In my last post, I reflected on a speech by outgoing Pope Benedict XVI in which he revealed some very profound understandings about the role of the media in relation to church authority. He noted that what he called “…the council of the media…” is “…accessible to all…more efficient…” and through these capacities was able to frame even the most determined efforts of the Catholic Church to tell its own story.

I am now turning to a series of opinion pieces in The New York Times by Ross Douthat, Douthat is Catholic and has become an articulate representative of a certain kind of Catholic view of contemporary culture, contemporary religion, and contemporary values. Like many other Catholics (and lapsed Catholics) in the media (in the case of the Times, Frank Bruni and Maureen Dowd for example), Douthat was moved by the unexpected Papal succession to reflect publicly on things Papal. Unlike many others he took a much more traditionally “Catholic” and pious view of the change. His burden, it seemed, was to represent a view much more supportive of the church, its structures, and its moral voice.

In his classic work on authority, Max Weber pointed out that even authority that possesses the power of violence and coercion still has the challenge to maintain its legitimacy or its plausibility. It has to enforce its views, but at the same time appear to be legitimate in doing so. A voice like Douthat’s, then, might be said to be a cultural enforcer of authority by seeking to establish this plausibility and legitimacy. Both what he says and how he says it important.

I have a series of reflections on Douthat’s work, but I’ll begin by pointing out a glaring lacuna in his view of the Church and its prospects. Unlike Benedict, he seems not to recognize the central role played by the media in establishing the conditions under which authority must function. Here is an example from an early column in the cycle, titled “The Ratzinger Legacy.”

Up to a point, the language of crisis is justified. To the trends weakening institutional faiths across the Western world — the rise of spiritual individualism, the influence of the so-called new atheism, the gap between traditional Christian sexual ethics and present-day realities — the Roman Catholic Church has added scandals, sclerosis and a communications strategy apparently designed to win the news cycles of 1848.

Each of these trends, in fact, has a base in modern media and mediation. And yet his only mention of media is with a banal and superficial reference to the Church’s abilities at news management. Benedict understood things much better.  These trends don’t exist in a vacuum.  Each has a powerful linkeage to modern means of communication.

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