Monday, April 26, 2010

Narrative and Counter-Narrative: The Image-Management Crisis Now Facing Rome and Its Apologists

Toward the end of last week, I blogged about the image-management and spin-control phase into which the Catholic church and apologists for its current hierarchy have now entered, vis-à-vis the latest round of abuse revelations.

Today—and briefly—I’d like to frame that discussion in terms of narrative, and the power of narrative.  In order to shape something so powerfully destructive and global as the current crisis in the church, those seeking to vindicate church leaders have to craft a narrative as powerful as or more powerful than the narrative that has emerged from the abuse revelations.

The latter narrative is abysmal in its dark tones—in what it says about the longstanding penchant for many Catholic leaders and their apologists to treat survivors of abuse as if they do not exist, while protecting the institution and clerical abusers of children.  I linked my previous posting about Uwem Akpan’s Say You’re One of Us to yet another story about such callous treatment of a survivor and his family.  The parents whose son was abused state that, when they sought pastoral assistance from the church, they felt "totally abandoned, cast aside."

Finding narratives to counter ones like the preceding one—and this is just one installment in a lengthy, powerful narrative full of stories like this—is not going to be easy for the church and its apologists.  One of the underlying themes of current apologetic narratives about Pope Benedict is that Rome—the clumsy, pre-modern, non-techie Vatican—just hasn’t found a way to tell the wonderful story at its fingertips of Benedict the Grand Reformer.  John Allen, who consistently seeds this meme in the mainstream media, states once again in his musings about Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos to which I linked on the weekend that Rome has been unsuccessful in telling the very good and authentic story of Ratzinger the Reformer that it could tell, if it wanted to, to quell the current furor about abuse cases.

In my view, Rome hasn’t told that narrative because it’s not there to tell, for the most part.  Rome and its apologists are having great difficulty finding a narrative with power equal to or greater than the dark, constantly accumulating story of abuse and its cover-up, because that narrative doesn’t exist.

And so it would be better, I propose, to stop trying to tell the counter story and to admit that the church and its pastoral leaders have failed us, and are willing to repent and try again.

But this is not what is going to happen now.  Now, we’re going to hear talk from the center about—at last we see the light!—transparency, truth, and accountability.  And we’re going to hear carefully crafted spin narratives about papal tears and maleficent Curial officials thwarting Benedict’s plans to reform the church.

But we’re not going to see the kind of action that has to accompany such words if the words are to be taken seriously.  Because the action—if it is sincere and really intends reform—will have to begin dismantling the very structures from which the spin is emanating.

And entrenched, powerful hierarchies simply do not dismantle themselves, even when their foundational impulse arises from a charismatic figure who told them not to build such entrenched, powerful hierarchies in his name.

All that can make a dent in such entrenched, powerful hierarchies is resistance to spin and image management, pushback against non-transparent maneuvers, and a narrative more powerful than the one these hierarchies inevitably try to spin to exonerate themselves.  And such narratives always obtain a hearing at great cost and with tremendous difficulty, because the tendency of other powerful, entrenched hierarchies is to rally to the defense of the one currently under attack, and to lend as much strength as possible to its counter narrative.