Press Coverage on the Eve of the Conclave

So the date is set.  Tuesday, the 12th of March, the Cardinals will process into the conclave intoning Veni Sancte Spiritus, while the rest of us—personally or digitally—will get the “extra omnes.” Out we go, leaving it up to the Princes of the Church to perform their duty.  Buoyed by our prayers and best wishes, we will all have to await the tolling of the bells and the white smoke (though I for one will miss the old practice of a cannonade to announce the election).

It will be a dose of tonic for all of us.  Our age, with its insatiable curiosity and suspicion of all privacy or secrecy will be forced to sit and wait until Cardinal-Protodeacon Tauran appears on the loggia and we await with bated breath the Christian name (which will be the only clue before, five words later, he arrives at the surname).  Create a database of the baptismal names of your favorites in the Latin accusative, alphabetize it, and amaze your friends by predicting the pope five seconds before the name is completed!  Much to the chagrin of the media, our first news will be their first news.  Even the Italian papers, whose prognostications put Nostradamus to shame, will be forced to fill their pages with nothing but speculation.  I do expect a conclave breach in the future, perhaps not this conclave, but with technology and unscrupulous journalism rivaling each other in their developments, it is but a matter of time.

Flag_of_Vatican_CitySecrecy is not a whim of the College.  For nearly 2000 years the Church has labored mightily to deprive outside forces of undue influence in selecting the Vicar of Christ.  The very institution of Cardinal-Electors and the conclave itself are symptoms of interference by laity, aristocracy, royalty, the military, and other elements that try to bend this most solemn act to their wills.  Today it is the room-filling smoke of the media that penetrates every corner while obscuring much at the same time.

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A few days ago, voices on all sides were outraged that the Cardinals had chosen to veil the preliminary congregations in secrecy.  George Weigel decided to take Fr. Lombardi—the head of the Sala Stampa—to task (though the Cardinals themselves were the decision-makers).  Fr. Lombardi has done a thankless and difficult job with grace and dignity and with a minimum of staff.  He even had the courtesy to present all the female journalists with mimosa flowers on the festa della donna.  He is not a White House press secretary, charged with facing off against an adversarial press corps, and he is not a marketing executive selling something to the public.  He is the public face of a 2000 year old institution.  Mr. Weigel appears to think that the Church is just another corporation or an organization which needs to spin the news cycles with flash and dash to accomplish her mission.  Our Church has principles and practices, traditions and gravity, which the world would do well to witness, rather than wrapping everything up in an American style, “gotcha” sound bite.  The Fox news truck will roll on, and the Church will remain.

The Italian press, more solito, was receiving inside information.  The minutes of whole congregations were being leaked, some in real-time.  It was not the American Cardinals who were “punished” but rather that the whole College decided that it was time to stop the multiple narratives being generated, in some cases innocently.  The College acted with maturity and deliberation.  The Cardinals are not political candidates with advisors and handlers.  The American delegation was acting with openness and decency for sure, but left itself open to the possibility of callous manipulation by outsiders.  We need to know that the American way is not necessarily the best way.  Too much opprobrium is being thrown on so-called “Italian” practices and processes, as if some particular national characteristics are the root cause of Church corruption.  Such are astonishingly simplistic explanations: prejudices which tend to obscure the sources of the real problems.  The Church needs more deftly to handle the press, that is true, but the Old Church still has much to teach Young America, it is not a one way street the other direction.  A diet of transparency and “Team America” will not suffice to purify the Church.

More than likely to their genuine relief, the Cardinals will be some of the rarest people on earth during the coming days—those without instantaneous contact to the worldwide media.  Imagine getting excommunicated for a Tweet or Facebook status update, and you will get the idea.  This is not a flaw, as Mr. Weigel seems to think, but a feature born of historical experience.  Along with the remaining uncontacted tribes of the Amazon, their Eminences will be able to hear themselves think, perhaps for the first time in weeks.  For as soon as the media was made aware of the papal vacancy the Cardinals have been assaulted by many who, while professing to despise the Church, still seem animated by an astonishing fervor to see Her changed into something different.  Usually the Cardinals are spared such an extended barrage since in previous instances an election had come hard on the heels of a papal death, an interval which gave the media only a few days to focus on the Cardinals before the conclave.  This time it has been nearly a month of almost constant pressure.

The pressure goes far beyond faithful Catholics like Weigel, whose positions are understandable.  Not a day goes by without some opinion piece running on CNN or Huffpo about the necessary changes that the Church must make to survive in the modern world.  I can imagine our current news cycle in times gone by.  “Conclave 366: New Pope must Embrace the Arian Moment!”, “Conclave 235: Electors Must Make Room for Polytheist Catholics!”, “Conclave 67: Choose Someone not so ‘33 AD’!”  Joking aside however, the chorus is deafening so it is good to step back to take stock.

Jillette on MorganWith all this said, I propose a basic principle that can perform a dual function: console Catholics living their daily faith with fidelity and loyalty, while at the same time saving modern journalists a ton of work.  The new Pope is guaranteed to be a Roman Catholic.  This means that neither he, nor his successors in perpetuity will either deny the Incarnation and Resurrection of Christ or overturn the moral law that corresponds both to revelation and to our nature.  John Allen had to let the venerable readership of the National Catholic Reporter down easy on these matters when he recently wrote “No matter what happens, the church almost certainly won’t reverse its ban on abortion, gay marriage or women priests.”  The Church doesn’t defend these teachings simply to offend people, or because She enjoys the opprobrium of modernity.  It is that she simply cannot change them, for to do so would mean the Church would cease to be Catholic and not the Bride of Christ—faithful to Her Divine Spouse—but would become an adulterer.  To his credit, the atheist Penn Jillette recently had to remind the Catholic Piers Morgan about this on CNN.

We, the faithful of the Catholic Church, have been quite spoiled over the previous 200 years, having a chain of mostly good and holy popes.  This extended period is somewhat abnormal historically.  We must remember that we are not guaranteed competence, prudence, or even sanctity in our leader, for there have been many occasions where popes were simply not up to the task.  A better question then, is not what kind of Pope will we get and how will he do this-or-that, but what kind of a Church—measured by our lives and our practice of the virtues, by our orthodoxy, by our liturgical fidelity—are we giving to the new Pope?  To paraphrase JFK (perhaps not the ideal model of Catholic leadership to invoke): “Ask not what the Pope can do for you….”  The deposit of faith will always remain, but how will Catholic culture be lived out and put into practice?  How can we surround the immutable Truth of the faith with lives of goodness and beauty? For in the end that is the real crux of the issue for the future of our Church.


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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