April 15, 2005

Seeking the Face of the Lord

News media coverage of pope, things Catholic

Kudos to the news media for the excellent coverage of the illness, death and funeral rites of Pope John Paul II! The correspondents have worked hard and generously, and the editors have made conscious decisions to devote much space to this historic event, which is so important to so many people. We are profoundly grateful.

Now the focus is shifting from reflection on the legacy of the late pope to speculation about the future pope. While not surprising, for some the speculation requires a difficult shift. Nonetheless, this is a rare opportunity for catechesis about our Catholic faith.

First of all, it is an opportunity for us to educate ourselves as Catholics. It is also an opportunity to educate the public about some of the more complex dimensions of our Church’s doctrine and practices. This is no small task. In addition, some of the truth of our faith does not play well. For example, often I was asked what I thought might be the lasting legacy of Pope John Paul II. While it is difficult to pinpoint, I suggested that it was his consistent and unswerving emphasis on the dignity of the human person at every stage of life—in a culture that increasingly disregards human dignity. It didn’t play. This is not necessarily a criticism of folks in the news media, who have worked hard to understand our Catholic faith and practices.

Nevertheless, it is important for us to be discerning about some unspoken premises of much of the public discourse and speculation that surrounds the imminent election and installation of a new pope.

The news media generally operate on the principle of presenting “fair and balanced” reporting. Most often, this means seeking out a positive point of view on an issue and an opposing, or critical, point of view as well. The principle itself sounds fair. The implementation is often difficult and sometimes questionable. Often, individuals are quoted who are at odds with Church teaching or discipline. They have their own agenda to push. I know of at least one example where the “Catholic” quoted had left the Church years ago. Often, reporters are unaware of an individual’s standing (or lack of good standing) in the Church. Obviously, for their own credibility, the person quoted doesn’t share that information with the reporter.

Some people are presented as “experts” on Church teaching and practices while further investigation might indicate that the premise does not stand. We need to be discerning as we evaluate what we hear, see or read. So, readers, beware!

A frequent assumption is that a change in the pontificate of the Catholic Church signals the opportunity to change Church ­doctrine and discipline. The election and installation of a new pope does not empower the pope arbitrarily to change Church doctrine. The established doctrine of the Church is entrusted to the custody of the pope in communion with the universal college of bishops, commonly referred to as the Magis­terium of the Church. The concept of the development of Church doctrine includes continuity with the teaching handed down through the received Tradition. In other words, there is not a rupture with past teaching. What is expected through the ages is a continuing refinement of the teaching to make a doctrine more intelligible in subsequent ages. I suggest that it is idle speculation—perhaps more accurately wishful thinking—on the part of some, to suggest that certain longstanding doctrines of the Church might change or should be changed.

We could hardly expect the intricacies of Church teaching to be easily understood by and communicated through the secular news media. Yet, we have an obligation to help inform them as best we can. For most of us, that means informing ourselves on certain teachings that are being discussed. I ­recommend referral to the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a reliable resource.

The challenge in communication about the Catholic Church and its practices, particularly in the United States and Western Europe, is twofold.

First of all, the Church established by Christ is hierarchically structured, i.e., it was not established as a democracy or a republic. The concept is alien to our culture. Yet, the fundamental structure of the Church is not a political entity separate from its theological essence. Structure and doctrine are interrelated. An analysis of the functioning of the Church from primarily a “power” model, or paradigm, is misleading.

Second, the Church was established as a spiritual entity, the Mystical Body of Christ. The impact of this facet of the Church is often misunderstood, if not overlooked. The title of the pope as Vicar of Christ is a spiritual one. For example, it is not intended to suggest that the Holy Father is leader of all Christians. By Divine Providence, he is charged to mirror Christ, the Good Shepherd, in his holiness and care of those of us entrusted to his care. †

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