If you don’t tell your own story, someone else is going to tell it for you.
That is the reality of modern mass communications, but the Vatican is struggling to learn this lesson. Despite the ongoing reorganization of its multifaceted media apparatus, the Vatican still seems unable to control its own narrative.
A case in point is the recently concluded Synod of Bishops on the Family. It would appear, judging from both the secular media coverage and most of the religious media coverage, that the only three topics of any note inside or outside the hall were the status of divorced and remarried Catholics, gay marriage and a private letter to Pope Francis signed by 13 cardinals.
The leaked letter provided a highly successful disruption, and suddenly the conversation became, “Who is for (or against) the pope?” rather than “How can we support our families?”
As for gay marriage, the Church was never going to say anything unexpected on this topic, yet it kept coming up, only partly due to the priorities of Western media.
That leaves divorce and remarriage without the benefit of an annulment. As is usually the case, reporters portrayed it as a battle of polarities: The European bishops, especially the Germans, are witnessing the implosion of their Church, and they are desperate for pastoral alternatives to break the free fall. The African bishops are dealing with local challenges such as polygamy and don’t want the Church to make it look like the Church’s marriage message will change to suit the proclivities of local cultures.
The result of this polarization is that a few final paragraphs rife with ambiguity are allowing everyone to claim a sort of victory, clumsily kicking the can down the road to Pope Francis and a possible apostolic exhortation or some unilateral papal action.
Lost in all of this discussion is the fact that the synod addressed many other topics and made many other recommendations. One can’t blame the media too much, however, because the Vatican did not release the final propositions in the major languages or in a timely manner, thus allowing the spin to gain traction.
So, while we wait for the next shoe to drop, a final comment seems in order on the very un-final discussion about divorced/remarried and the reception of Communion. While defenders of the Church’s traditional position have Scripture on their side (see Mt:19 and Mk:10), they seemed to offer little more than hand-wringing regarding a grievous pastoral issue. With cohabitation virtually the norm and the rolls of the divorced and divorced/remarried growing annually, there is a shrinking confidence that lifelong marriage is anything more than a naive hope. Cohabitation is surely linked to the serious decline in the West of baptism and the other sacraments of initiation. And when Catholics remarry outside the Church, three generations of Catholics can be lost: The divorcing couple, the children of the couple and sometimes the parents of the couple. Pope Francis is right in identifying this as a major challenge, one that the Church seems still unprepared to effectively address.
On the other hand, the progressives’ search for a pastoral solution allowing for the intuition of a priest or a regional exception to greenlight Communion seems to ignore the decline of the mainstream Protestant denominations after prohibitions were breached and exceptions made. Walking back from traditional and difficult Church teachings has not made these denominations more popular. Options and provisos seem more likely to lead to irrelevance. For now, no one has found the right solution or the convincing narrative.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s publisher.