Vatican’s New Media Evangelizing Strategy Can’t Save it from All The Bad News

This past Saturday, a miracle happened. A journalist was beatified at the Vatican.

Before you choke on your afternoon coffee, it was not a journalist working for the gray lady; rather, it was Manuel Lozano Garrido, a Spaniard who worked for several publications, including the Associated Press. Garrido suffered from a disease early in life that left him an invalid, but was able to write nine books and contributed to several publications. In his reflections on Garrido, Pope Benedict remarked, “Journalists can find in him an eloquent testimony of the good that can be done when one’s pen reflects the greatness of the soul and is put at the service of truth and noble causes.”

Since serving the truth and a noble cause is an admirable trait for a journalist, I can not help but point out that the day before, the Pope was continuing his “I’m sorry” tour before a crowd of people who perhaps needed to hear it the least. June 11 marked the end of the celebration of the “Year of the Priest” and the Pope marked it by celebrating mass along with 15,000 priests visiting Rome for the occasion. He chose to once again offer an apology for the wrongs that priests had done, although he did lean on an old Flip Wilson meme of “the devil made me do it” to get his point across:

It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the “enemy;” he would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven out of the world. And so it happened that, in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light—particularly the abuse of the little ones, in which the priesthood, whose task is to manifest God’s concern for our good, turns into its very opposite.

The entire homily is worth reading, not simply for the apology but for its avoidance of the real issues at hand: the decline of vocations, a decline in the moral authority of the papacy, and the intransigence of the Vatican regarding the discipline of not only abusive priests but their enablers: bishops.

Without calling a synod to engage in an extensive, substantial discussion about how to hold bishops and the Curia accountable for contributing to the glacial response to sexual abuse cases is unconscionable. It is very difficult to take seriously any apology from the Pope without some tangible plan to rectify the systemic abuse, something more than simply another pastoral letter. The mass and celebration also had its dissenters, notably, representatives from SNAP (Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests) were there, as well as a group of women campaigning to be ordained as priests.

It perhaps is no coincidence then, that while the Pope was concelebrating mass for the Year of the Priest that had turned into the Year the Pedophile Priests, Part II, the Pew Forum was releasing a little journalistic beatification of its own, a report on media coverage of the Catholic abuse scandal. The report notes that the coverage from the European media was three times that of the U.S. coverage, and that coverage of Pope Benedict represented over half (51. 6%) of the stories about the scandal in the period from mid-March 2010 to late April 2010. The clergy sexual abuse scandal was covered even more than the Tea Party in the same period. Print media was more attentive to the story, while new media (tweeting, blogging) only had the story as a leading topic only one week of the six weeks surveyed. 

The takeaway from all of this is that the Curia and its head, Pope Benedict, have not been able to stem the tide of the news cycle about the sexual abuse scandal, nor has the biggest newsmaker in the scandal used media effectively to convey a coherent message to Catholics that is sincere, contrite, and constructive. Even more disturbing is the eagerness to use media in order to evangelize, while demonizing legitimate reporting on the sexual abuse stories.

In late April, it was revealed that Pope Benedict would soon announce a new Pontifical Council for Evangelization, dedicated to rekindling the faith in the developed west, especially Europe and North America. If you can’t handle your bad press and scandals, how can you effectively evangelize? Besides, “the West” has already been evangelized by the media’s damning coverage about the failure of the Church to protect children against sexual abuse.

The fact that this Council is even a consideration is laughable, given the clumsy way in which the Pope’s lackeys handled the avalanche of scandal news, especially during Holy Week. Couple this Council with the celebration on May 16 of the 44th World Day of Communications,with its theme “The Priest and Pastoral Ministry in a Digital World: New Media at the Service of the Word,” and you begin to understand that the Roman Curia is really in its own world, a world that increasingly behaves like North Korea with its lauding of a corrupt system, and the treatment of those who have been harmed by ineffective, dodgy administration over abuse cases.

In the fantasy world of Vatican City, you can tell priests that it is good to use new media to bring the youth into the church, while bitterly complaining that the press has reported on the decades of sexual abuse against children. The last thing that the Curia should promote right now is how to connect priests to kids on the web. No matter how accessible Pope Benedict is on his Web site, the fact remains: the current news cycle that runs from the Vatican runs more like the Borgias than any 21st-century church. Trips, councils on evangelization, beatifications, or slick websites aren’t going to bring disillusioned Catholics back to the increasingly vacant pews of Catholic churches in Europe and America.

Perhaps the Pope should get together with the CEO of BP when he visits England in September. I’m pretty sure they will have much to commiserate about, and they can blame the press for their woes.