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Synod media blackout will undermine, not enhance, its credibility

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Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the synod, with Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication. Photo: CNS photo/Justin McLellan
Xavière Missionary Sister Nathalie Becquart, undersecretary of the synod, with Paolo Ruffini, prefect of the Dicastery for Communication. Photo: CNS photo/Justin McLellan

“The pontifical secret is something that everyone knows, except the pope” goes one joke.

“A pontifical secret is something you can only tell one person at a time,” goes another.

“Vatican insiders are very good at keeping secrets; it’s the people they tell them to who can’t,” goes a third.

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We are now just two weeks away from the beginning of the Synod on Synodality, and the news out of the Vatican this past week has been that media will not be allowed into any of the synod sessions.

During his in-flight press conference on the way back from Mongolia, the Holy Father confirmed that this would be the case. Rather than allowing journalists access to any of the Synod’s proceedings, a communications commission led by Dr Paolo Ruffini, the head of the Vatican’s communications office, will issue daily press releases about the synod’s progress.

This is significantly stricter than what occurred during the Fifth Plenary Council of Australia.

For those assemblies, the media were able to view the general sessions, but the discussions at roundtables and interventions were closed to anyone except delegates.

There was then a daily press conference where members of the media could ask questions to a panel of clergy and lay members.

The pope explained that this was “necessary to safeguard religiosity and safeguard the freedom of those who speak.”

Cindy Wooden, a highly-respected American journalist asked a very blunt follow up question: “We journalists don’t even have access to the assembly and the general sessions.

How can we be sure that what we are given as gruel/baby food [“pappa” was the Italian word used], is true? Is there not a possibility of being a little more open with journalists?”

The Pope replied by saying that the commission would be respectful of the speeches made inside the hall, avoid “political gossip” and “convey the ecclesial spirit, not the political one.”

With respect to Ms Wooden, I don’t think there should be too much concern about whether the information coming from the communications commission will be true. I think we can be confident that it will be accurate, if somewhat sanitised.

The greater concern will be how journalists and—through them—the faithful, can be sure the information reported through other channels will be true.

It is almost certain that information will end up being received and reported by media representatives who will be gathered in Rome during the synod. As Pope Francis frequently points out in homilies and other comments, gossip is a vice that exists just as much, if not more, inside the church as outside.

With so much interest in the synod, those not participating in the assemblies themselves will want to know what is going on, and some of those inside will want to tell them.

So, they will share details with friends and colleagues and confidants and, as predictable as the punch lines on the “pontifical secret” jokes, things from inside the hall will also be reported.

The problem is that with the media excluded from all the sessions—even the general sessions where no interventions are made—and no daily press conferences where questions can be asked openly, there won’t be any official opportunity to check the veracity of those leaks.

While I understand and support Pope Francis’ desire to keep the political gossip and ideological camps away from the synod and to preserve its integrity as an ecclesial event.

I worry that excluding the media will not serve this goal but rather undermine it, because those media outlets aligned with more extreme views in the progressive and conservative camps will be able to use the media blackout as an excuse to quote anonymous sources and engage in unhelpful speculation.

The moderate journalists, who represent the vast majority of Catholic media, will have limited opportunity to correct the record, because they won’t have access either. I know it’s counterintuitive, but I think the best way to preserve the integrity of the Synod will be to make its proceedings a at least a little more public.

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