Pope Francis: “the mass media’s three sins”

On 15 December 2014, Pope Francis addressed the workers and directors of TV2000, a major Catholic media outlet under the auspices of the Italian Episcopal Conference (CEI: Conferenza Episcopale Italiana). In classic Jesuit style, the Pontiff limited himself to a brief three-point discourse on the proper role of Catholic media. In an insightful observation, the Pope mentions “three sins of the mass media” unfortunately all too prevalent; he charges Catholic media outlets to abandon these sins and in doing so conform themselves to the higher mission of the Church.

While this address is directed firstly to TV2000 and Catholic media organizations, the Pope in reality enumerates principles for responsible journalism as a whole. The media should facilitate the dissemination of the whole truth, not half-truths and falsehoods. On each of Francis three points, as we shall see below, the secular media at large fails spectacularly, and this failure is a critical component in the creation of the phenomenon we call “the Fantasy Francis” (see here and here).

As of this writing [16 December], the text is only available in Italian, so all translations are mine. As usual, Francis uses many idiomatic phrases which are rather clear to Italian speakers but do not transfer well into smooth English. Accordingly, my rendering might seem rough in some places; nevertheless, I’ve done my utmost to ensure that the sense of the Pope’s speech is adequately conveyed. The original full text is here. It is to the high discredit of Vatican Radio/Centro Televisivo Vaticano and of the Holy See Press Office that the text is not available in any other language.

Point #1:

What makes communication good is, firstly, παρρησία [parrhesia; Greek for “bold, honest speech”], which is the courage to speak face to face, to speak with frankness and freedom. If we are truly convinced of what we have to say, the words will come. If instead we are worried about tactical matters– being tactical– our speech will be artificial, not very communicative, insipid, speech constructed in a laboratory.

Ciò che fa bene alla comunicazione è in primo luogo la παρρησία, cioè il coraggio di parlare in faccia, di parlare con franchezza e libertà. Se siamo veramente convinti di ciò che abbiamo da dire, le parole vengono. Se invece siamo preoccupati di aspetti tattici –il tatticismo? – il nostro parlare sarà artefatto, poco comunicativo, insipido, un parlare di laboratorio.

Parrhesia is a biblical term mostly used to describe the Spirit-filled force behind the preaching of Christ and the Apostles which struck the hearts of unbelievers and brought them to faith in the Son of Man. Such speech is by nature rooted in Truth– not merely factual truth but transcendental Truth, which is ultimately God himself. Francis’ remarks about speaking frankly and in freedom recall his opening words to the 2014 Synod, where he encouraged the participants to speak freely so that a vibrant, effectual discourse might occur. If speech is instead “tactical”, intentions remain hidden, and the merits of one’s position cannot be brought to full scrutiny. This is, as Francis will later imply, nothing more than a form of dishonesty. Catholic media only fulfills its service to the Church if its mission is rooted in the unabashed and honest proclamation of Christ Jesus, who is the Way, the Life, and the Truth.

Point #2:

May communication avoid both “filling” and “closing”. “Filling” is when one tends to saturate our perceptions with an excess of slogans that, instead of putting thought into motion, cancels it. “Closing” is when, instead of embarking upon the long path of understanding, one prefers the short path of presenting single persons as if they were capable of resolving all problems, or otherwise as scapegoats on whom to place all blame.

La comunicazione evita sia di “riempire” che di “chiudere”. Si “riempie” quando si tende a saturare la nostra percezione con un eccesso di slogan che, invece di mettere in moto il pensiero, lo annullano. Si “chiude” quando, invece di percorrere la via lunga della comprensione, si preferisce quella breve di presentare singole persone come se fossero in grado di risolvere tutti i problemi, o al contrario come capri espiatori, su cui scaricare ogni responsabilità.

In not so many words, Francis condemns the soundbyte-driven media (although, ironically, the increasing popularity of the @Pontifex Twitter account encourages this tendency toward brevity). Though something will always be lost in translation (especially now that Francis only speaks Spanish and Italian), far worse is the fact that things are lost in condensation. One cannot grasp the entire reality of any issue in a few short phrases, much less in 140 characters; reducing any complex matter to such brevity invariably erases all nuance and depth, doing violence to the original idea. The Popes have certainly been affected negatively by this drive toward brevity: from Francis’ (in)famously misinterpreted “who am I to judge?” to Benedict XVI’s egregiously misconstrued statement on condoms in  the book “Light of the World”, the ever-growing desire for short encapsulations of complicated things signifies an increasing lack of critical thinking in modern society; the media should not facilitate this intellectual poverty.

Francis also condemns pigeonholing people into simplistic caricatures that likewise excise nuance and honesty about the true nature of those people. When he mentions the “short path of presenting people” either as unqualified heroes or as miserable scapegoats, certainly something he has in mind is the idealized “mythology of Pope Francis” which he already repudiated in the past. On the flip side, the poor treatment of Cardinal Burke in mainstream media also manifests that “short path” of understanding.

Point #3:

Speak to the whole person: this is the third task of the communicator, avoiding, as I’ve said before, the sins of the media: misinformation, slander, and defamation. These are the three sins of the media. Misinformation, in particular, tells half-truths, and this causes an inability to make a precise judgment concerning reality. Authentic communication is not worried about “making headlines” (colpire, literally, “to strike”): the back-and-forth between catastrophic alarmism and consolatory withdrawal, two extremes which we continuously see before us in daily communication, is a disservice which the media can give to people. One must speak to the whole person: to the mind and to the heart, so that [people] learn to see beyond what is immediate, beyond a present moment that risks being forgetful and timid. Of these three sins– misinformation, slander, and defamation, the most insidious seems to be slander, but in communication, misinformation is the most insidious, because it brings you to error: it brings you to believe only a part of the truth.

Parlare alla persona tutta intera: ecco il terzo compito del comunicatore, evitando quelli che, come ho già detto, peccati dei media: la disinformazione, la calunnia e la diffamazione. Questi tre sono i peccati dei media. La disinformazione, in particolare, spinge a dire la metà delle cose, e questo porta a non potersi fare un giudizio preciso sulla realtà. Una comunicazione autentica non è preoccupata di “colpire”: l’alternanza tra allarmismo catastrofico e disimpegno consolatorio, due estremi che continuamente vediamo riproposti nella comunicazione odierna, non è un buon servizio che i media possono offrire alle persone. Occorre parlare alle persone intere: alla loro mente e al loro cuore, perché sappiano vedere oltre l’immediato, oltre un presente che rischia di essere smemorato e timoroso. Di questi tre peccati – la disinformazione, la calunnia e la diffamazione – la calunnia, sembra di essere il più insidioso, ma nella comunicazione, il più insidioso è la disinformazione, perché ti porta a sbagliare, all’errore; ti porta a credere soltanto una parte della verità.

Misinformation, slander, and defamation: three related yet distinct “sins” which no media outlet, religious or secular, should tolerate. Unfortunately media coverage of the Catholic Church seems to accept these “sins” as established modi operandi. One blatant example of misinformation is the charge that Pope Francis “broke taboos” by presiding over the weddings of previously-cohabitating couples. An example of slander is the allegation that the Pope said the F-word; yet another one is the story from recent days, now thoroughly debunked by Jimmy Akin (and others), of Francis telling a boy that he will see his dead pet dog in heaven. As for examples of defamation, well, one need only to scan the archives of the eminently heterodox and ill-named National ‘Catholic’ Reporter, especially its treatment of figures like St. John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Cardinal Burke.

Francis’ address to the directors of TV2000 is a gem: the enumerated “sins of the media” provide a valuable hermeneutic for judging media coverage of the Catholic Church, be it from religious or secular outlets. More importantly, it reminds Catholic media outlets that they have a higher mission: disseminate the truth in frankness and freedom [parrhesia], and in doing so, assist the Church in evangelizing the modern world.

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