Often we take synod participants to lunch or
dinner, especially old friends. We get a sense of what’s being said at
coffee breaks, who is turning heads, what issues seem to generate electricity.
Often a full text or two may be slid across the table.
As time goes on, reporters acquire more and
more texts, and we trade them like baseball cards.
|Anyone following my coverage
of the current Synod of Bishops (available by clicking the “NCR Home Page”
link at the top of this page) might have the impression that I am right
in the thick of things. The same idea comes across in the Associated Press
or The New York Times. We quote speeches as if we heard them,
reactions in the hall as if we saw them.
The truth, however, is that reporters are nowhere
near the action. Readers might as well know how this works.
In the Holy See press office, reporters are flooded
each day with bulletins and advisories, suggesting the Vatican wants the
world to know what’s going on. Yet we are completely locked out of the
event. The closest we get is a half-hour prayer that begins each day’s
business, open to a pool of reporters a few times during the month. (Before
anything else can be uttered, we are shooed away).
Speeches inside the hall are secret. Texts are
the property of the synod, or so the rulebook, called the vade mecum, says.
So how do we gather news?
Each of the approximately 300 bishops and advisers
who speak in the synod prepares a summary of his or her remarks, which
are made available through the Vatican press office. These are of uneven
quality. Some just shrink the type and hand in their whole talk; others
give a couple of anodyne sentences that don’t even hint at what they talked
To fill in the gaps, briefings are given by Vatican-selected
spokespersons in five languages: Italian, French, Spanish, German and English.
These folks sit in the synod hall and then come tell us what they’ve heard.
In English, the briefer this time is Legionary of Christ Fr. Thomas Williams,
an American from Detroit and head of the theology department at the Legionaries’
university in Rome.
Williams is adept at anticipating what journalists
will want to know. He is also fluent in the languages of the synod and
can offer good working translations. When a speaker’s most juicy comments
are not in the summary, Williams often reads the relevant portion word-for-word.
He also gives us a sense of reaction — who got
applause, whose talks set off murmurs, what quips were most memorable and
so on. Hence, we get some color this way.
Otherwise, many of us practice what I call “journalism
by stalking.” We plant ourselves outside the synod hall in the morning
and the afternoons doing hit-and-run interviews, which often involve collecting
a bishop’s full text. (Many are happy to cooperate. They regard what they
have to say as important and don’t like to be told not to share it).
If we don’t find the person we’re looking for
this way, we call him at the Santa Marta (the Sheraton-like hotel inside
the Vatican), or the International House of Clergy, or one of the national
colleges. We keep track of where participants are going outside the synod,
and get in the way. I tracked down Cardinal Francis George of Chicago,
for example, by attending a Mass he celebrated at Santa Susanna, the American
parish in Rome.
Often we take synod participants to lunch or dinner,
especially old friends. We get a sense of what’s being said at coffee breaks,
who is turning heads, what issues seem to generate electricity. Often a
full text or two may be slid across the table.
As time goes on, reporters acquire more and more
texts, and we trade them like baseball cards. It is possible to have cell
phone conversations like the following:
“I just got Meisner.”
“Last night I got Danneels and Lehmann.
“Okay, I’ll give you Meisner and notes from my
interview with Fiorenza for what you’ve got.”
It’s not long before everybody knows more or less
everything. Given this reality, why does the Vatican insist on secrecy?
For one thing, Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte, the
man who runs the synod, suffers from that “blessed rage for order” described
by poet Wallace Stevens. He is, in other words, a bit of a control freak.
He said not long ago, in response to a question from Newsweek’s
Bob Kaiser, that the Catholic church has no more obligation to open its
meetings to the public than the Coca-Cola Corporation.
Schotte has argued that bishops from politically
delicate spots need the protection of secrecy. Fine — close the doors for
their talks, but let us in for the rest.
But it would be unfair to make Schotte the fall
guy, because I think something more fundamental is afoot. I believe the
church is experiencing an evolutionary shift. It lived for centuries out
of the psychology of empire, in which accountability was to God and the
prince. It now finds itself struggling to adapt to democratic culture.
In fits and starts, the transition is happening; for all its imperfections,
the very existence of the synod is a sign of headway. This is a historical
process, however, that resists being rushed.
It was, after all, a scant 170 years ago that
Pope Gregory XVI called freedom of the press “the most dangerous liberty,
an execrable liberty, which can never inspire sufficient horror.” It takes
time, geological time, to transform such attitudes.
In the meantime, the press will continue to chip
away. One way we’ll do that is by obtaining and printing information that
officialdom doesn’t want you to have.
Speaking of which: Anybody out there have Ratzinger’s
text? I’m willing to make a deal.
The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is
The National Catholic Reporter Publishing
115 E. Armour Blvd.
Kansas City, MO 64111