Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

A Framework to Consider for the Conclave

    As a Criminal Procedure professor, it has always irked me when the media uses sports analogies to report on criminal cases. Reporters often use phrases such as "the defense team," or talk about a lawyer "scoring points," or describe a trial event as a "game-changer." Such references not only trivialize very serious matters, but add to the mainstream perception of "law as sport." In my own classes students discuss how the cases covered are "life altering events" for those involved. More directly, when we discuss "law as a vocation of service," we underscore that a trial is anything but game. Hopefully, graduates from our Catholic law school leave with a sense that a criminal trial is not a sporting event or competition between lawyers. Rather, for both the defendant and the government it should be seen as a sacred opportunity to see that justice is done in the wake of a possible crime.

    Unfortunately, I am observing a similar phenomenon occurring in the coverage of the selection of the new pope. Here the analogy is not necessarily to sports (although there is that as well), but to a modern political campaign. Like many MOJ readers, I understand the mainstream media rarely covers Catholic Church events with a true comprehension of the issues. Furthermore, given that this is a conclave after the first Papal resignation in 600 years, we all find ourselves in unchartered waters. However, the constant analogies, or outright descriptions, of this as a rank, modern, political event are equally as troublesome.

    The media has repeatedly used terms such as "frontrunners," "contenders," "picks" or "candidates" to describe possible successors to Peter's chair. The selection process has also been replete with terms describing cardinals as "campaigning" or engaging in "horse-trading" for the position. Now, I am not completely naïve – it is, after all, called an "election" - and voting is involved. Therefore, some of these descriptors are not entirely misplaced. However, the extent to which this selection has been exclusively framed completely as a political sideshow is unfortunate.

    To be sure, politics have always played a role in selecting leadership. Even during the life of Christ, some actively attempted to gain positions of influence. (Mathew 20:21) However, I would like to think a more balanced description of what is occurring in the Eternal City, such as that offered by Mathew Schmalz in this piece, has a place in this discussion. He reminds the public that, while politics may or may not infuse some of this process, that narrative should not be the dominant theme in these events.

"Men like Angelo Roncalli and Karol Wojtyla were on no one's list of papal contenders when their conclaves began. Now both have been made "blessed." A sign, for Catholics at any rate, that the Holy Spirit works in ways that we often cannot predict or contain."

I am no Vaticanista. Therefore, I do not know who is correct, but I hope the reality of the selection of a new pope is more accurately described by Professor Schmalz than the mainstream media. If not, it should be by all those involved (participants and observers of the conclave). Just as with a trial, the papal selection is not a game or political campaign. Its significance may be life altering. As such, I might suggest the better framework was something I recently heard from a parish priest sharing mass with second graders. He opened mass with a prayer that the cardinals gathered in Rome "may be guided to select the best pope for the people of God." That sounds like a simple, yet elegant, framework to consider.


Leary, Mary G. | Permalink


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While I understand your discomfort with both (1) the trivialization of serious events and (2) the manner in which the mainstream media has been covering the Conclave, I would submit a different perspective on the use of metaphors sports analogies in the explanation of such events.

Jesus was a master of the metaphor. The bulk of his audience could not read, much less read Plato nor quote Scripture... fishers and farmers living in rural, 1st century Palestine. Yet his subject matter was the most inordinately complicated content ever revealed to humans: salvation, Divine mercy, the unconditional love of the Father. And so in order to communicate these immensely complex and abstract concepts, he employed analogies drawn from their every day experiences. Fishing nets. Bushel baskets. Sheep. Vineyards. I do not think that Jesus trivialized nor debased his material by explaining it in a manner that could be more readily accessible to his audience.

The fact of the matter is that most Americans have little understanding of what goes on in a trial courtroom, much less behind the doors of their local Diocesan Chancery or the walls of St. Peter's. They do, however, watch Sportscenter and fill out March Madness brackets.

Analogies can be inapt, and they can be misused. But to decry their use to explain a foreign concept is, I think, misguided.

Posted by: Michael Bayer | Mar 13, 2013 11:00:40 AM