By Jesús Colina
ROME, OCT. 5, 2010 (Zenit.org).- The Church is learning how to make media controversy an opportunity to evangelize, some leading Catholic communicators are asserting.
But for this, says the director of the Vatican press office, the Church needs credibility and transparency.
Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi affirmed this today when he spoke to the 230 or so Catholic journalists and communications directors gathered in Rome for a conference hosted by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications.
Father Lombardi proposed that harsh anti-Catholic reactions in the press are understandable, since the Christian message "goes against the secularized world" and since the Church is often "unarmed" -- with few ways to defend itself.
On the other hand, he observed, the Church's relationship with the media also counts success stories: Benedict XVI's trips to the United Kingdom, France, the United States; and the extraordinary press coverage of "Caritas in Veritate."
To make the crises become opportunities, Father Lombardi emphasized, the Church needs personal credibility. "In the case of the most recent two Pontiffs, this is very visible," he said, pointing to their "faith and a courageous coherence in their positions."
Benedict XVI, the Jesuit continued, has shown willingness to put his own person on the line in the controversies, as is shown by his letter to the world's bishops following the removal of excommunication for four Society of St. Pius X prelates, or his letter to Catholics of Ireland regarding the sexual abuse crisis.
In this regard, he said, "the relationship with people, his style, is taking on greater weight in this pontificate too."
Sex and money
Father Lombardi proposed the case of the sexual abuse crisis as a profound challenge for the Church's credibility and transparency.
"A great loss of confidence in the Church has occurred, in part justified, in part caused by a negative and partial presentation of the problems," he said. "But this damage, as the Pope says, can be balanced by a good, if the path of deep purification and renewal is continued, such that this wound can be overcome in a stable manner."
The Vatican spokesman said the second key point for dealing with controversies is transparency: "loyalty to see and confront the moral problems of the institution."
Father Lombardi applied this lesson not only to the sexual abuse crisis, but more generally to economic-administrative issues.
"I think the scandals about which public opinion today is most sensitive are those dealing with sex and money," he reflected. "A Church that is credible before the world is a Church that is poor and honest in the use of possessions, able to give accounts for this use, justly integrated in the network of economic and financial relations, with nothing to hide.
"I am convinced of the upright intentions of the leaders of Vatican economic institutions, but there is still ground to be covered to be totally able to effectively convince public opinion with the ordinary instruments of communication. [...]
"And what I say regarding the Vatican is true for every level of the Church and our communities."
The director of L'Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, reflected that the communications challenge is difficult because of "little attention to information and formation, both in the world and within Catholicism."
The editor of the Vatican's semi-official daily lamented new stereotypes that have arisen about the Holy See, such as that it is an enemy of science, or incapable of maintaining the rhythm of communications media.
To respond to this, Vian said, Catholic communicators cannot speak a different language than that spoken by the rest of humanity. "We have to have the humble awareness that we possess something precious that has to be allowed to shine -- since Christians, even if we are not any different than other people, are the soul of the world."
John Thavis, of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' Catholic News Service, spoke about how Catholic journalists have developed over the last 20 years in dealing with reports of clerical sex abuse.
When the crisis began in the 1990s, he said, many Catholic newspapers hesitated to cover the story, but when the scandal in the United States hit a real crisis point in 2002, there was a real shift, "first, because many in the Catholic press shared the sense of outrage over these disclosures."
As the scandal erupted in Europe at the beginning of 2010 and many secular newspapers seemed to try to lay the blame at the feet of Benedict XVI, the Catholic press knew that the Pope had been "methodical and determined and patient" in trying to deal with the problem since the 1990s, he said.
“What worries me is that Catholic communicators, with all their perspective, context and fairness on the sex abuse story, have not really had much impact beyond their own limited audience," Thavis reflected.
“We feel frustration at times over how the mainstream media treats the Church; but this frustration is often translated into a kind of closed-circuit discussion among ourselves. There’s a risk of becoming too self-congratulatory," he cautioned.
In this regard, he asked the Catholic communicators gathered at the conference: "How well do we really communicate with the modern world, the wider world, beyond our own ecclesial borders?”