Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Faith, Works, & Image

Ross Douthat thinks the folks at the Vatican needs to work on their PR:

The problem, of course, is that by create this opening for those SSPX-ers who should be in full communion with the Catholic Church, the Vatican is temporarily empowering Bishop Richard Williamson, Holocaust denier and all-around charmer, who gives every evidence that he shouldn't be--and probably doesn't want to be--back in the fold, but who's instantly become the poster boy for the Pope's decision, and for the Traditionalist community more generally. This is a price worth paying, hopefully, for the sake of closing unnecessary divisions, but the price wouldn't be nearly so steep if the Vatican had a better sense of how to do public relations in a controversial case like this. The average reporter or commentator isn't going to understand the nuances of canon law, the history and background of the SSPX, the context of the excommunications, the status of these bishops post-excommunication, and so forth. What the average journalist does understand, though, is how to write this headline: "Pope Rehabilitates Holocaust-Denying Bishop." And while the potential for bad publicity shouldn't prevent the Vatican from showing mercy to excommunicants when appropriate, it should incentivize wrapping any such mercy in a forceful, detailed, "Catholicism and canon law for dummies" explanation of what such an action doesn't mean: In this case, an endorsement of poisonous anti-semitism and conspiracy theorizing.

And this is exactly what hasn't been forthcoming. Oh, the Papal spokesman said that Williamson's Holocaust-denying remarks were "completely indefensible," and L'Osservatore Romano had an editorial (not yet translated into English, of course) stating that the decision "should not be sullied with unacceptable revisionist opinions and attitudes with regard to the Jews." But in the contemporary media environment, that's not good enough. If the Pope de-excommunicates a Holocaust denier, the Vatican press office should be working around the clock, with press releases flying, to provide context and do damage control. What's more, if the Pope de-excommunicates a Holocaust denier, the Pope himself needs to say something about it, and not just obliquely nod to the decision in his latest homily. Yes, the Church's primary business is saving souls, not public relations--but in this day and age, public relations is part of the business of saving souls. And nobody in Rome, from Benedict on down, seems to have figured that out.

You can argue that the Catholic Church should only concern herself with the truth and not worry about how her actions are viewed. But Douthat is right. In today's world, where the actions of the church are more often than not misunderstood, misinterpreted, and distorted by the media, there is a need for the Vatican to be more upfront, unequivocal, and yes even aggressive in getting its message out. It's good to be right. It's better when people know why you're right.

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