For background, Dr. Eugenio Scalfari, the founder and editor of the newspaper is an avowed atheist. He had posed a number of issues to the pope through his media channel, mostly centered on whether God could forgive a non-believer.
The pope’s response not only caught Scalfari off guard, but created a media event that no one expected.
Scalfari told the Christian Post that “he did not expect the South American Pope to respond ‘so extensively and so affectionately, with such fraternal spirit.’"
At the same time, that response in letter form generated a good deal of media coverage centered on a simplistic and misleading sound bite that the pope was suggesting he believed that non-believers could be forgiven for their non-belief to the extent that they’d be welcomed into Heaven even if they never convert to a belief in God.
The story caught my attention for the same reasons it made news in the first place. Certainly, I am no theologian and wouldn’t venture into that portion of this story for a PR blog. But from a communications standpoint, this is indeed new ground for the Catholic Church.
So, I read the letter, which was extremely well written, and in the end provides a blueprint for how to publicly engage our toughest critics.
The first thing I found was that the media missed the pope’s point. The only thing it got right was that this pope did not deliver a blanket rejection to non-believers, as perhaps, the media would have expected.
But still, there are a couple of sections that I think are instructional for those of us in PR when faced with critics whose positions are zealous.
In the introductory section, the pope sets the tone. He thanks Scalfari for reading the encyclical Lumen fidei and then says it “is directed not only to confirm in the faith in Jesus Christ those who recognize themselves in it, but also to arouse a sincere and rigorous dialogue with those whom, like you (Scalfari), describe themselves ‘a non-believer for many years interested and fascinated by the preaching of Jesus of Nazareth.’”
The lesson: This is the verbal equivalent of an open-armed embrace to his critic, disarming him intellectually speaking, in trust that the dialogue is not meant to determine a winner or a loser, but rather true understanding.
Later in the letter, the pope describes why he is not taking a superior approach to non-believers. He quotes the encyclical: “’The believer isn’t arrogant; on the contrary, truth makes him humble, knowing that, more than our possessing it, it is truth that embraces and possesses us. Far from stiffening us, the certainty of the faith puts us on the way, and makes possible witness and dialogue with everyone.’ This is the spirit that animates the words that I write to you.”
The lesson: It’s not enough to say you want dialogue with critics. If your position is conciliatory, you need to explain more about why that is the case. This further builds trust and suggests that there are no hidden agendas.
Once the pope explains his personal journey through faith that led him to his positions that Scalfari had raised in his criticism, he arrives at the most critical point of the letter which provides a perfect illustration for communicators:
“Now, it is precisely beginning from here, from this personal experience of faith lived in the Church, that I feel at ease in listening to your questions and in seeking, together with you, the ways through which we might, perhaps, begin a segment of the way together.
“Forgive me if I do not follow step by step the arguments you propose in the editorial of July 7. It seems to be more fruitful, if not more congenial, to go in a certain sense to the heart of your considerations….”
The lesson: The big lesson here is that the pope did not allow his critic to trap him into a point-by-point argument that was pre-structured by the critic to ensure that anything the pope my say in response is lessened or diminished. Rather, the pope addressed the essence of the criticism as he put it quite succinctly, “to go in a certain sense to the heart” of the critic’s points. This allows the pope to respond on his terms without side-stepping the critic’s points.
In the end, the pope is unlikely to convert someone like Scalfari, but if his goal was to break down barriers, begin dialogue and start an effort to find common ground, his approach was tremendously effective. By not dismissing his critics outright, or even worse, ignoring them, the pope respected them and sent a message that everyone, even his critics are important to him, but that he is at ease with his own positions on sensitive matters for discussion. And from there, we see the foundation for dialogue.