By Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty

“It behooves us to keep talking about the papal election for as long as possible. Once it’s over, we’re back to the federal budget deliberations, and I prefer a story in which nothing gets sequestered but the cardinals.” Thus columnist Gail Collins spoke for many of us. So much of the talk and script after the abdication of one pope and accession of another was a distraction from reference to other urgent issues. No one can accuse the media of having slighted this religion story, as communicators scrambled to forget from their own uninformed guesses and bets before someone of whom almost none had heard was elected. (John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter was one of the very few who mentioned him as a prospect among many.)

 

Let me lift out just one feature of the event and the coverage: the attention to participation in central religious themes:  It seemed strange to see words like “prayer,” “humility,” “praise,” “piety,” “justice” and “holiness” in headlines which momentarily obscured the more familiar Catholic themes such as “abortion,” “birth control,” “sex,” “homosexuality,” and, most notoriously, “abuse” and “coverup,” terms which preoccupy publics the way “Trinity,” “Incarnation,” “Eucharist,” and others occupied the minds and acts of church-definers in many other centuries. One hopes that curiosity about Pope Francis, the startling and creative choice of the sequestered cardinals, will keep prompting talk and coverage of classic themes.

Of course, there is talk about this pope being conservative on issues being debated. Few opinion-makers assumed that the exuberance of the faithful and the curious in the crowds when the election was announced can last. Many reporters, while having let their guard down about the new personality on the scene—the Jesuit, the Poor World and New World pontiff—soon found themselves putting their guard back up, to point to crises in the church. The biggest image gap in the media was between the show of power in the week of elections and, for a moment, the weakness it obscured from view. Read More…