Benedict XVI and Public Opinion

Interview with Norberto González Gaitano

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By Carmen Elena Villa

ROME, MAY 3, 2010 ( When the public has an opportunity to see and hear Benedict XVI without «filters,» it generally has a good impression of the Pope, says a social communications professor.

Norberto González Gaitano, a professor at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, stated this in an interview with ZENIT after a three-day seminar on «Church and Communications: Identity and Dialogue.» The seminar ended Wednesday and took place in that university.

The participants came from Europe, Latin America, the United States and Africa to discuss the communications experiences and strategies of the Church in the third millennium.

González Gaitano addressed the participants on «The Effect of the Pope’s Trips on Public Opinion,» focusing in particular on the Pontiff’s 2008 trip to the United States.

Reporting on research he conducted regarding this trip, the professor noted that Benedict XVI’s visit was followed through the media by 84% of Americans. More than 60% of Americans had a favorable opinion of the Pope, as opposed to 17% who did not. Moreover, 61% of the total said that the visit had surpassed their expectations.

ZENIT spoke with González Gaitano, who is also a consultor of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and director of the Web site, about his research and his thoughts on current public opinion about the Church.
ZENIT: Why did you carry out this research on the impact of Pope Benedict XVI’s trip to the United States on public opinion?
González Gaitano: I lived in the United States for a few months; I had the impression that something had changed in the public’s perception and in the media in regard to the crisis of abuses of minor by some priests.

This topic has been on the agenda of the American media since 2002. I attended a congress in the United States of communications professors from numerous faculties and there was a round table discussion on religion and the media.

Mentioning my intuition there, the journalists told me they were of the same opinion: that the topic ceased to be news because the Pope had addressed the problem so clearly on his trip that it was no longer a topic of priority news interest. I wanted to investigate if this was or was not a mere intuition.
ZENIT: Could you describe this research?
González Gaitano: It was an empirical approach. Real changes, including social changes, occur in men’s consciences; that is why no empirical approach will ever be able to measure the effect of a trip of the Pope on consciences.

What this research, or another type of empirical analysis can measure are the changes in the perceptions of journalists (published opinion) and of the people (public opinion) — namely, what we ordinarily call public image — what, despite changes in consciences, including individual consciences, later has external effects, except that in general they are not manifested immediately but only in the long-term.
ZENIT: What particularities did you see in this trip of the Pope?
González Gaitano: The Pope had been invited by the United Nations.

There was great expectation. As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger had a negative image.

He was traveling to a country strongly secularized in its elites and at the same time profoundly religious in the social dimension.

Religion has a public, not an institutional, presence: public and, therefore, not debated, as opposed to what happens in Europe.

The trip made visible a model of coexistence that is respectful of religion, and not just «tolerant,» and a climate of political and social liberty.
ZENIT: What factors do you think contributed to the favorable image of the Pope in the United States?
González Gaitano: He was seen and heard, virtually without filters.

I have the impression that the results of all the trips up to now are similar. Look at Turkey, Sydney or his recent trip to Malta.

The effect is always much more positive than the expectations, emphasized dramatically by some commentators who write in the media and transmit a specific climate of opinion to the less informed or to those who are not present in the place of the events.
In terms of image, in so far as what can be measured carefully — something that is not simple — I believe we can say that the humble courage, honesty and sincerity of Benedict XVI in addressing the grave problem of abuses from the beginning of his trip itself — which he then continued (we all remember well the press conference in the plane and the frank and very mature answer to a journalist’s questions) — has done more for the Church in the United States than all the work of communication carried out in the American ecclesial reality. I know that this is an exaggerated affirmation but allow me also to abandon the role of laboratory scholar and argue a bit.
ZENIT: Finally, regarding the wave of negative news against the Church and the Pope due to the scandals of abuses against minors, what does this research tell you about the present situation?
González Gaitano: As in the case of the cloud caused by the [Icelandic] volcano, unfortunately some toxic residues will remain in the atmosphere.

Among the less superficial will be the awareness of the weakness of the imposing system (of transport in one case, of the media in the other), then perhaps what will remain in consciences and minds is that «one word of truth weighs more than the world,» as Solzhenitsyn said, and I would also add, the proof that an honest man is enough to confound one who does not have his conscience in its place (in both trenches).

Then the certainty will remain that we will rapidly forget these and other lessons that we have learnt with so much effort.

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