Over the past few weeks, the Catholic Church has found itself mired in controversy, plagued by an ever-growing sexual abuse scandal unfolding in Europe. The pope himself has come under substantial criticism, to such an extent that a leading German magazine titled a report, “The Failed Papacy of Benedict XVI.”
Yet the media’s growing chorus of criticism reveals as much about itself as it does about the mishaps of Pope Benedict XVI. It reveals much about how the media thinks about itself, and about the media’s worldview of what society ought to be like.
Historically, the Catholic Church and the Western media have always had moments of tension. The two are almost naturally at odds; their philosophical foundations constitute polar opposites. The church is fundamentally a conservative institution, hierarchy-bound and traditional. It embodies a force – religion – which often works in a conservative direction.
The modern Western media could not be more different from this. If liberalism were to be characterized, describing the media could do the job well. The media sees itself as an agent of change, uncovering society’s injustices and working towards reform. Under this view, the world is consistently getting better, and media lies on the vanguard of the forces of progress. Religion, on the other hand, constitutes an obstacle standing in the path to a better world.
To many holders of this belief (i.e. the media), Pope Benedict XVI is moving the church backwards in the 21st century. Unlike his predecessor, Benedict XVI is not considered a hero, nor is he adept at media relations (or particularly photogenic, for that matter). Instead, Benedict XVI is an intellectual traditionalist who spent much of his career attacking liberal reformists in the church before becoming pope.
In many ways, therefore, the media’s negative coverage of the pope is not only due to the current sexual abuse scandal. Rather, it is a critique of everything the media dislikes about the pope – his conservative worldview, his reintroduction of the Tridentine Mass, his apathy towards dialogue with other religions, his lifting of Holocaust denier Richard Williamson’s excommunication, and his many writings condemning the forces of secularism which created the media.
This is not to defend Pope Benedict XVI nor to attack the media. The church’s mishandling of the abuse scandal does indeed merit substantial criticism; its response has been defensive and clumsy. There is plenty of material to justify the media’s criticism; the cases of sexual abuse appear quite outrageous. On the church’s side, the pope’s traditionalist views are genuinely felt while his critiques against moral relativism are often quite legitimate.
Rather, this is to look beneath the surface of the sexual abuse controversy. Its widespread negative coverage constitutes part of a deeper, long-standing conflict between a conservative church and a liberal media. It won’t be the last time the church and the media come into conflict.