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Catholic Media Watch

Bewildering the faithful with Papal instructions

by Michael Mullins

In his monthly letter to the Parramatta Diocese for October, Bishop Kevin Manning points the finger at the media for trivialising instructions from the Vatican, suggesting that "even the Pope worries about the reception of some of his documents". Clearly what the documents say to journalists is not what he had in mind.

Bishop Manning quotes the Holy Father himself, who told last February's Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that the "acceptance of the Instruction" is an "ecclesial event that involves acceptance of the Magisterium in the most cordial communion and sharing of the Church's doctrine". However the "immediate reactions and interpretations of the social communications media" tend to leave the faithful "bewildered rather than informed".

It's not hard to see where they're coming from. As they see it, if Vatican teaching is reported at all, it's for the sake of titillation. Last month, the Pope told the New Zealand bishops in Rome for their ad limina visit that they need to do something about the country's "unrestrained secularism" and the "wavering" Mass attendance on Sunday, which is "unduly dominated by entertainment and sport".

At least one of the papers took that as a cue to get a rise out of the rugby faithful by suggesting to the ostensibly Catholic Marist Rugby Federation that it should review playing the sport on Sunday. As Bishop Patrick Dunn pointed out after his return to Auckland, the Pope, who once played rugby himself, wasn't trying to talk them out of Sunday games altogether. He was just saying that he'd like to see them find a place for Mass in their busy Sunday schedule.

But then that prompted talkback radio to raise the issue, and the more sober, but definitely secular, New Zealand Herald to reflect that the Pope had a point.

"There is little enough time to consider spiritual matters; to find space and time away from the hubbub of everyday life," said the editorial writer. "Sunday offered that opportunity before it became, in most ways, just another day."

All in all, not a bad result. The Pope had got one of his pet topics onto the national agenda. So what's the complaint?

I'd say that it's the fact that opinion is led by the media, not the Church. Church authorities have to work much harder these days to get Catholics thinking about issues they regard as important, not to mention thinking in the desired direction. The media holds the attention of the faithful, not the Church.

No doubt many bishops dream of a return to the days when Catholics ruminated about the realistic possibility of eternal damnation, and ending up in hell. Some chose the priesthood or religious life as a way of minimising the risk, while others thought that the very least they could do was listen closely to what the Church taught. Holy See Instructions were, in a very real sense, the "most cordial communion and sharing of the Church's doctrine" that the Pope was wishing they were when he spoke to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith last February.

These days, what Church authority has to say on a given topic must compete in the marketplace of ideas if it's to get serious media coverage. As Bishop of Limerick Donal Murray said last month, it is pointless to argue on the basis of the authority of the Bible (or, implicitly, the Church).

"The democratic debate about what is best for society has to be conducted on the basis of human dignity and rights; it has to be argued in terms of the common good."

He may never control the media, but Bishop Manning need not worry unduly. For his September letter, he wrote one of the most impressive and forthright Federal Election messages of any Australian community leader. He was able to appeal to a sense of rationality and common decency in a way that transcended the more narrow moralistic thinking of some other religious interventions during the campaign. His letter merited, and got, positive coverage in various media. They gave him a voice because he had something worthwhile to say.

Perhaps Bishop Manning has after all achieved that "most cordial communion and sharing of the Church's doctrine" that is the subject of the Pope's wishful thinking.

Read more from Mike Mullins:

  • Issue 2: Steady as She Goes
  • Issue 4: Too much from Rome
  • Issue 6: Logic of being media friendly
  • Issue 8: Christian Bros: bad news sells
  • Issue 10: No positive spin from Pell
  • Issue 12: Close your eyes
  • Issue 14: Deal Hudson and the game of shame shifting
  • Issue 16: Winners and Losers
  • Issue 18: The Magazine without an editor

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