perhaps the Vatican is the center of the universe after all
March 12, 2013 1:34 PM   Subscribe

Why is the Pope resigning and the Conclave such a big deal in the media?

I get that it affects a lot of people and I get that it has some interesting theater, so I get that it's a big news story. What I don't get is why it's the news story. Several days in, it's still the lead on the hourly BBC news summary. It's on both the fluff news like the morning shows (good video) but it's also discussed in depth, ad nauseum, on NPR. Each potential next pope, who likes him and who doesn't and why, etc. Sweet Sistine, seriously.

None of it has actually discussed "well, if this guy is elected pope then he'll likely change policy by doing xyz" or "evangelicals vs. catholics and the new pope would xyz" or anything like that. It's all just horse-race stuff, in another country, about one religion.

There are divisions and schisms and politicking in every religion in the world, and when it comes to a head, there's one, maybe two news stories about it. Why is this story enough to warrant top billing for days on end? Isn't there more pressing news? Isn't this coverage overkill?
posted by headnsouth to Media & Arts (22 answers total)
There isn't anything else going on right now.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 1:35 PM on March 12, 2013 [8 favorites]

It's an organization that more than a billion people belong to, and which has incredible amounts of money and political power. And they're having to unexpectedly choose a new CEO because the last one resigned, which hadn't happened in several hundred years.

If nothing else, a billion-ish people want to know what's happening, and the media is there to tell them.
posted by rtha at 1:39 PM on March 12, 2013 [25 favorites]

For around a billion people, he's god's representative on earth. It's an office that's lasted almost 2,000 years and the first pope (St. Peter) was an apostle of Jesus.
posted by 2bucksplus at 1:41 PM on March 12, 2013

I get the feeling that, maybe because of JPIIs long reign, re-poping is a sort of novelty that a lot of broadcasters don't expect to get to see more than a couple of times.

Plus, it is simultaneously mysterious-spooky AND a literal representation of most other elections and major political decisions: a bunch of really old, really wealthy, mostly white guys shutting themselves in a room to decide the fate of the world.
posted by Lyn Never at 1:42 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

It is of interest to some people, and, possibly more importantly, it is a big-looking topic that allows mainstream media to avoid covering real news. Project Censored is a useful resource to get a look at the way news story choice covers up a lot of important stuff.
posted by spindrifter at 1:43 PM on March 12, 2013 [3 favorites]

The reporting I have heard doesn't reflect any of the gravity of the post or discuss its significance to 1/7th of the world, or even discuss what the pope does.
posted by headnsouth at 1:44 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another way to think of it, structurally, is as "Pope Idol". Think of the different reality competition TV templates: a group of people sequestered on an island; a group of suitors bidding for a rose; a group of people locked in a house nominating each other to leave; a group of performers competing to be the sole winner.

So, even beyond the geopolitical repercussions, it's an election and a reality show and a sporting event and a lot of arcane ceremonials. It goes on in secret so there's lots of space to have talking heads witter on while the camera focuses on that chimney. Of course it's going to be breaking-news catnip.
posted by holgate at 1:45 PM on March 12, 2013 [10 favorites]

For the same reason that the presidential election in the USA is major world news.

But that said, I really think that Pope John Paul II's papacy played a role in creating the sort of environment where the election of a Pope is "big news." He was the first Pope in modern times that non-Catholics recognized and knew stuff about. He traveled a lot and often. Along with being the leader of a large religious organization, he was considered an "international leader." He wrote books and made speeches that non-Catholics payed attention to (or at least knew about). So now we expect that the Pope will be a major international figure (even for non-Catholics), and it's a news story.
posted by deanc at 1:47 PM on March 12, 2013

The mystery, ceremony, and history of the process make it interesting as a news story. I think the news coverage is also a result of the importance of the office. The pope really is an important world figure. The Catholic church itself is massive and the pope is the most prominent and eminent of all christian leaders.
posted by Area Man at 1:48 PM on March 12, 2013

The reporting I have heard doesn't reflect any of the gravity of the post or discuss its significance to 1/7th of the world, or even discuss what the pope does.

Since he is ostensibly the religious leader of one billion people, it is probably assumed that you know these things or are capable of Googling them. How much coverage of US elections is dedicated to telling you why the role of President is important?
posted by lalex at 1:49 PM on March 12, 2013 [16 favorites]

The reporting I have heard doesn't reflect any of the gravity of the post or discuss its significance to 1/7th of the world, or even discuss what the pope does.

My hunch is that this is because they assume that most people know this bit already.

Also, among the major religions that are most familiar in the Western Media, the Catholic church is the one that's got the most visible transfer-of-power event, and so not only are a lot of people affected by what's happening it's also something that is interesting to watch. You can also ask why the foreign press covers the United States presidential election to the extent that it does; the identity of the US President only indirectly affects your average Slovakian, but our election process is big and noisy and eventful, so the Slovakian press covers it.

If there was one singular Head Leader Of Judaism that also transferred power in such a visible way, the press would most likely also be covering it too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 1:51 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The reporting I have heard doesn't reflect any of the gravity of the post or discuss its significance to 1/7th of the world, or even discuss what the pope does.

CBC has been putting a little bit of effort into this part of the story in various episodes of their nightly news program The National. Mainly because a Canadian bishop might be chosen for the job, true, but I'm just pointing out that you might have to search out better reporting.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 1:52 PM on March 12, 2013

[Folks, this is askme, not a Papacy/media chatroom. There's a thread about the Conclave over on the blue right now if what you feel like doing is not explicitly answer the question.]
posted by cortex (staff) at 1:55 PM on March 12, 2013

There is nothing else like the Vatican in the world. It is bizarre and opaque and anachronistic and mysterious and fascinating even to people with no religious connection to it.

The pomp and circumstance is much like a royal British wedding. Here in the USA, the royal wedding has no bearing on anything and was similarly big news with constant media coverage.

TL:Dr; Because pomp and ceremony (which is also a rare thing these days). If it wasn't capturing attention, they're doing it wrong.
posted by anonymisc at 2:04 PM on March 12, 2013 [7 favorites]

Imagine if the head of state of a major world power resigned -- which had never happened before in that nation's modern history -- and that person's replacement was to be elected in less than one month, in secret, over a couple days. Now saddle that major world power with Byzantine internecine skulduggery and a sexual abuse scandal.
posted by Rock Steady at 2:06 PM on March 12, 2013 [4 favorites]

As a non-Catholic, I am more interested in the Papal drama these days than I would care to admit because

1. The ritual is weirdly fascinating. Black smoke? White smoke? Red hats?!?
2. I grew up in Boston, a city in which the Catholic Church is always news.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 2:17 PM on March 12, 2013

(Thinking of it another way, it is not the case that big ceremonies are done they way they are because they've always been done that way, or because it's intrinsically appropriate, or because it's necessary. Traditional (and even seemingly ancient) ceremonies are adjusted or outright invented from whole cloth to lend gravitas, to give status, with the express purpose of making something into a Big Deal.

This isn't merely a Big Deal because people are interested in some weird thing the Vatican is doing, this is also a Big Deal because the Vatican pulls out all the stops to make it a Big Deal.

(Your question implies that the media is driving the media interest in this, overlooking the extent to which the Vatican is driving the media to be interested in this.))
posted by anonymisc at 2:19 PM on March 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

re-poping is a sort of novelty that a lot of broadcasters don't expect to get to see more than a couple of times.

Although that's mainly on account of JPII being around for over a quarter of a century, which is relatively uncommon. Which sort of responds to Rock Steady's argument: there was similar coverage in 2005, and that was significant because in the intervening years we'd had the emergence of rolling news, sophisticated satellite linkups and widespread internet access. And reality TV, for that matter.

So I think it's a kind of commingling of spectacles (per anonymisc's point) that are old-fashioned in appearance while being easily parsed by modern mass media. [/Baudrillard]
posted by holgate at 2:26 PM on March 12, 2013

In addition to the many factors cited by others, another reason, I think, is the sheer unpredictability of the outcome. This isn't the US Presidential Election with daily polls and a Nate Silver who can forecast the outcome of each state with 99% accuracy. There are no political parties, and even informal voting blocs are highly speculative.

Cardinals may make very general statements prior to the Conclave about what qualities they're looking for in a pope, but trying to discern which Cardinals they actually support from those vague statements is about as reliable as reading tea leaves. (Read about some of those general statements in this article.)

Even after the election, there's still immense amounts of speculation as the votes are secret. There's no offical public tally. There's always alleged leaks, but those are impossible to verify since the Cardinals are sworn to secrecy, and if they do leak the votes they certainly won't admit it. In some instances in the past, one alleged leak has been at odds with another, so it's impossible to be certain whether any leaked vote tallies are accurate.

As for why you don't hear more about what Cardinal X would do: first, the only voters are their fellow Cardinals. They don't have to convince millions of voters with public statements about what they would do. With only 115 electors participating, they can speak face-to-face with all the voters, and don't need to publicize likely policies beyond that.

Second, even among the Cardinals, actively "campaigning" to be Pope tends to be discouraged.

Third, it won't matter who is elected, at least as far as hot-button issues in the developed world that the media likes to cover: reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, women priests. None of the Cardinals would change any of that, so there's nothing really to report on that front. You might as well ask why the media didn't report on Obama's or Romney's positions on bombing Topeka in the US election.

Where the Cardinals might differ are things such as a) on economic and social justice in the developing world, but who cares about that; and b) reform of the Roman Curia (roughly, the Vatican beauracracy), kind of inside baseball if you're reporting to a general audience.

You can find out more about some of these issues from specifically Catholic news sources and blogs National Catholic Reporter, Whispers in the Loggia) than you can from secular media, but on the other hand those are going to assume prior knowledge of the pope's role and importance even more than the sources you've already looked at.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 2:45 PM on March 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

There is nothing else like the Vatican in the world. It is bizarre and opaque and anachronistic and mysterious and fascinating even to people with no religious connection to it.

Yes. The papacy is a nexus of the biggest organized/hierarchical religion in the world, plus a sort of royalty thing. When monarchs die, it is big news, and you know who the new monarch will be. This one in particular would be like the Queen resigning tomorrow, and then the royal family sequesters themselves and votes for the new king/queen, and nobody knows who they will pick. It could be Charles, it could be some great-grand-nephew of Victoria who works in a bookstore in Australia. Who knows?

Technically, *I* am elligible to be pope, and there is nothing, except the fact that none of the cardinals know who I am, that would stop me from getting elected pope.

It is a rare, fascinating, mysterious (to many*) event, that is even rarer because of the resignation, which is a once-in-a-millennium event.

(* How many Catholics get asked questions like "what's with the smoke? Does God change the color?" during these times. To a lot of people, Catholicism might as well be Mormonism or Scientology for as mysterious as it seems.)
posted by gjc at 8:21 PM on March 12, 2013

There are so many angles to the story that they can just keep going unless they decide some other news will get more viewers.
  • the First ____ Pope angle: first Pope from Africa? Asia? America?
  • The smoke and other ritual/pomp/circumstance/fashion
  • Politics, scandals, first resignation in about 600 years
  • history, process, logistics
  • profiles of potential Popes
  • changing role/influence of the church
  • etc.
I also agree that since there's enough time between Pope changes that everyone tends to go all out and that the general interest level is high.
posted by mikepop at 7:14 AM on March 13, 2013

There are several factions within the Catholic Church who are at odds over doctrinal issues.

Birth Control
Women in the Clergy

Liberal vs. Traditional if you will. The Pope is believed to possess a special charism by the Holy Spirit which prevents him from speaking in error over doctrine. (Not necessarily discipline)

Many believe the Church needs to be "updated" and that the election of certain people would indicate that such a moderation of doctrine might be entertained by a new type of Pope.
posted by AuntieRuth at 10:12 AM on March 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

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