The Ten Commandments of Reporting on the Vatican

Some Advice for the Coming Days

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The resignation of Pope Benedict has opened a new episode in Church history and drawn worldwide media attention. All of us who are fortunate enough to work in the media are enjoying the honor of front row seats to history in the making. However, this privilege, like many others, is soon taken for granted. It is easy to forget that –to quote Spiderman—“with great power comes great responsibility.” And make no mistake, information is power and those who wield it are accountable. Therefore, it seems appropriate that as we step into the frenzy that will increase in the weeks leading up to the election of the new pontiff of the Holy Roman Catholic Church, there should be a few dos and don’ts of covering the Vatican.

1)    Thou shalt leave your personal prejudices at the door. I have often seen Al Qaeda treated with more respect than Pope Benedict and the Roman Catholic Church. While you may disagree with the Church’s teaching on any number of things, there is no excuse to let your personal agenda define your coverage. In reporting on other world events, it is unthinkable to insert one’s personal ideas, so why is it acceptable when reporting on the Church? If all you can focus on is birth control, gay marriage and abortion and how the papacy should change its teaching, you should probably just go home. Whether you agree or disagree isn’t really the question. Your job is to understand and to report, to give background and help viewers and readers to get a sense of the bigger picture. Pope Benedict XVI has led the 1.2 billion members of the Catholic Church for 8 years, drawn crowds of millions in gatherings worldwide and brought a message of hope and love to the farthest reaches of the earth. The Pope’s CV is impressive to say the least, and he deserves respect.

2)    Thou shalt buy a dictionary. It seems that the literary pool of most Vatican journalists contains a limited number of words: Scandal, corruption and sex abuse make for a very small and stagnant pond, and to continually draw from it shows little imagination. People once joked that action movie titles in the 1990’s were formed of two words taken from short list: Die Hard, Maximum Risk, First Blood, Raw Deal. Now it seems that all headlines regarding church news are comprised from a list of column A: sex scandal, pedophilia, intolerant, homophobe, misogynist and column B: Pope, Church, Catholics, Bishops, priests. This makes Sylvester Stallone with his “limited” vocabulary look like Shakespeare. Words that actually describe what the Catholic Church is about could be inserted from time to time: compassion, forgiveness, gospel, redemption, charity, humility, service and healing might make a good start.

3)    Thou shalt listen. Journalists enjoy the reputation of being good listeners, but somehow when it comes to the Vatican, there is an  epidemic of selective deafness. When the Pope says he made the decision to resign after prayer and reflection for the good of the Church, what many media outlets seem to hear is cover up, life-threatening disease, or plain old quitter. When Pope Benedict spoke on faith and reason at Regensburg, many media people heard “anti-Muslim,” resulting in violent repercussions. When Pope Benedict spoke of condoms and the awakening of moral sense, many heard an endorsement for homosexual relations. Like Dante, Plato or Lincoln, Pope Benedict’s words are riches that keep giving if only one will listen.

4)    Thou shalt report, not distort. Millions are unable to follow these events in person, many more will not have the option of channel surfing or perusing myriad blogs for news.  It is the responsibility of those who are present to report with clarity and accuracy. Many people deeply care about what is going on, and would be grateful for an unbiased account of this event. This is an unsettling time for Catholics, with a papal resignation and uncharted waters ahead. If a reader in a faraway place with difficulty accessing information has selected you to be his eyes and ears in Rome, it is irresponsible to present innuendo and conspiracy when clarity is needed. Don’t say a few thousands came to an event when there were 150,000, and don’t seek out the few gripers in the crowd among the thousands of sincere well-wishers. Report what is happening, share the good news and the bad with accuracy and an even tone, and do not abuse the trust readers place in you by feeding them the poison of unfounded suspicion.

5)    Thou shalt bring the proper decorum to these proceedings. This commandment is particularly aimed at Catholic journalists who purport themselves to be witnesses for the faith as well as experts in the Church. Acting like primadonnas, or as a producer friend put it “trampling on little old ladies to get in front of a camera” is unseemly. If, blinded by the spotlight, one forgets that we are always witnesses to the joy and the charity of Christ, we are slacking in our most basic duty when representing the Church. The camera crews, the runners, the correspondents and all the people we meet in our work with the media see us as representatives of the Catholic Church and it should be reflected in everything we do. Speaking to the public, with the dome of St. Peter’s behind us, we should always remember that we are responsible first and foremost to the Truth, in how we treat those of our hierarchy, those who are working to help us and each other.

6)    Thou shalt not seek stardom. The conclave is not about the reporter, there are no king-makers here if not the Holy Spirit. Self-importance has no place at a conclave. Putting forward one’s agenda and personal preferences wastes your reader’s or  listener’s time and creates more heat than light. The Pope is the star (though he would rightly insist that Christ is), he is the reason why there is a media event, and as Benedict steps down and a new pope is in the offing, it is this event that provides us with jobs, not us making the event.

7)    Thou shalt not repay generosity with scandal. Last Thursday, I was in the Vatican gardens watching minibus after minibus cart journalists around the Vatican premises. They were shown the Casa Santa Marta where the Cardinals stay during the conclave, and even where Pope Benedict will reside after he steps down on Thursday. They were given more access than most Vatican employees as they were shown the workings of the “mysterious Vatican city” from its hotel to its pharmacy to its bank. What were the headlines the next day? Not “new era in Vatican media relations” but innuendo and gossip about “gay lobbies” and blackmail. Having been given these great delicacies from the Vatican table, what did many reporters bring home in the doggie bag to their readers? Some old gnawed bones.

8)    Thou shalt not resurrect anachronistic terminology. Words like “schism” are both inappropriate and unhelpful. Schism indicates an actual split in  the Church, resulting in two heads, one the pope and the other what is often called the antipope chosen by a second, invalid conclave. This has nothing to do with what is happening here. Constant reference to a sex abuse “crisis” is another expression that now makes no sense. Crisis is a critical event or a turning point. The crisis in  clerical sex abuse took place in 2001, over 10 years ago. Since then the Church has instituted guidelines and screening so that from an average of 50 cases per year in the 70s and 80s there were only 7 credible accusations of abuse in 2010 out of 39,000 priests in the US. If any institution has shown the world how to turn things around, it is the Catholic Church.  Talk of a “crisis” can only stem from disingenuousness or lack of imagination.

9)    Thou shalt not apply ecclesiastical affirmative action. The Church is universal but doesn’t need to fill quotas. There are Catholics all over the world. Just walk into a Pontifical University and the colors, languages and cultures are as numerous and varied as Raphael’s pigments. The Chur
ch elected popes from Africa (Milziade 311-314), and Asia (John V from Syria 685-686) long before the Americas were even discovered. The idea that the Church should select a new pope merely based on skin color or somatic features is absurd and unnecessary.

10) Thou shalt not dismiss age or beauty. The Church has been around for a very long time and has weathered arrested, disgraced and murdered popes, invasions, persecutions and the complete loss of their lands. It has survived a reformation and a Risorgimento and is still here. For every disaster, the Church has produced something beautiful to show for it, whether it be a work of art, a spectacular structure or the glorious life of a saint. St Peter’s was made during the reformation, the Pietà carved during one of the most corrupt reigns of the Renaissance, and St Maximilian Kolbe flowered in the Holocaust. The Church knows that hardships come to an end, but in the moments of greatest pressure our finest diamonds are forged.

Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University’s Italian campus and University of St. Thomas’ Catholic Studies program. A new paperback version of her book, “The Tigress of Forlì: Renaissance Italy’s Most Courageous and Notorious Countess, Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici” was published by Harcourt, Mifflin Houghton Press this Fall.  She can be reached at

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Elizabeth Lev

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