(VATICAN CITY) I’ve been in Rome since Friday, reporting from the Vatican and one of its media centers.  I didn’t find out until yesterday that there are actually two media centers, packed with credentialed journalists, reporting on the papal conclave.  I found out about the other when they closed it at 5 pm local time as the conclave procession was under way and a flood of people created a standing-room-only situation here for a while.  Over 5600 journalists have been credentialed for this event, and La Sala Stampa even erected a pavillion on Via Conciliazione for broadcast networks to use St. Peter’s Square and the Basilica as a dramatic backdrop for their reports:


Thus it was with amusement, and a little exasperation, that I read the Washington Post’s article on how the church that has 1.2 billion members risked irrelevancy if it didn’t change its teachings on … well, nearly everything:

A majority of American Roman Catholics consider the church out of touch with their views and they want the new pope to usher in policies that reflect more modern attitudes, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

As cardinals gather in the Vatican to select a successor to retired Pope Benedict XVI, thepoll suggests most Catholics in the United States hope the next pope will move the church in a new direction that someday could include married priests and female priests.

Yet even as six in 10 Catholics characterize the church as not in sync with their attitudes and lifestyles, 86 percent said it remains relevant, according to the poll, conducted last week. And more than two-thirds of the Catholics polled praise Benedict, saying he did a “good” or “excellent” job.

Give the WaPo credit here, though. Unlike a similar poll by Quinnipiac, they attempted to distinguish between practicing and non-practicing Catholics:

The seemingly contradictory results reflect a schism between regular churchgoers and those who attend church less frequently. Catholics who go nearly weekly are more likely to say they want the new pope to maintain traditions. Those who go less frequently are more apt to favor change. …

The new poll shows a greater yearning for change than when Benedict became pope in 2005. At about the time he was selected, fully half of American Catholics wanted the church to stick with its traditional policies; now, 38 percent say so.

There is a chicken-egg component to making the distinction on depth of practice.  Do Catholics want change because they’re just unfamiliar with their religion, or do they practice less because they want change first?  This is not an easy question, but in a sense that’s irrelevant in itself.  In my column for The Week, I make the point that the media and many people around the world are confusing church and government, which is a recipe for irrelevancy:

Polls have been conducted to underscore this message of anachronicity. Quinnipiac surveyed American adults on these issues, and found that their subsample of 497 Catholics split 54/37 in favor of gay marriage — trending significantly ahead of the overall poll’s 47/43 favorable plurality on the question. Fifty-five percent said that the new Pope should “move the Church in a new direction.” A Washington Post/ABC poll conducted at about the same time found that 54 percent of Catholics wanted change in the new papacy — but they also noted that a majority of regular attendees of Mass (58 percent) want the next Pope to maintain the church’s traditions. This prompted even more warnings that the Vatican might slide into complete irrelevancy without fundamental change in its doctrine and practices.

And yet, the contradiction can easily be seen from Vatican City — and really, around the world. The papal conclave, which starts today, will be conducted among 115 cardinal electors in complete secrecy and seclusion; the cardinals will not have access to the media, and the media has not had much access to the cardinals for most of the past week.

Even so, more than 5,600 journalists — myself included — have been accredited to La Sala Stampa for this event, and thousands more have arrived without accreditation to report from the streets of Rome. …

None of this screams “anachronism,” and perhaps should prompt some thought about the role of the Catholic Church and the difference between politics and faith. Politics and representative government deal with popular opinion and choices of how to order government to the desires of its citizens. Religion and faith work in the opposite direction. If they are to mean anything, churches, temples, synagogues, and mosques exist to form their parishioners in the doctrine of their scriptures. To put this into the most basic formula, a church that exists to proclaim the popular opinion of its members rather than the revealed truths of the faith has become a club, or an empty identity. Since the world is overflowing with clubs, empty identities, and political parties, that seems to be a much quicker path to irrelevancy than standing on millennia-old principles of faith.

This point gets missed by media and reporters more familiar with the political and entertainment arenas rather than the paradigm of faith.  Public opinion defines those institutions; public opinion does not define faith or doctrine, but instead should shape public opinion as well as private behavior.  If it acted no differently than political parties and the Billboard 100, religion would serve no purpose in a world that is already overrun by opinion and material demand.  The conclave will not change the Catholic Church’s teachings and doctrines, but it might change the manner and effectiveness in which those are communicated to the world (and will almost certainly have an organizational impact within the Roman Curia to improve that process).  As we saw with John Paul II, when those teachings and doctrines are harnessed and focused, they can change the world and end oppression and tyranny.  That kind of power is always relevant in the world, and that’s not even the power that matters most in this transition.

Update: Just to give a better idea of the intense media interest in this supposed anachronism, here are some figures announced yesterday the Holy See Press Office (La Sala Stampa):

  • Permanent accreditations (the normal Vaticanisti): 658
    • 400 writers
    • 57 photojournalists
    • 201 TV/radio
  • Temporary accreditations (additional): 5,213
    • 191 press attaches
    • 1,036 cameramen (TV)
    • 999 technicians
    • 414 photojournalists
    • 595 producers
    • 1,845 writers
    • 132 TV directors

The total accreditations span 1,379 news organizations from 76 countries, speaking 26 different languages.