Lutheran bishop of New York on Pope Francis:
RSS By: Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo
The Rev. Dr. Robert Rimbo shares regular thoughts and reflections about our life together.
Pope Francis and public relations
Mar 24, 2014
I’ve been thinking quite a bit about Pope Francis on the first anniversary of his election and as I have been part of a CNBC panel regarding his influence. I’m guessing I’m not alone in this: for those of us in the clergy–regardless of the communion–it has been a wonder to watch Pope Francis seize the attention of hundreds of millions of people, both within the Roman Catholic Church and far beyond. Without changing so much as a single word of centuries-old Roman Catholic dogma, he has altered the perception of the church; he has leveraged much of the imagery of the papacy, traditional news outlets, 21st-century social media and his own charismatic personality to launch a public relations campaign that I believe is unprecedented in history.
Pope Francis has, in the words of media consultants, “stayed on message” when speaking of how the church needs to minister to its faithful today and has side-stepped implacable issues that include same-sex marriage, birth control, celibacy, and the continuing sex scandal that has roiled so many. Apparently borrowing from political campaign managers, the pope has even introduced polling to get a better idea of what the faithful are thinking and believing. For a hierarchy that has historically dictated the tenets of the faith this is, frankly, breathtaking.
Pope Francis is not the first to embrace emerging forms of communication to connect with the faithful. It is easy to make the case that Martin Luther successfully used moveable type and the new-fangled printing press. Various Christian denominations in the United States took advantage of radio during the 1920s. Pope Pius XI inaugurated Vatican Radio on February 13, 1931 although his address was in Latin (which may have reduced its impact on his global audience).
What is unique and instructive about Pope Francis is his integrated approach to theological messaging, a strategy that appeals to an audience sophisticated in the ways of our Information Age.
There are lessons and questions for many of us. Years ago, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America addressed many of the issues that continue to create schism among our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers. We launched a task force which, over the course of a years-long process, crafted a Social Statement on Human Sexuality. Most of the document is a non-controversial, comprehensive, Biblically-based understanding of human sexuality. However the task force was also given the charge to bring forward possible changes in policies on what we call “rostered ministry” – our professional church-workers, ordained and lay. We have worked with and continue to work with a direct question, “Can persons with homosexual orientation who are in publically-committed relationships serve in the rostered leadership of our church?”
Members of the ELCA examined the issues and after much spirited debate agreed that the answer was yes. Our church, while recognizing a wide variety of opinions and not forcing any congregation or pastor to do so, now officially welcomes the opportunity for same-gender marriages in our churches and by our pastors. We believe we are all part of God’s unfolding plan. All of this historic activity occurred without a public relations initiative designed to promote, project, or publicize this progressive shift in the world of evangelical Lutherans. I wonder, though, if in a global society that consumes information, and where the Pope’s “PR offensive” can shift opinions even if canon law remains unchanged, we may have missed an opportunity and done ourselves a disservice by merely issuing the document as a matter of course and passing resolutions. Put more positively, I wonder if this might be a matter of ongoing work for us in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
What Pope Francis’s actions may be suggesting is that substance has now become just part of the equation for those 21st century religions seeking to connect with congregants who can text while waiting for communion or Instagram a baptism or a preacher. By altering not the substance but the perception, Pope Francis has demonstrated the skills, tools, and “messaging” that can erode one of the reasons for the Reformation. For me, and I think for many within the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Rome’s very impressive PR campaign may be opening the door to ongoing, continual reform and may write another chapter in the history of Reformation, one that compels us to turn away from manufactured imagery to embrace yet again a church that is willing to rely on God’s Spirit and God’s grace to take it forward together. Some additional friends on various social networks wouldn’t hurt either.
Bishop Robert Alan Rimbo