Pope Francis continues to amaze. His latest: a restatement of the church’s critique of capitalism and a survey of Catholics in the pew asking for their views of important issues in advance of an upcoming Bishops’ conference.
As with other Francis stories, the media framing of the one about the survey drives it in a certain direction. While this effort is described as a kind of discernment in advance of the meeting, most media coverage of it treated it as though it were some sort of “opinion poll” upon which Church policy and doctrine might be made.
And it is a breath of fresh air to many Catholics to have the church turning to them and asking them what they think. I don’t downplay that point, but I would caution all to remember that their remain powerful forces that will resist more lay influence in the church—even some strong lay organizations—conservative ones—find Francis’s populism a bit unsettling.
The mediation of Francis (and I would argue that he seems to invite such mediation) follows a pattern lamented by his predecessor. Benedict’s final address to the clergy of Rome observed how the press had taken over the story of Vatican II—presenting it only as a populist and democratizing series of reforms—and had therefore harmed the church by raising expectations for changes that would have natural and frustrating limits. To Benedict, the beauty of the Church is in its clerical authority. To the media, all such authority is always in conflict with democratic rights and individual self-expression. At least that is Benedict’s view.
The coverage of Francis does seem to turn on his every move that can be taken to be liberalizing in conventional political terms. I’ll leave it to prominent Catholic voices (cue Ross Douthat) to point out how very essential the moral teachings of the church—and the clericalism that supports them—are to the church and to the world. That’s not my view.
I do argue, though, that this conflict is a nuanced and subtle example of a fundamental and categorical reality of contemporary culture. The mediated public sphere is the determinative sphere within which religious authority must function today. It is a kind of “in-between” space where new discourses of value and meaning can be worked out.
Francis seems to think of this sphere as his ally. And indeed it is as long as his agenda is one of democratizing and liberalizing the Church. But he can’t have a private conversation. At the same time as he is speaking through the media to lapsed and lukewarm Catholics and to the wider world, he is also heard by conservative Catholics in the fold. And the latter group is increasingly concerned.
The “third space” of the mediated public sphere is democratic in this sense: it is available to all.
That is one of the facts of life for religion in the media age.
By Stewart Hoover