That Pope Benedict XVI is Catholicism’s most effective spokesman and navigator through the rocks and shoals of Scandal Time II was demonstrated yet again in May, during a flying papal press conference en route to Portugal. Discussing the enduring meaning of the “message of Fatima,” the pope said the following:
“As for the new things we can find in this message today, there is also the fact that attacks on the pope and the church come not only from without, but the sufferings of the church come precisely from within the church, from sin existing within the church. This, too, is something we have always known, but today we are seeing it in a really terrifying way: that the greatest persecution of the church comes not from her enemies without but arises from sin within the church, and thus the church has a deep need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn forgiveness on the one hand, but also the need for justice.”
Beautiful, profound, unexceptionable: yet this lesson in theology and piety was interpreted by virtually the entire press corps as a papal blessing on the way Scandal Time II had been covered since March—and an implicit criticism of those who had suggested that recent reporting and commentary on priestly sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance had been, at times, shoddy and agenda-driven (the agenda being the disempowerment of both pope and church). There is nothing in the pope’s actual words, however, that supports that little bit of auto-absolution by the brethren of the fourth estate.
Thus “…attacks on the pope and the church come not only from without”: what can that mean other than that there have, in fact, been attacks from the church “from without”?
That “the greatest persecution of the church comes not from her enemies without but arises from sin within the church” is certainly true (and has been said repeatedly by both John Paul II and Benedict XVI). But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t persecutors “from without.” Measured against the Evil One and the damage he can cause, those outsiders may be pretty small beer; but they’re persecutors nonetheless.
The pope was entirely right to remind everyone of what he called, in his Good Friday meditations in 2005, the “filth” in the church: infidelity is the cause of Scandal Time II, as it was the cause of the Long Lent of 2002. Dealing with that infidelity, as the Holy Father continued, requires “conversion, prayer, penance and the theological virtues” [of faith, hope, and love]. Here are the essentials in the church’s response to evil, which “attacks from within and without.”
These are ancient truths. Recognizing their contemporary salience does not, however, require us to stand mute on the occasions when the press manifestly gets it wrong. Charity does require us to acknowledge that, in most cases — not all, but most — getting-it-wrong is the result of ignorance rather than malice. Still, one significant difference between 2002 and 2010 has been that the malice of some newspapers and magazines has been clear to anyone with a critical eye.
That unhappy fact underscores the necessity of reforming the Holy See’s communications operation, which has retreated from the advances made under John Paul II’s longtime spokesman, the Spanish layman Joaquin Navarro-Valls. As John Paul and Navarro-Valls demonstrated, the pope-press spokesman relationship works well when the spokesman is well-established in the confidence and confidences of the pontiff, and has ready access to the man he’s interpreting to the world. Building such a relationship with a spokesman may require a pope to alter his habitual patterns of work, but the effort seems worth it, judging by the results.
The ingrained media defensiveness of the Roman Curia must also change: the attitude, entrenched over centuries, that the best story is no story. No, the best story is a good story that presents facts accurately and does so in such a way that the essentials of the church’s evangelical message get communicated. That takes work, but again, the effort is worth it.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.