Father Thomas Reese — long a trusted source for journalists and a columnist at the Jesuit America magazine — had addressed the media blackout on Oct. 16 that was republished at Religion News Service. This is what he said:
The media, on the other hand, thrives on conflict. You will never read a headline saying, “Participants love one another; everything is fine.”
Covering the Synod on Synodality has been especially difficult. Pope Francis does not like the press, especially the Western media, which, he believes, only writes about issues of concern to the Global North.
Repeat: “Pope Francis does not like the press.”
That’s a rather strongly-worded and candid statement made by a man who typically supports this pontiff. Reese elaborated on that point this way:
Every synod has had an antagonistic relationship with the media. Journalists are suspicious by nature. The media suspects people are hiding something, and the less you give reporters, the more suspicious they become.
“Amen” to that.
So why impose such a blackout on the month-long proceedings? Reese claimed it was so members could speak freely behind closed doors on important issues this synod was tackling, including the blessing of same-sex marriages, more outreach to the LGBTQ+ community and whether divorced couples — whose with secular divorces — should receive Holy Communion.
Reese also noted that by imposing a papal gag order, the press will focus on “sideshows.”
Without anything to write about, the media is giving attention to the sideshows and demonstrations happening outside the synod. I have chosen to look elsewhere, writing about Laudate Deum, the pope’s new document on global warming, or to cover the byplay leading up to the synod: the “dubia,” or questions raised by five conservative cardinals, and the retreat talks given to the synodal members by the Dominican Timothy Radcliffe prior to the synod.
Francis does not understand that, when it comes to the media, you either feed the beast or the beast eats you. You either control the narrative, or the narrative is controlled by anyone who grabs the media’s attention.
This section alone of Reese’s column should be made required reading to the pope and the Vatican press office ahead of next year’s gathering.
Christopher White, the Vatican correspondent at the National Catholic Reporter, filed a wonderful dispatch on Oct. 26, just days before the meeting concluded, gave readers a behind-the-scene look at what had gone on at the synod.
What he reported wasn’t pretty. This is how White opened his piece:
It was less than two weeks into Pope Francis’ high-stakes Vatican summit on the future of the Catholic Church when multiple reports emerged about participating delegates storming out of the room.
In one case, a bishop didn’t want to be photographed sitting next to a priest with whom he had numerous disagreements. In another, a cardinal believed that the Oct. 4-29 Synod of Bishops was a misnomer because it now included the equal participation of the laity — a criticism that has reverberated throughout the monthlong meeting.
The incidents weren’t exactly a surprise, as the roughly 450 bishops and lay delegates taking part in the assembly had been warned by one of the synod’s principal organizers that tensions in the room would emerge.
“We are not afraid of tensions,” Cardinal Jean-Claude Hollerich of Luxembourg told participants on Oct. 9. “Tensions are a part of the process, as long as we consider ourselves to be sisters and brothers, walking together.”
During the second and third weeks of the synodal assembly, issues that include the role of women’s ministries in the church and questions surrounding how to respond to LGBTQ Catholics — as well as the very nature of synodality itself — brought to the surface a number of disagreements among its members.
Inevitably, however, news has leaked out because — gasp! — people involved decided to speak on condition on anonymity. While reporters and editors are aware that unnamed sources should be used sparingly, they had no choice in this case.
More from White about the synod:
One day after hearing accounts of sharp disagreements, I asked one synod member to corroborate some of the things I had heard.
Indeed, it was all true, the person confirmed, adding: “We’re not even at first base here. We can’t even get to discussing many of these issues, because so many people in the room haven’t been trained in the practice of synodality. That’s what this month is providing.”
“So, it’s sort of a boot camp?,” I asked. “Exactly,” they replied.
Some people in the Vatican’s Pope Paul VI hall this month, where the synod is meeting, are here because they wanted to be, while others are here because someone else chose them. It’s a bit like the draft versus voluntary enrollment.
Repeat: “Trained in the practice of synodality.”
At a time when progressives and conservatives inside the church are fighting, wouldn’t it have been healthier for this process — which the pope has said was meant to foster dialogue — to be more transparent. This way, people on both sides of this doctrinal divide could have spoken with more clarity and conviction as to way they believe what they believe?
Instead, we got none of that and the press — grasping for something (anything!) to write about — had nothing concrete to focus on. It truly has meant coverage that focused on, as Reese out it, “sideshows.”
There was several ways the Vatican could have combated this. Instead of a document released at the end of session, why not put out a daily summary or one every few days with an update on what was discussed.
Second, back that paperwork up with news conferences featuring people who disagreed on some of these major issues. If not, then allow them to speak freely to reporters. Not doing so allowed for leaks and unnamed sources. There’s nothing more than some boring paperwork to go over in search for nuggets of news and information during the past four weeks.
Finally, this synod needed less talk about process and more regarding substance. Yes, it’s true that process is one of those boring things reporters need to know about, substance would have at least made the boring stuff more palatable.
FIRST IMAGE: Delegates vote to approve a report at the conclusion of the Synod on Synodality (photo via Vatican Media)