There is one thing I am almost absolutely positively sure will happen during the October Extraordinary Synod on the Family called by Pope Francis: Television will get it wrong.
Once again experts will be trotted out and there will be the obligatory remotes by network reporters and network anchors in front of St. Peter’s or some other very “Catholic” looking examples of Italian architecture and we’ll hear all about what some bishop or cardinal really meant when he said hello.
The importance of the synod will more than likely be missed by television coverage that demands the immediate, and the Church, which still “thinks” in centuries, is just not ready for prime time.
In some ways television is similar to email as both can be the best and the worst ways to communicate. When disseminating nuts and bolts information about how many widgets were inventoried last month at the ACME snow plow warehouse, email is perfect.
When the president of ACME sends a snarky email to his employees about some new company imposed dress code policy, the email will be interpreted in about as many ways as there are recipients of it.
Television, when it pools together during major news stories like 9/11, becomes a communal town hall and an invaluable asset. But when it participates in the feeding frenzies of salacious and time-sensitive news stories, it is often a disassembler of the truth.
The Church has long had a target on its back when it comes to the feeding frenzy nature of television. Sadly, the sex abuse scandals provided a seemingly never-ending supply of grist for the television mill.
But even situations as historical and positively charged as papal elections tend to froth up the television news bureaus with predictions of doom and gloom or hope and glory by whatever political bent the resident expert of a particular broadcast may favor.
Mass communication and entertainment just doesn’t “do” Catholic teaching very well. Comics and even serious commentators mangle the teaching of the Immaculate Conception consistently confusing it with the virgin birth of our Lord.
It’s not just television. A 2011 science (not religion) article in the Huffington Post speculated about a scientific journal that claimed a copperhead snake in some zoo apparently birthed live young with no apparent contact with a boy snake (I think that’s the zoological terminology). The author was a little cheeky with the tenor of the piece and couldn’t help but cap the article wondering if there were any other examples of “immaculate conception” in the animal kingdom yet to be discovered.
If the Blessed Mother is not immune from this kind of stuff we shouldn’t expect popes to fare much better…and they don’t. When Time Magazine “anointed” Pope Francis as its “Person of the Year,” their accompanying website alleged one of the reasons for this prestigious honor was Pope Francis’ “rejection of Catholic dogma.”
Much fancy footwork and scurrying about ensued and Time’s website hammered and chiseled a retraction in tortured language claiming how Francis was worthy of their recognition because of his “rejection of luxury.” This was accompanied by a rather feeble correction claiming “An earlier version of this post suggested that Pope Francis rejects some church dogma. He does not.”
While we’re on the topic of misrepresenting pontiffs, you might try this exercise. Google “Hitler’s Pope.” You will get 930,000 results. The first several pages of results will tell you how Pius XII was complicit with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
If you’re diligent and get to the third or fourth page of results, you will find the opposite rendering and learn how Pius saved hundreds of thousands of Jewish lives and that, after the war, the chief rabbi of Rome converted to Catholicism taking the name Eugene — Pius’ baptismal name prior to being elected pontiff.
So when you start hearing strange pronouncements from the talking heads during the upcoming synod and read things that just don’t sound kosher, trust your instincts.
We have all been affected, or is it infected, with shorter attention spans thanks in large part to television. We must resist the temptation to take the shortest route between two misconceptions and be true students of this synod.
The work of an extraordinary synod requires extraordinary diligence on our part as members of the body of Christ. If the Synod produces teachings we are obligated to conscientiously study, it’s good to remember that students always study better with the television off.
Robert Brennan has been a professional writer for more than 30 years, including many years in the television industry. He has been a contributing writer for the National Catholic Register for many years and has also been published in Our Sunday Visitor and This Rock.