If a bishop issues a statement that nobody hears, does he make a sound?
It’s not a joke.
A woman wrote recently asking why the U.S. bishops had never said anything about the racist demonstrations and subsequent violence in Charlottesville this past summer. In fact, the U.S. bishops released two statements almost immediately condemning what took place there. Unfortunately, my correspondent lives in a diocese where there was no weekly newspaper, and she never got the news.
How to inform and form the Catholic people on the issues of the day and the teachings of the faith is become a growing challenge. Catholic media have struggled with a lack of resources and a lack of support for at least the past two decades. The declining number of dioceses with weekly or biweekly papers makes the challenge greater when it comes to news.
Of course, there are probably thousands of Catholic websites and social media platforms, but only a small fraction of Catholics visits these sites on a regular basis. And should someone stumble on such a site, there are no guarantees about its quality or its agenda.
During Catholic Press month in February, it is worth reflecting on the mission of the Catholic press and the vocation of the Catholic journalist. It is my contention that our mission, in the words of the late Cardinal John Foley, is to inform, form and inspire.
Indeed, I would argue that the Catholic press is the most important tool for adult faith formation in the Church today. Church leaders have recognized that adult faith formation is a critical need, particularly if Catholic parents are the primary educators of their children. Yet outside of the Catholic press, there is no widespread program for adult faith formation, and what does exist in many parishes reaches primarily the highly engaged 10 percent.
I realize that I am swimming against the “print is dead” tide, but in fact a well-written, well-edited, well-designed Catholic newspaper that reaches the home of a Catholic family is the ultimate push technology. The information arrives into the house, available to young and old. The news, analysis, columns and features of that newspaper or magazine can inform Catholics about what their pope and their bishops are saying and help them to see the events of the world with the eyes of faith.
But any communications strategy these days must be “both-and.” Print needs digital. Websites and Catholic radio can be enhanced and supplemented by print. Effective messaging must be multi-platform, reaching a wide variety of Catholics in many ways.
Unfortunately, most Catholics today rely on secular media for their information about the Church. Not only does this mean they get a sparse and selective coverage of Church news, too often they get nothing at all. If a bishop issues a statement, in other words, and no one hears it, did it exist?
Cardinal Foley’s 1992 Vatican document on social communications, “Aetatis Novae,” warns exactly of this threat: “The power of the media extends to defining not only what people will think but even what they will think about. Reality … is what the media recognize as real; what media do not acknowledge seems of little importance.”
There are signs of hope. More young Catholic journalists and communicators are joining the Catholic Press Association, bringing new energy and enthusiasm. Organizations like the Knights of Columbus and the Catholic Communication Campaign are supporting journalistic efforts that might otherwise wither from lack of funds. The U.S. bishops conference has ramped up its communication efforts, responding in a much timelier fashion to events of the day.
And, of course, with Pope Francis we have a master communicator who has caught the attention of the world with his words and his example.
I encourage my fellow Catholics to support all Catholic media that strive, in the words of Catholic News Service, to be “fair, faithful and informed.” That is how we will become a Church of missionary disciples that both the New Evangelization and our bishops can depend on.
Greg Erlandson is the director and editor-in-chief of Catholic News Service. This column is reprinted with permission of Legatus Magazine (www.legatus.org).