Since this is a matter that’s attracted a lot of discussion, let’s return to the question of communications, and the difference between making a fair stab at an argument – which you may lose – and losing an argument by default, either by sheer incompetence or just being too lazy to turn up. In terms of Catholic communications, you really do wish at times that Fulton Sheen was still around.
Okay, there’s a media aspect to this. The difficulty on the media side often stems as much from incomprehension as anything else, as even when journos get their facts right – which can’t always be relied on – they often lack the background knowledge to make sense of what they’re hearing. Hence the media’s inability to explain stories, something that Roger Bolton has been very good on in terms of reporting religion. At the last British census something like 75% of the population reported identification with some religious faith – in many cases that will be very nominal, but it’s still a serious background factor in the culture – while there was a survey done of media workers, I think in the BBC, where only about 20% reported a religious faith. Even with the best will in the world, it’s a cultural gap.
This explains the familiar situation where the Pope makes a speech; I read the text on the CNA or EWTN feed; within about an hour there is learned commentary in the Catholic blogosphere about what B16 meant by his speech; I turn on the evening news to hear a report of the speech; I think “Hold on, that’s not what he said at all”; and then lots of well-meaning people go sincerely apeshit over what they think he’s said. At this point the only thing you can do is slap your forehead.
Well, the Holy See’s comms (or lack thereof) are one thing, and probably beyond our scope for this post. For a really appalling national example, look at the Irish bishops, who disbanded the Maynooth press office and then whined about all the (largely deserved) bad press they were getting. But, since we’ve been remarking a little on the English end of the concern, let’s stick with that.
Firstly, you have to get things in proportion, by realising just how bad the comms are. CCN press releases are something you really have to experience in terms of getting a feel for their stupefying awfulness, so you may want to take my word for it. Suffice to say, if Jack Valero has a reputation as a media maestro, that doesn’t mean Jack is the second coming of Max Clifford; it simply means he’s better at it than Peter Jennings. And that isn’t setting the bar terribly high, as I could do it better than Jennings. (Note to +Bernie: this is not a job application.)
As luck would have it, B16 has recently given us a few pointers for social communications. In his message for World Communications Day, the Pontiff urged priests to get blogging:
Priests are thus challenged to proclaim the Gospel by employing the latest generation of audiovisual resources (images, videos, animated features, blogs, websites) which, alongside traditional means, can open up broad new vistas for dialogue, evangelization and catechesis.
Using new communication technologies, priests can introduce people to the life of the Church and help our contemporaries to discover the face of Christ. They will best achieve this aim if they learn, from the time of their formation, how to use these technologies in a competent and appropriate way, shaped by sound theological insights and reflecting a strong priestly spirituality grounded in constant dialogue with the Lord.
This is not of course simply an idea for what might be done; there are already plenty of blogging priests out there, some of them doing sterling work, although they are not necessarily popular either with ecclesial hierarchies or the established Catholic media. This may not be unconnected to the orthodox element being a bit more vigorous online than the trendy element.
The other thing that comes to mind is the HF’s address to the English bishops following their ad limina visit some months back:
I urge you as Pastors to ensure that the Church’s moral teaching be always presented in its entirety and convincingly defended. Fidelity to the Gospel in no way restricts the freedom of others – on the contrary, it serves their freedom by offering them the truth. Continue to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society.
You will, of course, note that Benedict felt that this was something the English bishops needed to be told.
Anyway, my view is that the Catholic blogosphere, chaotic and rowdy as it may be, can at its best be a spontaneous manifestation of the concept of the apostolate of the laity. Even leaving aside priestly bloggers, it’s clear that there are some lay bloggers out there who do a much better job of defending the Church’s position than either the official leaders of the Church or their press officers, and who have the ability to do so in a lively and populist way.
Which is a talent pool that needs to be tapped into. I can’t be alone in reading the papers and seeing all sorts of material from, say, Christopher Hitchens or Johann Hari or Peter Tatchell that isn’t actually true, and wondering how on earth they get away with it. The answer to that, of course, is that they aren’t challenged. Then you had the episode during the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Bill, when Ed Balls went on the Today programme and not only said that Catholic schools should be required to provide information on accessing abortions, and in a non-judgemental way at that, but actually claimed that Archbishop Nichols agreed with him. In the absence of any rebuttal from the ABW, some silly people may have been misled into thinking that +Vinnie actually did agree with Balls, as opposed to agreeing with the Pope.
And this vacuum leads us to the necessity for something along the lines of Catholic Voices. Don’t get me wrong, as I’ve said many times, I think Catholic Voices is a great idea in principle. Nor can we really moan about Jack Valero running the show – if Jack was the only guy with the initiative to do this, good luck to him. Although there was, as there often is in these matters, a certain cosmic inevitability in Jack’s being involved, or in him calling for support on that strange wee man who used to do Cormac’s press, and who has graciously agreed to take time out from impersonating Saul Alinsky to put his media skills to work.
This is not however to say that there are no questions that can be raised – questioning the execution is a bit tricky when everything is under Chatham House rules, but there are questions about the concept. Chatham House rules in fact come into this – if you go to, say, a Stop the War conference, there is a fair possibility that there’ll be a workshop on media for anyone who’s interested, without any need for it to be hush-hush. I get what the object of the exercise is – it’s intensive cramming, like in TV’s Faking It – and we know, because Jack has told us and we probably could have guessed anyway, what are the areas of discussion. That could only be an issue of controversy if – heaven forbid! – at least one of the expert speakers had been a little unorthodox. But there’s no possibility of that, thankfully.
There is also the need to avoid getting bogged down in the internal factional politics of English Catholicism. There are a lot of suspicious minds out there who are already casting a jaundiced eye at the whole government-Tablet-Magic Circle lash-up, especially as it manifests itself around arrangements for the papal visit. Conspiracy theorists might be tempted to speculate that Jack and his tracksuited Napoleonic sidekick represent the comms end of the lash-up. And that is why it’s important to underline CV’s independence of the Bishops’ Conference. If, and I’m speaking purely hypothetically, if Vin Nichols had been spotted at one meeting and Charles Wookey at another, that would only serve to stoke the conspiracy theorists’ paranoia. What a relief that I’m only speaking hypothetically.
This isn’t, let me stress, purely a matter of orthodoxy versus Tabletism. What’s perhaps more to the point is that the whole culture of Magic Circle backscratching and old boys’ networks makes it rather difficult to hammer out the issues that need to be hammered out. On the other hand, it makes it much easier for those who are on the square to coast along year after year without being challenged. That’s why I’m constantly driven to teeth-grinding by hearing talk about transparency from those who certainly don’t want light to be shone on them.
Rud eile: This whole transparency issue is possibly flagged up by events in Belgium. I’m no great fan of the Belgian police, given their inability to first catch and then hold onto Marc Dutroux. Nor am I sure what they think they’re going to discover by drilling into archbishops’ tombs and violating the dead. But I can’t help thinking that Cardinal Danneels and the Belgian Magic Circle have brought this on themselves.
Rud eile fós: James has the scoop about those ever-changing venues for the Newman beatification.