Last week, I was asked to participate in a symposium hosted by Regina Magazine that looked at the way social media influenced the Synod on Marriage and Family. They describe the project as follows:
It’s captivating, really, and unprecedented. In what is surely a historical first, every moment of this Synod has been covered by a global army of entrepreneurial social media.
Hundreds of independent reporters, videographers, photographers and pundits dogged the steps of the Cardinals in Rome. What has emerged is an informed, fascinating picture of the politics in the highest reaches of the Church, untainted by the ‘spin’ of mass media.
Many compare this to Vatican II, where 1960s absolute media control over what was communicated unleashed a false ‘spirit’ of the Council, very much at odds with what the Fathers had decreed.
This time, however, the Cardinals got their message out. What’s more, the impact has been global, as you will see in this wide-ranging interview in five parts with REGINA Magazine readers around the world.
The interview questions were split up into five different posts, with the responses of each participant listed there. Since there’s no easy way to reference this in a blog post, I’ll reproduce the questions (and answers I offered) here, but I first want to link to each of the five parts of the series so that you can read the responses of others. It’s very interesting to see the different interpretations of what went on.
You can find the series here:
My interview transcript is below. Please sound off in the comments with your own impressions
RM: Have you been following this synod closely?
I’ve been following the synod fairly closely. We had some health issues in the family this week that were a distraction, which made it difficult. There has been such a huge volume of information coming out of the synod, it was hard to keep up unless you were doing it full time.
RM: Did you have any concerns in the run-up to the synod?
I was very concerned in the run-up to the synod. I had written as far back as March of this year how I believed that this would really call everything that Catholics believe into question. About Christ’s teachings, about the Real Presence, and about the Church’s infallibility on faith and morals. You haven’t heard much about this in the last couple weeks, but I’ve always seen this as a strike against the Eucharist first and foremost, because it would pave the way for regular and frequent sacrilegious communions. And I fear that this is already happening, as people living in irregular situations — whether adulterous marriages, cohabitation, or even homosexual relationships — have gotten the impression that the synod has already changed the Church’s teachings.
RM: What did you think of the Relatio?
There were a couple of good paragraphs. The ideas for encouragement for newly married couples (p. 35) stand out. Unfortunately, the very next paragraph (p. 36) says that we need to look to the positive elements of situations like cohabitation. My read through of the document shows little that is really strong, but much that seems to fall under the last “temptation” mentioned by Pope Francis in his closing speech: “the temptation to neglect reality, making use of meticulous language and a language of smoothing to say so many things and to say nothing!”I think most deeply concerning was the language about homosexuals having “gifts and qualities to offer to the Christian community”. Since when do our gifts arise from our sexual identity, rather than our human dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God? Why should we be asked to “accept” and even to “value” their sexual orientation, which was traditionally described by the Church as a “grave moral defect”? How would this be possible “without compromising Catholic doctrine on the family and matrimony?”
Similarly, the concept of “gradualism” as a means by which we must accept a less than orthodox adherence to Church teaching on sexual morality is a distortion. There are a number of timebombs inserted in the text, from insinuations that Church teaching is out of touch with reality (p. 28) to yet another jab at free markets (p. 33), which seems to be a theme coming from the Vatican over the past year.
Taken as a whole, the relatio has caused more harm than hurt, I think, and even with opposition from many of the synod fathers and a lack of a two-thirds majority vote, I’m hearing rumors that some of the most troubling language will be kept. Giving these statements a year to ferment, to disseminate out into the parishes where they will change practice even though they have not changed doctrine, is going to cause huge problems — actual pastoral problems — for parish priests. It will lead to more sacrilegious communions. As Cardinal Burke said in his interview with Catholic World Report, “the Relatio is a gravely flawed document and does not express adequately the teaching and discipline of the Church and, in some aspects, propagates doctrinal error and a false pastoral approach.”
RM: Were you surprised when Cardinal Burke openly expressed his serious concerns? When Cardinal Napier made his arguments for the African bishops? When Australian Cardinal Pell led the open rebellion?
I was only surprised because the more orthodox cardinals and bishops in the Church — with perhaps the notable exception of the aptly named Bishop Athanasius Schneider of Kazakhstan — have been very reserved in their criticisms over the past year. I suppose they were holding back out of an abundance of caution, but there have been plenty of troubling developments leading up to the synod that I think warranted guidance of the faithful. In any case, I believe that the typical reticence of these prelates to criticize the program of this papacy and some of its favored sons, like Kasper, creates a study in contrasts this week. For Burke, et. al., to be so outspoken shows that they see a very deep and urgent need for the Church to alter her course. I’m grateful for it. I truly am.
RM: Do you think that this synod definitely seems very different from events at Vatican II, when the reports to the press were closely scripted?
The bumbling approach of the Vatican Press Office over recent years has shown a certain, one could almost say charmingly quaint, lack of understanding of the way communication works in the modern world. I think that Fr. Lombardi still demonstrates a certain tone deafness when it comes to the reality that he can’t control the message like in the old days. But I also think that the world’s expectations were set by other, very savvy players in the Vatican. They have a PR guru who formerly worked at Fox News. They hired a big consulting firm to overhaul the various Vatican communications initiatives. They’ve been very efficient with their stalking horses, putting stories out into the media ahead of time and letting that marinate and set the agenda. I can’t help but say I think that even the notion of “secrecy” concerning the proceedings of the synod was a pretense. This is just about the leakiest papacy in history. Stories come out of the woodwork. Things are attributed to the pope by third parties but neither confirmed nor denied by the Vatican. It creates a feeding frenzy. It’s a very different approach than Vatican II. That said, it’s a very similar approach taken by those who opposed what Pope Paul VI said in Humanae Vitae. The members of the Pontifical Commission on Birth Control had over a year to get the message out that it was fine for Catholics to use contraception. When Humanae Vitate was published, the battle was already over, and now over 90% of Catholics say they contracept. That’s a real risk with the next session of the synod a year away.
RM: What impact do you think that social media has had on these events?
It certainly applies pressure from a number of vectors. Most of the Catholic media, sadly, seems content to let the “Spirit of the Synod” just have its way. Social media empowers the army of smaller but passionate voices to challenge the status quo. In his interview in Oxford back in May, Bishop Schneider said, “Only on the Internet can you spread your own ideas. Thanks be to God the Internet exists.” This is a guy who grew up under Soviet communism. He understands the power of information and disinformation. So while I stand by my assertion that this Vatican is more savvy about their image than it appears at first glance, I don’t think they have a real understanding of the power of social media. I don’t think they anticipated quite as much backlash as they got. I’d love to know who the genius was who advised Cardinal Burke to talk to BuzzFeed, of all outlets, about his concerns and his coming demotion. It’s one of the biggest viral content websites on the planet, with millions of readers. That ensured his version of events was going to get huge play and distribution.
Every concerning quote, every problematic passage, all of it — it’s all being hashed out, real time, on Twitter, on Facebook, in the blogosphere. We’ve seen governments, particularly in the Middle East and Asia, try to control social media and fail. It’s an instrument of ideological revolution. And in this case, the people who love Christ and His Church have the know-how, the passion, and the dedication. I don’t know if I’d say they’re winning the battle, but they’re holding their own, and they’re certainly not letting any heterodoxy through without a fight.
RM: Do you see any spillover from social media and online bloggers to the mainstream media in your country on this synod? Can you give particular examples?
Mainstream media? Who are they? In all seriousness, I’m running one of the fastest-growing new Catholic websites, and I’m not seeing a lot of crossover at the moment. I’m sure it’s out there, but we’re sourcing very little of our content and analysis from the mainstream media. The people with all the insight are the ones with connections. I’ve got sources in Rome and inside the Vatican, sites like Rorate Caeli have an almost preternatural ability to break stories, guys like Robert Royal and Roberto de Mattei are giving us intelligence on the ground, and the italian Vaticanistas like Sandro Magister are an endless source of scoops. I feel like we’re drinking from a fire hose just looking at everything coming out of this inner circle, whereas most of the big outlets are reporting from arm’s length, at best. The closest thing I’ve seen to spillover is that the Drudge Report picked up the BuzzFeed story on Cardinal Burke.
RM: What do you think the impact has been on the ordinary Catholic in the pew of the social media coverage of events? On the hierarchy?
I think that for the first time in 50 years, a lot of average Catholics — faithful, mass-going, but not particularly interested in the internecine squabbles of the obsessive Church-watchers — are starting to be concerned. There’s a shift in tone. People are worried about what the Vatican is doing. They sense that there is a revolution in progress. A lot more people are waking up, and hopefully they’re praying and watching and telling their friends. This is supposed to be the age of the laity, and this synod is supposed to be about the laity, but it looks to me like a progressive agenda piece instead. Ask anyone who has made the sacrifices and borne the cross to struggle through a troubled marriage what they think. Did they stay together for nothing? Was there no merit in living the indissolubility of marriage, rather than looking for a Church-sanctioned excuse note? If we don’t build marriage up instead of finding ways to apply pressure to the weak spots, we’re going to destroy the family. We’ve had almost 40 years of contraception to tear apart the primary good of marriage, and now the institution is in a ravaged state. We need to be talking about the sacramentality of marriage, of the graces, of the merits of making it work instead of the means by which we can escape. I think the laity — the ones who are trying to be faithful anyway — that’s what they want. They may not care about the theology of marriage, but they want help living it fruitfully. I have to imagine that not a few of them have begun to realize that they asked for bread and have been given a stone.