Media and Religion's Uneasy Relationship

Commentary by Editor of Catholic Information Service for Africa

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NAIROBI, Kenya, MARCH 31, 2009 (Zenit.org).- Here is a commentary written my Henry Makori, the editor of the Catholic Information Service for Africa, on the media coverage of Benedict XVI's comments that condoms are not the solution for fighting AIDs. The editorial is titled: "Africa: Are World Media Fighting Pope Benedict XVI?"



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A priest I spoke to last week was so incensed by the media's coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's comments on condoms he wished, jokingly though, that the Vatican would next time bar reporters of a certain international news organization from the papal plane.

The media house was among the first to report the Pope's rejection of condoms to combat HIV. The Pope spoke to reporters on his plane en route to Cameroon.

His comments sparked widely reported protests by HIV/Aids activists and some governments, nearly overshadowing whatever else the pontiff said on his first apostolic trip to Africa. The Vatican later issued a clarification.

The HIV/Aids scourge, the Pope had said, "cannot be resolved by distributing condoms; quite the contrary, we risk worsening the problem. The solution can only come through a twofold commitment: firstly, the humanization of sexuality, in other words a spiritual and human renewal bringing a new way of behaving towards one another; and secondly, true friendship, above all with the suffering, a readiness -- even through personal sacrifice -- to stand by those who suffer."

Anything radical in that statement? Everyone knows that condoms are not the best guard against HIV and that the surest way to avoid infection is abstinence for the unmarried and fidelity within marriage. Moreover, Catholic opposition to condoms is well known, and no one would reasonably expect the pope to state otherwise.

Were the Pope's remarks misrepresented by hostile secular media? A quick look at the reports reveals that they generally did not differ much from the clarification offered by the Holy See. Why then did the comment draw so much fire?

First, the Catholic position on condoms is contested, and the Pope reasserting it on a continent that accounts for most of the global HIV/Aids burden was bound to elicit strong reaction from those who differ with him. While accepting the Church's legitimate moral concerns, campaigners point to medical evidence that a condom used correctly and consistently cuts down significantly the risk of HIV transmission. Nobody ever said condoms were the sure-fire protection against HIV.

In addition, within the Church itself a few voices have publicly said that using a condom to reduce the risk of contracting an incurable deadly disease is "the lesser evil." Others have supported limited condom use particularly when abstinence may not be a realistic option, as in the case where one spouse is HIV-positive.

Secondly, the controversy is connected to the mostly secular label of Benedict as a conservative or Catholic fundamentalist. Nearly all his utterances have been interpreted with this in mind. Not everyone welcomed the actions and documents of the Church on controversial issues during the many years, as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, he headed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose chief task is to affirm and defend Catholic teaching. As well, Benedict's papacy in the past five years has caused discomfort to sections of the Catholic population, non-Catholic Christians, Muslims and, recently, the Jews. This might bother the Pope a little, but as a Christian and an intellectual, he cannot honestly expect everyone to agree with Church teaching on every issue.

And thirdly, the uproar has to do with the fact that though the Pope apparently speaks to Catholics only, he in fact addresses the world. That is the mission of the papacy. The Pope is also the world's foremost spiritual and moral leader on account of heading the largest religious organization in numbers, history and reach. More importantly, from a secular point of view, the Pope has immense sociopolitical clout as head of state of the Holy See, which is the only religious sovereignty in the world and has diplomatic relations with practically all governments. His utterances on issues of public interest therefore generate debate.

So, are secular media fighting Pope Benedict? Not any more than the Kenyan media are "fighting" President Kibaki over the actual composition of the First Family. But there is the debatable view that the media are the handmaid of secularism, with the unstated objective of wiping away religion from the face of the earth; that obsessed with the hot stuff, news organizations "sex up" stories by twisting events and utterances to keep their audiences enthralled. It is also alleged that powerful lobby groups use the media to push anti-Catholic agendas: abortion, contraception, euthanasia, same-sex sexual relationships, married priests and the priestly ordination of women.

These concerns notwithstanding, what is certain is that secular media do not cover just the Pope; they also report the views of those who don't agree with him on certain issues. And the dissidents, though mostly in the minority, can be quite noisy and unrelenting. Add to this the fact that religion is a very complex matter which the media do not always get right. Religion and the media communicate differently: a news item, or even this article, is not a theological treatise or a sermon. It is also true that religion generally tends to be uncomfortable with the skepticism and trenchant curiosity that defines all good journalism.

So what? The uneasy relationship between religion and the media will continue. One hopes Pope Benedict does not lose much sleep over this. The Church's greatest challenge in this age is not to have secular media on its side, or to get everyone agreeing with its doctrines. Christianity is in town to bear credible witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ. So, no reporter should be thrown out of the papal plane!

[Reprinted with permission of the Catholic Information Service for Africa]