Frank Bruni. Gary Wills. Marueen Dowd. Margaret Talbot. John Cassidy. These writers, as well as representatives from just about every media outlet on earth, seem very interested in the historic papal resignation, conclave, and other issues related to the Roman Catholic church in recent weeks. Not a day has gone by when a story from Rome hasn’t appeared in the New York Times or a week pass without a staff columnist from the Times writing about the travails, hypocrisy, or some other ostensible ecclesiastical difficulty or embarrassment. There is a general sense in our current popular culture that everybody seems to care about Catholicism. But the truth is that this is not the case at all.
Recently, a friend of mine and I were talking about this nearly obsessive shift in media attention to Catholicism in recent weeks. She wondered why everybody seemed to care about the church all of a sudden, including the popular media that otherwise pays little heed to the day-to-day life of the Catholic community. My response was that these media sources and the broader population doesn’t really care about Catholicism, but instead are infatuated with the spectacle of what otherwise appears to the rest of the world (including to many Catholics) as simply a change of sovereign power.
Analogously, I surmise that similar interest would be garnered by the announcement tomorrow that Queen Elizabeth II was to abdicate her throne and that Charles or William would succeed as the British monarch. Would this mean that, all of a sudden, citizens of the United States or New York Times columnists would actually care or be interested in the day-to-day life of British citizens or the like? Probably not. It would mean, however, that the unusual and historic event would attract attention regardless of the intention of those for whom it would be interesting.
Similarly, most of the discourse about the papacy, the Roman Catholic Church, and the conclave comes across as one political event among others. And, to be fair, there is always a degree of politics in any human institution, society, and culture. Surely, there are politics at play behind the cardinals’ closed doors, but what is missed by the media and those drawn in to the news by its unique rituals, odd dress, and Latin formality is that the church and Catholicism are more than just another political system of governance.
Recently I listened to an episode of The New Yorker Outloud Podcast featuring staff writer John Cassidy and contributor Alexander Stille discussing the retirement of Pope Benedict XVI and the future of the church on the eve of the election of a new pontiff. Most of the discussion struck me as not unlike a lot of the other discourse published or broadcasted in recent weeks — a focus on the unjust opportunities for women in ministry, the sexual abuse coverup crisis, the antiquated sense of secrecy and power, and so on and so on. This is not to diminish any of these concerns, each of which is worthy of great consideration. However, the sound-bite culture of our twenty-four-hour news media cannot adequately do justice to the complexities of the theological and historical issues at stake.
Nevertheless, I was positively struck near the end of the conversation by something Cassidy, someone raised Catholic in England but is now a self-identified “lapsed Catholic,” said. He remarked that too much focus has been placed on the doctrinal orthodoxy, the politics of power, and the negative dimensions of the church writ large. He hoped, even as someone who was not a practicing Catholic, that the next pope might help focus the attention of the world on the tremendous works of charity and social justice all over the world.
This struck me as insightful, because pundits, journalists, and columnists have not focused enough attention on this truth. While the spectacle of papal elections, with the pomp and circumstance of crimson cassocks and Latin chant captures the imagination of many the world over, the work of the church doesn’t end (nor begin, for that matter) with these attention-grabbing events.
The work of the church is in the parish, the ministry center, the homeless shelter, the Catholic Charities office, the Franciscan missions in Peru, the classrooms of Jesuit schools, the hospices of the Sisters of Charity, and so on. The life of the church is found not only in the grand processions of cardinal electors or the daily routines of the Roman dicasteries, but in the experience of the Body of Christ, which is the People of God, living a life of faith, striving to follow the Gospel, and caring about how to be a good and holy person — every day, here and now.
Journalists, columnists, pundits, and the like will get their fair share of news and “exciting events” over the next few days, but when the TV cameras and reporters vacate St. Peter’s Square, the nuns who care for Rome’s homeless population and the doctors who work in the Catholic hospitals of that city will continue the mission of the vita evangelica.
These last weeks, with all the hype and attention, we have been given a great example of how not to care about Catholicism, but treat the church as an instrument for ratings. Maybe John Cassidy is correct, maybe what we really need to recognize what the church is really about and, therefore, uncover the path toward really caring about Catholicism is by looking at where the Spirit is at work in the lives and actions of all the church’s members.
I, for one, really do care about that.