As I write, there is a Catholic Press Conference being held at the Vatican, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. Three representatives were invited from each country, and one of them was Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor.
Erlandson is an astute and experienced observer of Catholic media, and his comments to the conference, reported by the Catholic News Agency, are worth noting.
He described the vitality of Catholic media by referencing the many print magazines and newspapers, the growth in Catholic radio, and the ongoing success of EWTN. He also acknowledged the fact that a lot of Catholic publications are declining in readership and revenue.
On the positive side, he said the use of the Internet provides a low-cost way of reaching a large and diverse audience, facilitating a surge of Catholic Web sites. (Remember that Pope Benedict XVI called for growth in Internet evangelization in a Wednesday audience last May: “Employ these new technologies to make the Gospel known, so that the Good News of God’s infinite love for all people, will resound in new ways across our increasingly technological world!”)
There was one point that raised a red flag for me. Erlandson echoed the concerns expressed in recent Vatican warnings about the blogosphere. When there is “a Babel of voices claiming to be Catholic,” he wonders how the new media will be held accountable, and how the oversight of the Church will find its way online.
In the past, this worry has been used by some Church leaders to try to squelch unwelcome commentary and reporting. I was the publisher of an independent Catholic print magazine, Crisis, for twelve years, and now the director of an independent Catholic Web site, InsideCatholic.com, for more than three years. The “oversight” of the Church is applied internally by faithful board and staff members working together for the apostolate. It’s not something applied from outside, like a high school teacher overseeing the publication of the school newspaper.
The cause of the recent concerns about the “Babel” of Catholic voices on the Internet is that some of the criticism of the Church leadership has not been well received by that leadership. Sometimes, there’s a good reason for that — there’s no place for gross inaccuracy, false accusations, groundless conspiracy theories, or angry denunciations.
Other times, however, Church leadership doesn’t appreciate demands for accountability and transparency, and they don’t like having their decisions second-guessed. But that is what the media does, whether Catholic or not.
You may remember the fury expressed by Rev. Thomas Rosica, C.S.B., president of Canada’s Catholic TV network, Salt & Light, toward EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo, after his comments on the funeral of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy.
Father Rosica wrote, “Civility, charity, mercy and politeness seem to have dropped out of the pro-life lexicon.” But anyone who read Arroyo’s blog post was left scratching his head at what Rosica thought was uncharitable. There was nothing uncharitable there. The real problem was that Arroyo expressed a point of view that Father Rosica found objectionable, and so he attacked it as “lacking civility.”
Incidentally, Father Rosica was recently named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Social Communication, the sponsor of the Catholic Press Conference.
The fundamental problem with the Catholic media is that it has been built upon the legacy of diocesan newspapers, published by the bishops. These publications serve an important purpose, of course, but they are hardly platforms for reporting or opining on controversial issues involving bishops and priests.
Erlandson wisely focuses on this point:
My hope is that Church leaders are seeing that if they value their own media, and if they allow them to be transparent and honest, they will gain in credibility over the long haul. To do this well, however, will mean changing the media expectations of an institution that often sees its first responsibility to protect itself from bad news.
He then makes a distinction between being a propagandist, which is basically what most diocesan papers have become, and being “collaborators with the Church, recognizing that professional news coverage and solid features and special reports can genuinely help the adult faith formation of our Catholic audience.”
Erlandson adds that the collaboration he calls for is undermined by a growth in “distrust of institutions,” leading to a kind of “congregationalism” where Catholics who are at home in their parish feel less connected to their bishop, the Vatican, or the universal Church itself. This also leads to a falling off of interest in Catholic media.
The result is both a latent suspicion of Church authorities and a lack of a felt need to know what the Church is saying about social or spiritual matters, two primary reasons to read the Catholic press.
The challenge facing Catholic media, especially in the digital age, is to not allow the ease of publication to become an excuse for sloppy, misinformed, or impulsive postings. The challenge facing bishops and other clergy is to join in the process of Internet evangelization rather than stand aloof, complaining about the occasional sharp e-mail or angry blog comment.