Managing Media Messages, on the Left and Right

In my last post, I called out one mainstream media story for misleading its average readers in stating that the Synod on the Family was debating the truth of Church doctrines about sexuality and marriage. Such stories were not hard to find–but my own perusal of internet news met with mostly nuanced portrayals that reflected the reality that no Church leaders are debating these teachings, or even desire to do so–especially and including the Pope. Since the Synod, there appears to be a collective freak-out from conservatives who think that a confused or false message came out of the Synod (or at least the controversy it generated–thanks to it’s Francis-driven and unprecedented transparency). The media have seized even the most mild of generous posturing toward “people in irregular unions” and celebrated it. The reaction from conservatives seems to indicate their belief that this will confuse people into thinking the Church teaches that divorce, and remarriage, or same-sex marriage are fine–or worse yet–open space in which leaders actually question the doctrines. Throwing sand at the doctrine is problematic because that would defy Truth and (probably) enable sin. Thus one reaction logically follows that is that open-hearted sentiments about irregular unions should either (1) Not be uttered, or (2) only exist alongside such strong reminders about Church teaching about doctrine that even the media can’t ignore them, or (3) only be uttered behind closed doors. I disagree with those conclusions, for reasons Michael Sean Winters stated elegantly for the NCR.

But now I want to point out that unhelpful narratives about the Synod and its participants can happen to the other side too. As evidence for this, I share a tortured article from the National Catholic Reporter. Here’s the headline: “Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family – says ‘confusion is of the devil.'” The article does not cite enough source material to convince me this the headline is justified–in fact it leaves me with great doubt this is what deserves to be emphasized. And writing that an Archbishop “blasts” the synod (and later that “+Tobin Slams Synod Too“) adds to the same narrative brewing on the “left” in the mainstream media: nice progressive Pope Francis wants to change Church teaching and people who uphold Church doctrine are therefore upset. But here’s what the article actually shares:

“I was very disturbed by what happened” at the synod, Chaput said. “I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was one of confusion.”

I think this is different than “blasting” the synod. He seems (highly) upset about the “image” that came from the Synod, which is different than blasting the Synod itself. And, he doesn’t even have a sustained critique of the Pope’s call for candor and open debate which permeated the Synod. The article continues:

Chaput said he wasn’t necessarily endorsing [a change to Church policy about issuing civil marriage licenses] yet, but “in the spirit of candor encouraged by Pope Francis,” he said the American bishops should “discuss and consider it as a real course of action.”

Perhaps Chaput is contradicting himself (possible) by “blasting” the Synod, and then opening his own debate about the biggest hot-button issue of the Synod in the same style recommended by Francis for the Synod. Or (more likely) he takes serious offense not with the Synod, nor with the existence of the debates that transpired, but rather the messaging–which was a combination of the documents released and the media’s reaction. And unless he is accusing the Pope of being confused, or the members of the Synod (who are all Church leaders of higher ranking than himself), then it is not the Synod that deserves to be connected to the “devil” in a byline. I expect that the whole media establishment is the root and object of Chaput’s ire. But these NCR headlines, and ones like them, sensationalize the current debate and crystallize a narrative of one side versus another which makes for great drama, and absolutely terrible Church. It also undermines the real advice conservatives like Chaput (or Burke) are trying to offer about how to share the Truth in love.

In conclusion, rational members of the “right” see a threat from media causing unnecessary and damaging confusion about Church teaching, enabled by the “left” failing to emphasize the truth of those doctrines. I propose that the “right” also consider the threat that the media language of “blasts” and “slams” will cause unnecessary and damaging confusion about the coherent teaching authority of the Church and Spirit’s role within it, enabled by their own failure to emphasize the truth of those realities. Unless the leaders truly intend to “blast” and “slam” Francis or the Synod he called (and sadly it seems Tobin may), they need to take their own advice and be more careful about the messages they send out into the media whirlwinds. Otherwise the faithful will get the idea that their Church leaders cannot be trusted with the Truth. Which is about as dangerous as them concluding that its Truths might be wrong.

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2 thoughts on “Managing Media Messages, on the Left and Right

  1. Pingback: The Danger of Extremes – Part I | O happy fall...

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