VATICAN CITY — To cover a papal conclave in Rome is to encounter any number of contradictions, especially for a novice at the Sala Stampa — or in this case, at its expanded auxiliary media center. For instance, normally I always have my umbrella with me, and yet never have it handy when it rains, which on this trip has been nearly every day. Standing in line to buy a transportation pass that no one ever uses for the trams is another. But quite frankly, I didn't mind that contradiction at all. Nor did I mind the apparent contradiction of finding a robust and effective technological infrastructure in the media center of an organization often cast as living in the past, media-wise and otherwise.
At the time of the resignation announcement of Benedict XVI, media around the world insisted that this was an opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to become more relevant in the modern world. Perhaps most especially in the United States, commentators spoke about the need for the papacy to change church doctrine to embrace any number of cultural trends, such as same-sex marriage, women as priests and bishops, endorsement of contraception if not abortion, and so on. Most of these commentators insisted that the Roman Catholic Church had become irrelevant because of its refusal to adapt to modern thought on morality.
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. The media center began to overflow yesterday, and I watched as workers rushed to install new desks, power outlets, and hardwired internet connections to meet the demand. In another contradiction entirely my own, a friend jokingly accused me of "working like an American" by getting in early and staying late, rather than relaxing like the natives do. But the competition for desk space becomes fierce, if polite, so an early arrival and late departure is almost a requirement now. Major broadcast networks have sent headliners to a pavilion across from St. Peter's Square to present their news shows with the famous Michelangelo dome on St. Peter's Basilica as their backdrop.
Furthermore, the Vatican has had to make adjustments to the transition schedule, and not out of irrelevancy. Normally an installation Mass would take place shortly after the election of a new Pope. Instead, they will now wait perhaps as long as a few days to allow the new pontiff some "rest" after the conclave, as one source explained it to me, but also to allow for secular dignitaries to attend.
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.
Certainly, the new Pope will face many challenges, including some of those issues being raised by the media. The biggest challenge, and the one that will probably drive this conclave's decision, is the need for more effective evangelization of the Catholic Church's teachings, a need which these polls amply demonstrate. While the practices and methods of communicating those teachings will change to fit the age, the teachings will remain the same, and the church and the Pope will remain as relevant as ever.