Yesterday, in part 1 of this series, we looked at the upside to Pope Francis’ recent controversial statements in the media. As far as I’m concerned, his message is bang on when it comes to the substance: faithful Catholics need to live and speak with less negativity and instead offer a more upbeat message in general.
However, Pope Francis’ approach poses some risks. His off-the-cuff style lends itself to misinterpretation and easy manipulation by the media. Why? Because when you prepare a written statement in advance, you can re-read it and have it proof-read by media-savvy colleagues who can help smooth the language to minimize risks of misinterpretation. Not so when you’re speaking off-the-cuff. This is not a trivial concern, especially considering how most Catholics don’t understand papal infallibility or the difference between Magisterial teaching and an off-the-cuff remark. There’s nothing we can do about his style, other than pray.
But there’s a longer term risk that we can and must be vigilant about. Listen to this precious insight from Father Z:
Here is an overarching concern I take away from my first readings.
Through interviews – and the coverage of interviews – a “virtual Francis” is being created. An interview, by its nature, can only go so far. Short questions and short responses only go so deep.
We have to make sure that, with all the media attention, with all these interviews, that the “virtual Francis” is not stronger than the real Francis.
That is exactly what Benedict XVI – in his last days as Pope – said and warned about how the Second Vatican Council was interpreted. The media and others created a virtual Council. Remember that? There is a Council of the Media and a Council of the Fathers.
Week by week a Francis of the Media is being crafted. (Source)
In other words, if the media have their way, it won’t really matter what the Holy Father really says, because the only message that will reach the people is the mangled version transmitted by the media. One manifestation of this “Francis of the Media” is the postcard produced by pro-choice activists thanking the Holy Father for his statements on abortion. Expect more of this.
If Fr. Z is right, then we’ll soon hear people in the Church saying that Pope Francis changed the teaching on this or that, just like we hear people say that Vatican II changed the teaching on this or that. In other words, we potentially have a “Spirit of Vatican II” in the making, right before our eyes. We’ll need to be vigilant to charitably nip this in the bud when it manifests itself in our parishes. This is best done face to face, not on a blog. If you hear something in your parish, speak directly to the people involved or to the pastor. That’s the most effective approach and the one that will pose the least amount of collateral damage in terms of presenting a negative or strife-infested image of the Church. Don’t publish the problem online unless all other means have been exhausted.
An unfortunate irony of Pope Francis’ emphasis on a more positive message is that the ambiguity with which he is proclaiming it is causing such confusion that it forces the rest of the Church to re-assert the “negative” side that he wants us to de-emphasize. So we’re writing blog posts about how abortion and homosexual behaviour are still wrong, etc. We need to pray fervently that his delivery becomes more precise.