Dr Jim McDonnell, Director of the Catholic Communications Centre, on the role of the Catholic press
IT IS unlikely that the editorial policy of the Catholic Herald will ever face its editor with imprisonment or death threats. Editing a Catholic nevispaper in Britain is not a particularly dangerous business. In other parts of the world, however, it is a very risky job indeed.
In Guyana, Fr Andrew Morrison, editor of the Catholic Standard, has faced considerable hostility from a dictatorial government because of his coverage of human rights abuses. In Guyana, the Catholic Standard is in the forefront of the battle for democracy and freedom. At the other end of South America, in Chile, another courageous editor, Fr Renato Hevia, was imprisoned for denouncing the excesses of dictator General Pinochet in the journal Mensaje.
Both these fighting clerics have now been given awards by the International Catholic Union of the Press in recognition of their achievements.
These examples alone would justify the existence of a Catholic press. In countries where all other voices of dissent and honesty are silenced, the Catholic press can be a voice for the voiceless.
How far away this all seems from the domestic disputes that seem to occupy so many pages in our own Catholic newspapers. Editorials in the Catholic papers rock no governments, rouse no sleeping giant of public opinion. The world passes by and the newsagents put the Catholic press on the lower shelves with the likes of Farmers' Weekly and the Travel Trade Gazette, a trade press of a special interest readership.
The categorisation is not the fault of the Catholic newspapers so much as it is a reflection of society's perception of religion and religious issues. Religion has been pushed to the margins of modern life and the opinions of Churches dismissed as the pleading of yet another minority interest with an axe to grind.
What then is the future for a Catholic press?
The easy answer would be that the Catholic press should accept this reduced status and should get on with being house journals for Catholics, reporting internal Church affairs, activities of Church organizations, travels of the Pope and the squabbles about religious education.
That, of course, is to caricature the quite legitimate function of Catholic newspapers to reflect the life of the Catholic community. Catholics do want to know what is going on in their Church. but the danger is that too much looking inward narrows the vision and constrains the imagination.
A bolder view of the Catholic press is that it should seek to recapture some of the ground it has yielded to the secularising tendencies in modern society.
The Catholic press must not speak for a Church that has retreated within a new set of castle walls behind which it can bewail the degeneracy of the modern age. No. the Catholic press ought to be exploring new terrain and finding ways to put the Catholic voice at the centre of public debate.
In practice, the suffocating tolerance and indifference of modern society makes it hard for the Catholic voice to be heard. Unpopular ideas and opinions are not so much attacked as dismissed with condescension as the outpourings of a peculiar mindset. Muslims, whose marginal role in English society has many parallels with the historical experience of Catholics, know this with bitter clarity. The dispute over the Satanic Verses has shown how difficult it is for the liberal, secular mentality even to begin to grasp the depth of feeling roused by a book which is perceived to strike at the very foundation of faith. How then could a distinctive Catholic voice be hearri?
In the first place, the Catholic voice can assert itself as a voice with "Catholic" concern. The Church is found at every level of society, and in every country of the world. This means that the Catholic press can interpret events and issues from a viewpoint that is not bounded by narrow national concerns.
Secular newspapers are often hampered by popular prejudices among their readers or by commercial or political influence. Catholic papers should be able to stand apart from many of these pressures and thus contribute to a more truthful reporting of news.
In recent weeks, for example, Catholic papers have been active in keeping alive stories about repression in East Timor and political change in Malawi that have been pushed out of other newspapers. The Catholic press can keep alive stories and issues that other news organisations may prefer to forget.
Catholic papers can raise the uncomfortable domestic issues too. British newspapers wear their political opinions openly and much of what passes for objective reporting has a clear political bias. Social and moral issues like homelessness or the plight of refugees can be turned into news stories designed to make political points. A Catholic point-of-view can address the fundamental issues involved, seeking for the truth of the matter, whatever the political consequences.
Of course, these hopes will come to nothing unless the Catholic press has the journalists who can turn aspirations into compelling words.
The Catholic press has to renew its commitment to professionalism in the deepest sense. It has to aim for a quality of journalism that refuses to tolerate the sloppy or the secondrate, the lazy thought or the halfreported story.
It has to take risks ask questions that people inside and outside the Church might not want to answer and be big enough to admit and correct its mistakes. In other words, the Catholic press has to be the one that journalists want to work for because it fires their imaginations and exercises thier talents.
And that puts the responsibility on us -the readers.
If we want a lively. hardhitting, well-written, Catholic press we are going to have to cooperate in its construction.
A constant lament among the Catholic press is that Church bodies and other organisations are reluctant and unwilling to answer questions and give their point-ofview.
Catholic newspapers are often the last to know about interesting Catholic stories. Many exciting Church initiatives in all ares of life go unreported because we, the readers, never think of letting our Catholic papers know what is going on.
Together, readers and reporters, we can make a Catholic press that is worth having. In the words of Communio et Progressio, the Church's pastoral instruction on the mass media, "the Catholic press.. will be a glass that reflects the world and a light to show it the way."