Why people "wish the Catholic Church would just shut up"

By Meinrad Scherer-Emunds| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

This morning, thanks to my "Catholic" Google alert, I came across a rant by blogger "Simply Rebellious" Courtney Bellio that started with the eye-catching line, "I wish the Catholic Church would just shut up." She had my attention.

The rant was prompted by what she called the church's "whining" in the much-reprinted recent AP story "The Vatican criticizes Avatar." To Bellio, "It seems as if every week, the pope or some other supposedly important Catholic figure is grabbing international headlines as he or she dishes out criticism....  Is there anything that doesn’t offend the Catholic Church?"

A review in the Vatican's official newspaper L'Osservatore Romano had panned the movie for “flirting with the idea that worship of nature can replace religion.” Bellio thinks, "Most Avatar-goers would agree with me when I say I didn’t have an overwhelming desire to confess my sins at the base of a mighty oak tree after walking out of the theater. Nature worship isn’t the message you take away from the movie."

In the rest of her rant, Bellio employs much overheated rhetoric and minces no words in her dislike for pretty much everything Catholic. Juvenile "rebellious" lines like "I just want to punch the pope in the face" or calling the pope "an egocentric idiot" make me want to shout back: Why don't you just shut up!!

So why even bother to waste any bytes on this kind of rant? Because, in spite of it all, she has a point: Why do the pope and "the Vatican" constantly grab global headlines for finger-wagging?

One reason, of course, is that journalists can't resist tidbits that can so easily be blown into global headlines. Punching out a story like "The Vatican criticizes Avatar" is a sure way to get your copy into gazillions of publications from The New York Times to the Hollywood Reporter, The Hindu, and Bellio's northern Arizona-based newspaper The Lumberjack. Hey, I wouldn't mind such a coup myself.

Of course, any fair-minded journalist would need to ask herself: Is every movie reviewer in the recently revamped L'Osservatore Romano really a spokesperson for "the Vatican"? (By the way, for a more serious and quite interesting look at what's really going on at the Vatican's "Dowager Queen" of a newspaper, check out David Gibson's story "The Pope's Newspaper Goes 'Pop'" )

Still, I think "the Vatican" would do well to be a lot more strategic in its communications strategy. Did the actual Vatican spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi really have to give the silly story legs by confirming that "while the movie reviews are just that—film criticism, not theological pronouncements—they do reflect Pope Benedict XVI's views on the dangers of turning nature into a 'new divinity.'" That's all the "confirmation" the AP reporter needed, and—presto!—the fingerwagging Vatican story got legs.

To his credit, Pope Benedict XVI, during his first five years, has at times tried to break out of the fingerwagging mold and to focus on and accentuate a more positive Catholic message. Still, I think he, the Vatican, and all of us Catholics can and must do better.

As Bryan has put it, "Having (and saying) your opinion about EVERYTHING, especially when it’s often negative, not only irritates people without good cause, it also dilutes your message. In an Internet age, the pope’s opinion about war and peace is reported about in exactly the same manner as the L’Osservatore Romano’s film reviews—same section of the paper, same number of inches. Makes you want to think carefully about when you engage the media."

For a different Catholic take on Avatar, check out our "Culture in Context" columnist Patrick McCormick's review .