Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Pope's Press and "Caritas in Veritate"

Along with the great reading that the pope's new social encyclical provides on its own, the release of Caritas in Veritate has also provided some fascinating reading in the media. This is a little surprising, as the frenetic pace of the 24-hour news cycle and the slow and steady, deep-thinking approach of the Catholic Church -- and particularly a document like an encyclical -- often don't mix well.

This clash has been evident this year in various Vatican media meltdowns, from the controversey surrounding the de-excommunication of the SSPX bishops, to the outrcry following Pope Benedict's comments on condoms and AIDS in Africa, to the unimpressed Israeli reactions to his speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial.

So it's almost puzzling to see this encyclical arrive and see the pope getting exceptionally good press. Even more striking is that some of media outlets seem to be curling up with the encyclical and taking the time to mine some of its deeper meaning and nuances.

For instance, an article in the New York Times opens by saying the pope is calling for "radical rethinking of the world economy" that urges the creation of a world political authority to oversee the economy and work for the common good.

Radical? Creating something new? These aren't the usual words that get tossed about when the media discusses the words and thoughts of Benedict XVI.

Like a lot of other coverage of the encyclical, the article goes on to look at Benedict's call for a new, ethical way of managing business and the economy, which in the light of the economic crisis makes his teaching incredibly timely and just the voice of moral authority needed right now.

Not only does the New York Times article seem to acknowledge this, it also makes an effort to distinguish some of the finer points of Benedict's teaching, noting, as other outlets have, that "the Vatican does not comfortably fit into traditional political categories of right and left."

“There are paragraphs that sound like Ayn Rand, next to paragraphs that sound like ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ That’s quite intentional,” the article quotes one theologian.

The article also makes note, as other media have, of the pope's call for a strengthened UN and a global economic oversight with "real teeth." Perhaps this suggestion is getting so much attention because, frankly, no one has made a suggestion on such a sweeping scale in the wake of the economic crisis -- and then for the person who suggests it to be the pope! Wild.

The article wraps up by touching on Benedict's call for better care of the environment, calling him "arguably the most environmentally conscious pope in history." The New York Times may see this as cutting edge for a pope, but the reality probably has more to do with the strength of Benedict's mind and his ability to synthesize seemingly disparate issues into a consistent ethic.

The media coverage of Caritas in Veritate goes from good to great when it's viewed through the lens of coinciding with the G8 Summit in Italy (and the pope's subsequent meeting with President Obama). Now the encyclical has a new audience -- not only is it addressed to the world's bishops, priests and people of good will, it's addressed to the world's leaders, who are convening to discuss these very issues. What timing!

Not that it's something new to see Pope Benedict going over well in the media. This is the pope who wowed everyone during his April 2008 visit to the U.S., with his solemn visit to Ground Zero and emotional meeting with survivors of clergy sexual abuse. But the first half of 2009, with the crises listed above, was something of a PR slump for the Holy Father.

That downward trend could be ending with Caritas in Veritate, as the pope deftly addresses the world with teachings that engage the problems at hand and leave some of his audience stunned by how "with it" this pope can be.

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