Synod coverage was overly simplistic

Media coverage was of the ‘nasty conservatives undermine lovely Pope’ variety

“Many commentators… have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church,” said Pope Francis last Saturday in a nuanced and thoughtful address at the conclusion of the first phase of the Synod on the Family.

Presumably, there have been disputes at synods before now but what is unprecedented is how public they are. ‘Tis the price of transparency, I suppose.

The media coverage was often unsatisfactory and simplistic (of the ‘nasty conservatives undermine lovely Pope’ variety) but, occasionally, there was insight as well. I thought the language used on RTÉ’s Nine News last Sunday night was loaded and negative when you’d expect objectivity and neutrality.

It led with reaction to the synod outcome from ‘Catholic gay rights activists’ – there was talk of how the Vatican had ‘failed’, of how the Church ‘banned’ things. Last Monday on Morning Ireland (RTÉ1), a presenter spoke of Pope Francis being ‘overruled’. The main interview on the matter, and a very soft one at that, was with Fr Bernard Lynch, an openly homosexual activist.

It seems sometimes that the secular media can only cope with the political and the controversial, and throughout it has seemed that the only problems the modern family has are attitudes to gays and Communion for the divorced.

On last weekend’s Sunday Sequence (BBC Radio Ulster), presenter William Crawley spoke of the ‘forces of conservatism’ and a ‘theological cloud’ over the synod. Michael Kelly, editor of this newspaper, clarified a few things, presented the synod as part of a process, a place where people could ‘happily disagree’ and didn’t see the outcome as a vote against Pope Francis.

He referred to the Pope’s final address as a ‘stunning speech’ that sought a middle way between overly relaxed and overly rigid approaches. Significantly, the programme played only the extract that was a dig at ‘hostile rigidity’ and ignored the bit where Francis spoke of the temptations of a liberal approach.

There had been quite a flurry the previous Tuesday after the release of the mid-term document. On Newstalk’s Lunchtime show, Fr Sean McDonagh of the Association of Catholic Priests welcomed the more open and welcoming tone towards gay people and on the gay issue said he never thought or taught about it in terms of ‘intrinsic evil’.

He thought that traditional Church teaching on sexuality was unhelpful and wasn’t clear (really?). Presenter Jonathan Healy was impressed by the married couple that spoke to the synod about their sex life but got in a little dig at the end – “interesting to see the Catholic Church catching up with the rest of the population”. So much for objectivity.

Insightful Vatican Commentator Gerard O’Connell (on Morning Ireland, Tuesday of last week) also reminded us that the synod deliberations were just part of a process, and that the controversial mid-term document was ‘preliminary’ and ‘provisional’, though you’d think from some media coverage that it was an official Vatican pronouncement. He thought the language and tone of that document was different, more welcoming, a “significant departure” in terms of tone and perspective.

Hugely experienced Vatican watcher John Allen gave a similar take on Today with Sean O’Rourke later that morning, stressing the ‘interim’ nature of the document. He spoke of Church efforts to develop a ‘lifestyle ecumenism’ – reaching out to those whose lifestyles “don’t fully correspond with Catholic teaching”, without compromising that teaching. That was the way ordinary Catholics approached such matters and the Church had found it difficult to find a “theological logic” for that.

He thought the ‘star turns’ had been the fascinating testimony of the married couples who had been invited to address the synod.

Allen was back on the same show last Monday to report on the ‘compromise language’ of the final revised document, which he reckoned still contained the element of welcome while reaffirming the Church’s teaching. Like Michael Kelly, he also referred to the “rapturous welcome” for the Pope’s concluding address.

Presenter Sean O’Rourke showed that he had grasped the double thrust of that address – the seeking of a middle way between ‘hostile rigidity’ and a ‘false sense of mercy’.

Allen had one last curious observation. It was thanks to conservative dissent that there was more transparency at the synod. Now there’s a turnaround.