christmas on the need for what he describes as a deeper human ecology, the lifting of the excommunications against recalcitrant Latin Mass bishops and, most recently, comments on condoms and AIDS.
This most recent instance has seen the remarkable phenomenon of much of the media refusing to report many of the world’s top scientists and AIDS experts bluntly backing Benedict on condoms.
Clearly, there is an enormous problem facing the Church in its relationship with, and understanding of, the media. Nor is the Church without fault. In an era dominated by media operating globally 24 hours a day, the Vatican Press Office, which should be a hive of activity assisting and disseminating information to journalists working to strict deadlines, still closes at 3pm every day.
There is, of course, fault on both sides. With the Church maintaining a global following of something like 1.3 billion Catholics and a significant international diplomatic and advocacy role it is remarkable, as veteran Vatican correspondent John Allen pointed out some years ago, that no major media operation thinks it is important enough to assign a full-time Vatican correspondent.
The Church Up Close seminar  in September last year was therefore a ray of light in an otherwise often-gloomy media picture for the Church. Journalists from some of the top newspapers and electronic media outlets around the world were given the opportunity to listen to a range of Church experts and top-guns, such as the intellectually formidable Cardinal James Francis Stafford, explain why the Church is constituted as it is, how it sees itself and its mission within human history, and why it believes and seeks to communicate the Catholic faith.
Areas covered included everything from Canon Law to ecumenical relations, Islam, bioethics and diplomatic relations, the structure of the various Vatican dicasteries or departments and their areas of responsibility, and so on.
By the end of a week of what could be described as Catholicism 101, those attending were still clearly sceptical about the Church’s specific beliefs, even though trying to convert journalists’ personal views had never been the goal. However a new respect was evident. Journalists who attended understood considerably more about an institution that had seemed previously like a vast impersonal bureaucracy – and why it believes what it does and, therefore, the path it charts for itself.
Interestingly, several months later the groundbreaking event appeared to bear fruit. When Pope Benedict XVI found himself embroiled in controversy last Christmas over his comments calling for a deeper human ecology (but being reported globally as calling for the environment to be saved before homosexuals) it was one of the participants, The Guardian’s Religious Affairs correspondent Rhiazza Butt, who delivered a rare example of factual reporting in the midst of a global snowstorm of half-truths and often blatant misrepresentation.
In an age in which the media is the key force for the dissemination and formation of ideas, values and information to billions, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross is bridging the Church-media gap that has so far often seemed to participants on both sides like a farcical comedy of errors, incompetence and ignorance. When it comes to media and communications the University is in a place where the rest of the Church rarely is – out in front of everyone else.