Pope & media: basic guide
This time, I decided to post about something that is not related to science: the resignation of the Pope. After all, it’s public knowledge that I am a practicing Catholic. I know pretty well that most of those who browse this blog are not, and many just don’t care about religion: take this post as an exercise in critical spirit. I am not going to give you “my opinion”, because I am really nobody to have an opinion on such things. But I want to give you a guide to read the media, in case you follow the developments in the coming weeks.
Let us start with an obvious fact: journalists can’t be experts of everything and have to produce stories that attract attention. Also, they have to craft the story in the way the reader expects it. When it comes to scientific topics, we know pretty well how a piece of news should be cast in order to make in the mass media: it will have to sound either like science fiction (faster-than-light communication, parallel universes, time travel…) or like an answer to our ultimate concerns (the existence of God, free will, faster computers and flatter screens).
Now, how do the media craft a story about the Catholic church? Since the 1960s, it has been customary to use the bi-partite categorization “conservatives versus liberals” (at the beginning, the terms used to be “reactionaries versus progressives”, but the ideology that used that language has become less fashionable in the past decades). From afar, this may seem like as suitable a scheme as any other. In reality, this scheme is as wrong as the wave-particle duality in quantum physics: by describing the truth as tension between two extremes, it misses… well, the truth. I am going to propose you an alternative scheme: it’s three-partite, but I guess you can handle the complication.
At one extreme you have those that we scientists tend not to like very much. They think that the church has gone astray in the last 50 years or so, by speaking in favor of religious freedom, by daring to hold prayer sessions with members of other religions, and by accepting the claims of science. To be fair, you won’t find many Catholics thinking this way: they are minorities, to be found essentially in those nations in which Evangelical Fundamentalism is strong (osmosis happens), in some Alpine valleys, and maybe in some particularly stuffy sacristies (but I have not visited the latter).
At the other extreme, you have those who, in the words of a famous author, want to “reduce the Catholic church to yet another liberal Protestant denomination”. The media have a lot of sympathy for those, and maybe my readers too. But my readers are supposed also to understand (rationally, if not emotionally) why myself and many other Catholics don’t want to go that way either.
So far, we have the bipartite scheme. Notice how all those who don’t fit exactly in any of the above categories will be treated by the media as torn between the two, “conservative here, liberal there”. Have you not found this tension in most of the recent media portraits of Pope Benedict? Whatever your opinion on this Pope, he is certainly not a torn, tormented soul: the serenity of the intellectual is one of the traits unanimously noticed. Have you not found the same tension in most of the portraits of the cardinals that are presented as possible successors? “Cardinal X will be liberal on this topic and conservative in this other”. And if you ask me, you will find out that, in what I consider my personal coherence, I am very “liberal” in some topics and very “conservative” in others (I keep these discussions off my blog, so you have to ask me personally).
In reality, Pope Benedict and most Catholics including myself (and, you can bet it, including the next Pope) belong to a third category: those who know that Ecclesia semper reformanda (“the Church is always in need of change”: I wrote it in Latin to show that it’s quite an old idea, we did not need the pressure of the media to realize it) but who believe in the promise of Jesus that his message will always be preserved in that Church. Of course, this category does not define a monolithic bloc: there are differences of opinion, at times significant ones. Does discord grow? Sadly, at times it does: just as in science, among specialists, we have different opinions on how to make the field progress and we often forget that we have a common goal, the progress of the field. Anyway, whether the Catholics in this category manage to recall that, beyond our differences, we have a common goal, is probably no longer the concern of my reader. So I stop here: just keep in mind this third category, if you want to understand a bit better the media reports in the coming weeks.