I’m not an expert on journalism or on the Vatican, but allow me a few tips to writers new to the Vatican beat, based on some of the off-base religion reporting I’ve seen in the past.
1. Don’t overestimate the importance of Vatican City in the lives of ordinary Catholics
I was told this morning by a well-meaning correspondent that the Vatican is the center of power for 1/7th of the world’s population. It’s not that there is anything untrue about that statement, but that it’s a bit misleading. For most Catholics, the center of their faith is the Eucharistic table and the dinner table. What goes on at the Vatican may be interesting, and of more interest to 1/7th of the world’s population, but very little about our personal faith lives hang in the balance here.
2. Know your history, at least back to Pius IX
Why does this story sound so much like the corruption scandal that might strike a small government? Because that’s what Vatican City is. Long before the Pope started being a figure that was alternately being sweetly cute and ruining our lives with doctrinaire statements designed to keep us all down (THAT WAS SARCASM) he was essentially an Italian Prince, ruling over a much larger area than the current Vatican City. In many ways, the Vatican City still runs like a small nation-state.
It’s also worth noting that there have long been papal staff and members of the Curia with “secular” titles like Secretary of State, and they wield great authority in the administration of Vatican City (even if not in the lives of ordinary Catholics – see #1). Unlike the Pope, they don’t get their faces on ceremonial plates.
3. This is not about sex
Well, perhaps I shouldn’t say that, because who knows what will come of this. But based on what I’ve read, this has nothing to do with birth control, female priests, married priests, transgendered left-handed priests, oppressing nuns, gay adoption, or any of the other things that your average American (newspaper) thinks are the most important things to Catholics.
My guess is that it is also not about sex abuse, but I still expect the newspapers to mention it in most reports, because it ends up in every article about anything involving Catholics. Boston papers will probably throw in Church closings too. Maybe we deserve that. Or maybe that’s my Catholic guilt talking.
(There is probably a case to be made that issues of power in the Curia have an effect on all of these issues and more. If you care to make the case, please feel free to do so in the comments. I look forward to reading.)
4. Acquaint yourself with the term “inside baseball”
Most of this scandal will probably turn out to be things that are of absolutely no interest to those who don’t familiarize themselves with all the minutia of the Curia. Because I am a borderline nut when it comes to following the workings of the Church, I am thrilled that all of these details are easily available. But I still panic when I hear Matt Lauer’s dulcet tones mention the Vatican, because I am terrified that, growing bored with the inside baseball, the media will turn this into something it’s not and Catholics will once again be misrepresented in the media.
Who knows what will come of all this, but I’m pretty confident these four tips will serve us all well in sorting the through the fallout of VatiLeaks. Or perhaps the whole thing will be ancient history by the 6 pm news. Stranger things have happened.
Are there any tips I’ve missed? Add yours!