Beauty of pope's message distorted by media


Reports try to show the pope as someone obsessed by abortion and homosexuality, writes JOHN WATERS

ONCE, THE media simply reported “what happened”. But today, the content of reportage is increasingly dictated not by the requirement to inform, but by the commercial and/or ideological objectives of shocking, instilling fear and loathing, whipping up prejudice and creating icons of public affection or distaste.

A salutary example is provided by the reporting earlier this week of Pope Benedict XVI’s weekend visit to Barcelona, where he consecrated as a basilica the spectacular Sagrada Familia, imagined more than a century ago by the great architectural genius Antoni Gaudí.

There was a fantastic story to be related here about the extraordinary life and vision of Gaudí, and of what the pope called the immense catechesis of the basilica. For the most part, however, media reports told us nothing of this.

Rather typical of the international pattern was the report in this newspaper last Monday under the heading: “Pope denounces gay marriage and abortion in Spain”. The opening paragraph referred to abortion and gay marriages as examples of the “aggressive secularism” purportedly “denounced” by the pope at the consecration Mass. There was a photograph of a demonstration by homosexuals who conducted a “kissing protest” as the pope’s motorcade passed by.

Pope Benedict’s reference to “aggressive secularism” (a persistent theme of this papacy) was actually made on the flight from Rome, in response to questions from journalists. In those remarks, the pope made a comparison between the current clash between secularism and faith in prime minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s Spain and the anti-clericalism of the Second Republic of the 1930s: “The future of faith and the relations between faith and secularism have Spanish culture as its epicentre,” the pope said. In other words, he was not “denouncing” secularism but speaking about the possibility of a relationship between secularism and faith. I have studied the texts of two homilies delivered by the pope in the Sagrada Familia last Sunday and can find nowhere the terms “abortion” or “gay marriage”.

Appropriately, given the venue, the pope spoke of the importance of the family. “Only where love and faithfulness are present”, he said, “can true freedom come to birth and endure. For this reason the church advocates adequate economic and social means so that women may find in the home and at work their full development, that men and women who contract marriage and form a family receive decisive support from the state, that life of children may be defended as sacred and inviolable from the moment of their conception, that the reality of birth be given due respect and receive juridical, social and legislative support.

“For this reason the church resists every form of denial of human life and gives its support to everything that would promote the natural order in the sphere of the institution of the family.”

This, I presume, is the pope’s “denunciation of gay marriage and abortion”, certainly the nearest thing to such that he uttered in or near Spain last weekend. To describe it as a denunciation of any kind is fatuous. To characterise it as an attack on homosexuals, who are not mentioned, is to place homosexuality at the centre of human culture and imply that the pope was advancing a radical alternative vision, when in fact he was speaking nothing but the blindingly obvious: that humanity is generated out of the sexual relationships between men and women.

Scanning the approximately 2,000-word text of the main homily, it strikes me that it offered an array of intriguing headlines for the use of creative and open-minded editors: “Pope declares affinity with Saint Joseph”; “Pope celebrates monument to ‘long history of hope, work and generosity”; “Basilica places us before the mystery of God, says pope”. “The church is nothing without Christ’ says Benedict”. “Human morality needs to grow alongside progress, Benedict says”.

But all these suggestions derive from a perspective utterly alien to most modern journalism. They summon the reader to a view of reality beyond what is immediate, prosaic and banal, implying a shared interest in something transcendent. Hence, “Benedict denounces gay marriage and abortion in Spain”.

Anyone reading such headlines wherever Pope Benedict goes could be forgiven for thinking him obsessed by abortion and homosexuality. But to follow what the pope says and writes is to know that what he is obsessed by is beauty, which he described in Barcelona as “one of mankind’s greatest needs”. He spoke of the Sagrada Familia standing “as a visible sign of the invisible God . . . to the One who is Light, Height and Beauty itself”.

Beauty, he said, reveals God because, “like Him, a work of beauty is pure gratuity; it calls us to freedom and draws us away from selfishness”. But beauty is a quantity all but unknown to modern journalism, which appears to have offered itself as the agent of an unprecedented cultural blackmail. Increasingly it seems that, for as long as any faction remains disgruntled with any element of religion, and for as long as religious leaders hold to the tenets of their faiths, the media will decline to report the actual content of religious events, and will instead insist on placing the dissenters and their disgruntlements at the centre of the story.

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