Capitulation or playing the game: The Vatican and media

The way the Vatican released new norms on sex abuse, and the predictable way the media covered it, sparked a vigorous debate in our newsroom and also with Catholic communicators across the country: Who’s to blame for the poor coverage? 

A detached Vatican that doesn’t care how its message plays or is not competent enough to shape it? Or a media that is going to gun for the Catholic Church no matter what? 

A little of both probably. But I have to say that in this case, it seemed the Vatican shot itself in the foot, waving the proverbial red flag in front of the bull. 

And I was joined in that by some of the Vatican’s staunchest defenders in the blogosphere. Elizabeth Scalia, who blogs as The Anchoress at the First Things website, was incensed and threatened (kiddingly, I think) to go to Rome to sit Vatican press officials down for a smack on the side of the head and a good tongue-lashing. 

“On the rare occasion,” she wrote, “where you’ve done something that will bring you a cautious measure of good will, or at least less-hostile reportage, you don’t tie it in with a controversial issue and allow nonsense equivalences to be drawn by people who do not move beyond headlines and soundbites!” 

British journalist and Catholic Damian Thompson was equally outraged in his Holy Smoke blog for the Telegraph: “If I’d been put in charge of the Vatican press office with a specific brief to provide ammunition for the Church’s enemies, I don’t think I could have come up with anything better than this.” 

But some disputed this take. One prominent Catholic blogger emailed me to ask, “What problem, exactly, did the Vatican create?” He saw it almost entirely the fault of a media primed to take down the Vatican. 

“What if more and more journalists are apparently 1) clueless about the Catholic Church and the Catholic Faith, 2) have little or no interest in learning even basic points about the Church, 3) see nearly everything through the paradigm of Church=old and backwards; modernity=young and wonderful, or 4) has an open dislike and bias against the Catholic Church?” he asked. 

I see the point, but I don’t buy the open warfare paradigm. The fact is, most Catholics get their basic Church news — and interpretations of Church events and actions — from the mainstream media (although you know I think that’s why all Catholics in the United States ought to be reading OSV Newsweekly!). 

The Church cannot compromise the message but must be more aware of how the presentation of the message might play, and when possible adjust the presentation to ease acceptance of (or at least not hostility to) the message by people generally of good will. 

Your thoughts on the debate? Let me know at