Real News – or Media Event?
The parallels between the papal conclave and the Oscars, Tonys, and Grammys are just too striking to miss, and not just because the Vatican ceremony came in the middle of our awards season. Indeed, Slate framed its breathless announcement as if the envelop had just been opened: “And the new Pope is: 76-year-old Jorge Mario Bergoglio from Argentina.” (See, “Holy Smoke! Meet Pope Francis. He Has One Lung, Loves the Bus, and Hates Gay Marriage.”)
Other parallels: the lavish spectacle of the arriving cardinals provided its own version of the red carpet; the balloting was secret; the announcement was preceded by weeks of speculation and discrete politicking behind the scenes; occasional leaks; the coverage of the fashions, with tailors working over-time to prepare the costumes; the giant TV screens; the drama of the white and black smoke; the gushing of the crowds in St Peter’s Square; the expert commentators and insider details; the bookmakers’ odds. It all provoked reactions in the media that ranged from tongue-in-cheek amusement to derision. Habemus Papem. “Habemus Who?” or, as The Daily Beast put it, “There’s a New Pope in Town.” (See, also, “The Vatican’s Big Fashion Problem: How Fat Is the New Pope?”)
Any source of news these days can hardly avoid becoming exaggerated and ironic, given the media’s insatiable appetite. In an age when TV cameras hover over a poor groundhog in February 2nd to catch it watching its shadow, what can’t become news?
But there is much more to the tone of the media coverage than the contempt of familiarity. The Catholic Church can still impress with its wealth and power, but it is no longer set apart from other institutions. Its venerable moral authority is gone, leaving it wide open to suspicion and attack. The endless sexual scandals, the extensive cover-ups and resistance to acknowledging complicity and guilt, not to mention the mismanagement of the Vatican Bank, have reduced it the status of little more than a dysfunctional and corrupt multinational corporation.
So the impressive settings, the rituals and the spectacles still capture attention, but it is essentially no different from the other events that routinely entertain and distract. We are left wondering what difference does the papal election actually make anymore.
Pope Francis we now learn was the runner-up last time. Reporters suggest that intrigue prevented any real reformer from getting elected this time. The process is ostensibly democratic and presumably any catholic is eligible to be chosen. But the College of Cardinals had been carefully stacked over the years to exclude any members who might offer significant change to the key issues facing the Church in the 21st century.
To be sure, the new Pope has modeled himself on Saint Francis of Assisi, cooked his own meals and took the bus to work in Argentina. That may make it easier for the poor to identify with him, and it suggests a different attitude towards worldliness and pomp. The BBC reports that the Pope wants “a poor church for the poor.” But what does that actually mean, and will it lead to anything but cosmetic changes?
Was there the possibility of any change that might actually justify the news coverage as anything but a media event? It looks like the media themselves didn’t think so. (See, (“Why Pope Francis May Be a Catholic Nightmare.”)