Book: Pope is misunderstood

2010-09-14 00:00

IT is “simply not true” that Pope Benedict XVI is “a conservative who longs for the old days”, as he is often portrayed by the media. Instead, he is “a kind and humble man, a servant of the gospel who has given his whole life to the church”.

Speaking in Rome on Saturday, two experienced vaticanisti or journalists who cover the Vatican said the current pope is a victim of “miscommunication, misunderstanding and misinformation”.

Andrea Tornelli of Il Giornale and Paolo Rodari of Il Foglio operate widely read blogs and have just launched a book analysing why the first five years of the current papacy have been characterised by what have been called “train wrecks”, i.e. public relations and media crises.

The 300-page book is called Attacco a Ratzinger, or Attacks on Ratzinger, and has not yet been translated into English. It documents just some of the controversies that have marked the current pope since he took office in April 2005.

The sexual abuse scandal has created the most serious criticism of Benedict XVI, but it is only one of many, including comments on the papal plane to Angola and Cameroon in 2009 suggesting that condoms make the problem of Aids worse; his speech in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006 which triggered Muslim protest by appearing to link Mohammed (PBUH) with violence; revival of the old Latin Mass that includes a controversial Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews; the creation of new structures to welcome traditionalist Anglican converts, including priests; and lifting the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including one who has denied that the Nazis used gas chambers.

According to the authors, public misunderstanding of the pope and the controversies surrounding him are due to three problems:

• ill-prepared journalists who are not familiar with the complexity of the way the Roman Catholic church and the Vatican work;

• problems of governance in the church in which the director of the press office reports to the Secretary of State and there is no co-ordinated media strategy; and

• a lack of procedures in place to ensure correct and appropriate communication.

Both Catholics, the authors are sympathetic to the pope and suggested ways the media and Vatican could remedy the problem of bad publicity for the pope and the church. These included:

• better prepared journalists covering the Vatican who have some understanding of Catholic Church law, doctrine, theology and history;

• strategies in the Vatican to try to prevent miscommunication; and

• processes and structures to respond to and correct misinformation and misperceptions about the church and pope immediately, rather than waiting several days, or not responding at all.

Tornelli and Rodari point out that the three most common words in the pope’s speeches are love, joy and beauty. They described him as “a good communicator personally, whose priority is to transmit the message of faith”. They believe that the papal visit to Britain and Scotland later this week would give Benedict XVI a chance to present a truer picture of himself as “a man of dialogue” because the English-speaking world would get a first-hand view of him in action.

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