This week's stories | Home Page
Issue Date:  May 13, 2005

When the pageantry wears thin

Following the weeks of unremitting print and television coverage of the recent papal events in Rome, it will take considerable evidence for anyone to credibly accuse “the media” of anti-Catholic bias. We say that knowing that some of those who have set themselves up as monitors of anti-Catholic activity have little regard for credible argument, the credibility of their claims or the need for evidence.

So even though the media conducted what sometimes resembled a Catholic love-fest, rest assured that the broadsides about anti-Catholic media will begin to spew from fax machines and e-mail boxes again the moment the media gets around to its real job of raising questions and challenging assumptions. Our suggestion, for what it’s worth, is to ignore the faxes and get on with your work.

That said, the fact that major news outlets from around the world spent untold amounts of money and committed armies of staff to cover the death of Pope John Paul II, the interregnum, the conclave and, finally, the installation of Pope Benedict XVI is telling on several levels.

One can only conclude that press and television were both awed by and respectful of a deeply religious and, more specifically, quintessentially Catholic, moment. Given that reporters and crews were limited to witnessing from a considerable distance and had no regularly scheduled contact with any principals involved in the long and largely secret proceedings, the media showed remarkable restraint.

It is difficult to imagine more journalists gathered in one place to relentlessly cover events to which they have virtually no access. Even the meeting with the new pope, often dubbed a “news conference,” in the run-up to the installation, was nothing of the sort.

Anyone who spent the three weeks or so in Rome might have noticed, if you turned off the TV sound, an eerie similarity among the papal funeral, the marriage of Prince Charles in England, the funeral of Prince Ranier in Monaco and, back in Rome, the ongoing proceedings of the interregnum and installation.

In each instance, ancient rituals and regalia conjured up the glories of history and added a flash of the celebratory or a note of solemnity.

But Monaco and England are long-modified monarchies, the costumes and paraphernalia of bygone ages more props than practical, pieces to be set aside until the next state event.

Only in the Vatican does monarchy still exist as an actual, functioning, ruling entity. There the costumes of another age remain the garb of the realm. So those gangs of journalists who showed up to observe around the edges chased after the men in the odd dress and little red beanies, begging for any scrap of comment or insight.

It is difficult to find a 21st century way to cover the Catholic clerical culture. It is closed, secretive and especially so in the case of a conclave. Certainly one can understand the necessity for secret balloting. But in this case, after days of unstintingly favorable coverage for the church, the 115 electors decided that they would say nothing to the press. Of course, some did, but without attribution and allowing only the most oblique characterization.

One might be tempted to view all of this as just another oddity along the lines of a royal wedding if it were not for the fact that these 115 men, in conclave, have a wide-reaching effect on the lives of 1.1 billion Catholics worldwide. Arguably, back in their curial jobs or as heads of major sees, they have even more direct effect on the Catholic population.

Yet they do their work in secret, their conversations and deliberations blanketed under layers of oaths all aimed at keeping everything secret (which caused not a little high-level casuistry as they dealt with their eagerness to find a way to tell what they’d seen and heard). Finally, these councils are absolutely untainted by the thoughts, the wisdom, the experience of women. Absolutely secret, absolutely devoid of women.

Perhaps for TV crews, a conclave once in 26 years is a welcome diversion from the normal run of news and infotainment. For Catholics, however, it is a symbol of how we live and how we conduct ourselves as church. The secrecy and exclusion of women are not confined to Rome; those practices color everything we do and provide justification for behavior that would simply be inappropriate and intolerable in many areas of the world.

The grandness of the pageantry wears thin quickly when what remains are absolute secrecy and exclusion of women as the model for governance.

National Catholic Reporter, May 13, 2005

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to:  webkeeper@natcath.org