Audience and Purpose and the Popes

One of the ways having a literature degree has made me a better Catholic is understanding the concept of “audience and purpose.” We too often think of text as something absolute and immutable. When we’re told as students to consider “audience and purpose” in our reading and writing we tend to think of it as something very superficial. Teacher: “Who’s your audience in your essay?” Student: “You are.” Teacher: “No, your audience is a group of people who have a problem you’re trying to address.”

A good example of this I heard came from Barry Manilow, on the _Tavis Smiley_ show, to promote _15 Minutes_. He said that he was a celebrity coach for _American Idol_ 3 times: one of them behind the scenes. One of the times he was a celebrity judge, a contestant wanted to sing “I Made it Through the Rain.”
He asked, “Who are you singing for?”
“The judges and the audience.”
“No, who are you singing *for*? You can’t just perform to the audience. You have to be singing to somebody. Are you singing to God? Grandma? Your best friend?”
“God, I guess.”
So he guided her performance to that, and she did a fantastic job.

In teaching writing, I often found that one of the key failures of bad writing was having an unclear audience and purpose, being “all over the map,” as they say. One example I often refer to is a student in a “writing for IT majors” class who wrote her term paper on video game consoles. She did the typical “beginning research paper” practice of getting the first few sources she could find (in the old days, it was library books; today, it’s web sites) and throwing together what she could get from them. Part of her paper explained what console games are, like its audience was people who know nothing about them. Then it shifted to talking about them like it was addressing grandmas trying to buy games for their grandkids. Then it shifted to the latest models, like it was addressing people who wanted to upgrade. Then it started talking about customer service issues, like it was addressing current users. It read this way because it was essentially summarizing four articles written with these basic audiences in mind.

I would always tell my students to think about magazine headlines: ‘Lose 10 lbs. by [upcoming holiday].’ Obviously, the headline is targeting people who want to lose weight in a short amount of time. It doesn’t mean those are the only people who will read it. It just means its message is targeted to those readers. Think about a medical student doing some kind of research. He is called for various reasons to present to a group of high school students, college students, professors and other med students in a class or defense setting, and to other researchers at a conference. To each audience he’s going to give a different talk, even if the “topic” in a broad sense is the same, because each audience has different levels of experience and different things they want to know.

So, when we’re reading, we need to think of who the intended audience is when we’re interpreting. This is especially true of Popes. When Pope Pius IX was addressing bishops in countries where Communist revolutions were taking place, and he condemned “a kind of religious liberty” that said people’s consciences were free from the Church, then we can be pretty sure he wasn’t condemning *all* religious liberty but a certain kind that met a certain description. When the Popes have spoken of “immigration reform,” and talked about how countries need to be more generous in welcoming immigrants, often their descriptions of what countries *should* do is much like what the US already *does*.

So, when we look at what Pope Francis has been saying, we need to consider his intended audience. While the Scalfari interview has basically been repudiated by the Vatican, the much-(mis)quoted Jesuit interview is a good example: much has been made of the Holy Father’s words about “obsession” with certain moral issues, but he’s very clearly, in the context of the interview, answering a question about homiletics and confession. He’s not speaking of political activism or even evangelization. He’s just talking about what priests say from the pulpit and how they treat people in the confessional (as for the content, I’ve addressed that already).

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