Catholic press can help heal Church's woes

  • October 13, 2010
What with the woes besetting the newspaper industry, any gathering of journalists these days is likely to be a gloomy affair. But the Vatican’s recent international congress of Catholic journalists, by every account, was marked by a decidedly mixed mood, with sober reflection on the problems now facing Christian media throughout the world mingling with strong and reasonable hope for the future of the Catholic press.


Convened in early October by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the congress heard speakers describing the steady hail of bad news now battering both traditional secular and Catholic media, according to reporters who were there. Operating budgets continue to shrink due to steep declines in both paid circulation and advertising income. The upward-trending migration of former print-media readers to the various news and opinion platforms offered by the Internet and cable television is another threat.

But the Catholic press is also afflicted by some issues peculiar to itself. Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing in the United States, said that Catholic publishing suffers because Catholics today know less about what their religion teaches and understands about human and divine life. There is “a growing distrust of institutions” and, as a consequence, there is “a resulting decline in Catholic identity.” Speakers said the culminating blow to the trust many had in the Catholic Church and its media has been what Archbishop Celli called the “difficult and painful” sexual and other abuse cases that have rocked the Church from the local parish level up to the Vatican itself.

Catholicism, however, encourages believers to see the blessing inherent in even dark and heart-breaking moments. One of those moments, at least for Catholic publishing, is now. For Archbishop Celli, the abuse cases, horrible as they are, could lead “the entire believing community to a greater commitment to following the Lord and placing itself at the service of humanity with an even greater witness of life capable of demonstrating what we bear in our hearts.” By means of this renewed program of mission, and through effective recommitment to factual rigour and honesty, the Catholic press can restore the Church’s damaged credibility.

This welcome burden falls on reporters, who have the job of being first-on-the-scene eyewitnesses of the events of the day, and of the personalities who are shaping these events. Despite the profound technological changes now taking place in the information society, “the principles of journalism haven’t changed,” Amy Mitchell, vice-director of the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the congress. “The ideas of verification, authentication, of being transparent with your readers or listeners about the information you know, the information you don’t know, about where you’re coming from, the influences you have — all of those remain constant.”

But responsibility for cogent journalism also falls on the shoulders of the columnists, commentators, editors and others who attempt to make sense of things within the framework of Catholic thought. “Of no less importance (than reporting),” Archbishop Celli said, is “the role that the Catholic press has within the Church because it can be a privileged instrument in the not easy task of promoting and nourishing an intellectual understanding of the faith.”

Keeping these values alive in the contemporary world is a tall order, especially in a time of financial uncertainty and widespread scepticism about the institutions of social democracy, including the traditional secular and Church media. Nobody at this conference, to my knowledge, doubted the difficulty of doing so. But the viability of the Catholic press in contemporary Canadian and Western society largely depends on meeting that order fully — and never forgetting the God for whom Catholic journalists are doing it.

The enduring task of the Catholic press, Benedict XVI told participants in the congress, is “to help modern man to turn to Christ, the one Saviour, and to keep the flame of hope alight in the world, so as worthily to live today and adequately to build the future.”

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