Shaping the Message

If you need more proof that the U.S. right-wing movement has co-opted the Catholic Church, you might be interested in knowing that the Vatican has just hired a Fox News “journalist” as its new messenger.

And, I mean messenger in terms of modern-day messaging. It is fascinating to think that the Pope — who is supposed to be the direct conduit to God’s voice — needs a spin doctor. Consider from these quotes from the National Catholic Reporter article:

Burke, a native of St. Louis, told Catholic News Service on Monday that his job will be to help “shape the message” coming out of the Vatican and make sure everyone there “stays on message.”

and

A good example of a past media storm that could have been avoided, he said, was during Pope Benedict XVI’s speech on Islam in Regensburg, Germany, in 2006. The pope quoted a medieval Byzantine emperor, who said the prophet Mohammed had brought “things only evil and inhuman.” The pope later acknowledged the quotation was open to misinterpretation, as he had not meant it as an endorsement of the emperor’s words.

If such a speech had been restricted to a small group of scholars, there might have been no problems, Burke said, but as a talk televised to the world, “in a sound-bite, headline culture, it’s a whole different thing,” Burke said

For those of us, like nerdy old me, who study rhetoric, we know that the Church has had a checkered relationship with rhetoric throughout history. For centuries, the Church viewed rhetoric as a nasty, nasty thing. Who needs rhetoric or messaging when you have Truth and Revelation? Rhetoric was considered pagan persuasion, an immoral exercise for those do not have Truth.

St. Augustine changed that. Classically trained and a pre-conversion teacher of rhetoric, Augustine’s memoir Confessions and subsequent writings are acts of Christian rhetoric. He also wrote De Doctrina Christiana, considered a how-to-guide for priests on conveying the Truth of Scripture to a variety of audiences.

This reminds me of the newly appointed Burke’s visions for keeping the Papacy “on message.”

I have worked with organizations and politicians on messaging. And, I know that shaping the message is not that different from creating the message. Burke’s hire is not just about finding a journalist to manage media contacts or finding someone to put a catchy spin on the Pope’s language. Rather, spin doctors are very much in the seat of creating the content, the essence, of the message. So, the thought of a Fox News “journalist” in control of the Vatican’s message gives me chills and leaves me wondering where Catholic doctrine ends and political propaganda begins.

On the other hand, maybe we will no longer have to endure the Pope’s clumsy and offensive statements — like how the clergy abuse in Ireland “remains a mystery.” 

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