Page 5, 9th February 2001

9th February 2001
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Page 5, 9th February 2001 — How should the Church handle the secular media?

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How should the Church handle the secular media?

Daniel Johnson asks if the Church is failing to exploit its opportunities to evangelise and to defend the moral law N THE beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the

Word was God." We all know the proemium to the Gospel according to St John, yet how often do we consider its implications for writers and journalists?

The Word, the eternal logos, cannot be identified with the words we use; and yet they have something in common, just as God and man have something in common. Judaeo-Christian monotheism has always been logocentric. Ours is a religion of the book.

The whole of modern Western culture, too, is logocentric, because it has its roots in medieval Christendom. The word, spoken or written, is the basis of secular society, just as the sacred text is the basis of the Church.

Secular or religious, sacred or profane, our existence is defined by our ability to communicate. Just as the Holy Spirit manifests itself most fully in the Word of God, so the human spirit manifests itself most fully in the creation and use of words.

God's great gift of reason, which enables us both to apprehend our own condition and to know Him, would be of little use to us without the means to express our thoughts.

What, indeed, is the meaning of Pentecost, that most mysterious of feasts, if not that the survival of the Church and the fulfilment of its mission depend upon the dissemination of the Good News?

What are the apostles, if not the first newscasters? What are the evangelists, if not the first reporters? What are the Gospels, if not first-hand accounts of real events, supplemented by investigative reporting? What is St Paul, if not the first commentator?

For Christians, the medium is inseparable from the message. We journalists do not need a particular celestial patron or advocate, because all the prophets and patriarchs, the apostles and martyrs, the saints and doctors of the Church are our patrons and advocates. To write and broadcast, to guide opinion and taste by the use of the media, is to enable mankind to live in the truth. There is no nobler vocation.

The Word was and is with God. Are we who live by the word, though, still with God? If, in Jesus's words, we are not with God, are we against Him? Sometimes I and many other Catholic journalists feel that, in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy, we — the media — are the Church's most dangerous adversary. As far as the Church is concerned, we can go to the Devil — if, indeed, we have not already done so.

Though it was, of course, Christianity alone which preserved European civilisation for more than a thousand years, the relationship between the Catholic Chum' and the mass media has always been problematic. The Protestant Reformation could not have happened without the invention of printing and the spread of mass literacy. The Lutheran doctrine of the priesthood of all believers presupposes a literate and articulate laity.

RE,...0,,s toleration and the freedom of the press emerged together: but in Protestant England, not on the Catholic Continent. Though the new Catechism, commissioned and revised by Pope John Paul II, includes a resounding affirmation of press freedom, it took a pope with first-hand experience of totalitarian regimes to recognise the importance of this liberty.

The Christian imperative to live in the truth, even when that means confronting unpalatable facts about our Church, has not always found favour in the Vatican or with the hierarchy.

Now that the mass media are acknowledged to be an integral part of Catholic life, we must ask ourselves why in practice the Church so often regards the media with suspi cion, or even outright hostility. One might even pose the question more provocatively: if the Church fails to exploit the opportunities offered by the media to evangelise, to defend the moral law and the dignity of life, is it not failing in its apostolic mission?

In the modern world, those who do not master the media are doomed to become their servant. The Church faces a stark choice.

It can seize the chance offered by the unprecedented freedom of the press to go over the heads of ever more secularised authorities in order to reach a pagan population starved of spiritual nourishment.

Or the Church can choose to disdain the media, retreat into a shell, and be condemned to stagnate on the margins of a society for which the conversion of Europe is not even a memory. That would indeed usher in a new dark age.

It is easy to see why many priests find journalists so distasteful. There has undoubtedly been a decline in the serious coverage of religious and moral issues. But the Church must share the responsibility for that decline. With a few notable exceptions, such as the present Pope and the late Mother Teresa, there is little attempt to set a Catholic agenda.

The Church in this country, in particular, is reactive, defensive, even reclusive. We are all familiar with the historical reasons for the peculiar cast of mind which has characterised English Catholicism, and especially the clergy. But the well-known reluctance to incur criticism, lest it reactivate the old reflexes of antipopery, does not explain the remarkable amalgam of anxiety and arrogance which characterises the Church's dealings with the media.

Leading churchmen often succeed in appearing at once timorous and tetchy, unnecessarily apologetic for the faith of our fathers and yet unrepentant when the Church fails to live up to it. The sight of a Paxman or a Humphreys goading and sneering at a cornered cardinal is not an edifying spectacle, and the sympathies of the audience are likely to be with the man of God rather than the man who plays God. But those sympathies can easily evaporate if members of the hierarchy give an impression of arrogance or deviousness.

Because the Church has failed to grasp the media nettle, its image has been dominated in recent years by scandal, real or imagined. in a secular world, the celibacy of the priesthood is seen as an aberration, if not a perversion.

Hence the assumption that all priests must either have mistresses, or he homosexual, or be child abusers, comes quite naturally to media and audience alike. The "dirty vicar" of the Church of England is an enduring stereotype, because human nature abhors a hypocrite; but the same sterotype, when applied to the Catholic priest, is infinitely less comical and more venomous.

THE ELEVATION of the paedophile to become the most abominated of criminals has whetted the appetite of the tabloids for tales of child abuse by priests. The Church reacted to this barrage of lurid stories at first dismissively, but more recently like a frightened animal caught in the headlights. If its spokesmen sound evasive, that is because there is much to evade.

Not that the Church really has been infiltrated by large numbers of child abusers, which seems to most unprejudiced people improbable, but it has failed miserably to be seen to be vigilant. Yet the media focus will remain on this uncomfortable issue unless and until it shifts onto more congenial ones. And that will only happen if the Church makes it happen.

There are two great battlegrounds on which the Church could and should be fighting more vigorously than it does. These are the defence of the family and the defence of life. I was delighted when, in an interview just before Christmas with the Archbishop of Westminster, Commc MurphyO'Connor declared that these were his two chief concerns.

He proceeded to make a robust defence of marriage and of the rights of the unborn child, and since then I have

heard him speak several times on both subjects. This is what he should be doing, and I salute him for it.

But the context is rather less auspicious. The archbishop was appointed nearly a year ago. Since his installment he

has to my knowledge given only two major interviews for national newspapers, one of which was mine in the Telegraph.

The other, in the Guardian, was counter-productive due to an incautious remark which was "spun" to suggest that the archbishop favoured a married clergy, which he manifestly did not. If the leader of the Church in England and Wales appears in print so rarely, then he is more likely to be tripped up in this way.

The late Cardinal Hume also granted relatively few interviews, which suggests that this media shyness is institutional rather than personal to the present archbishop. Although I did not conduct the negotiations to arrange my interview, I gather that they were protracted and difficult. That has also been my own experience of dealings with the hierarchy.

The previous Christmas, I was obliged to lean on an old friend in order to obtain an interview with a senior churchman for the Telegraph — scarcely the most anti-Catholic organ in the British press — after having been turned down by several prominent bishops and archbishops, all of whom were apparently too busy to avail themselves of the opportunity to address millions of readers, Not one could be bothered to explain to me in person why he did not wish to accept our hospitality, Cardinal Hume, though unfailingly affable on the occasions when I met him, was equally reluctant to speak directly to journalists on the telephone, unless perhaps they were in his confidence. On one occasion, when I was editing the comment pages of The Times, I decided to publish a long article of his about the divorce reform which was then being debated in Parliament. It was, in truth, far too long for a daily newspaper, but the cardinal – or his spokesman – were admant that it could not be cut.

Exasperated by their refusal

to see that I was sticking my neck out to do the Church a favour, I took even greater pains than usual to cut the piece sensitively.

The editor upbraided me for devoting so much space to it, but the cardinal was said to be surprised and delighted that the piece read better than before. It had evidently not occurred to him or his staff that an assistant editor of The Times might know more about journalism than a Benedictine monk, or that it was more important to get a platform for the Catholic view of family law than to fuss about a few cuts.

Another senior bishop shocked me by his attitude to Cardinal Winning's campaigns to prevent homosexual propaganda in schools and to help pregnant teenage girls to keep their babies. My interlocutor's view appeared to be that Cardinal Winning was deliberately courting controversy, and "that's not the way we do things down here".


point about Winning is that he is winning the argument!

It is no use keeping one's head down until it is too late. On the day after the House of Lords voted to allow human cloning, Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham deplored their decision with great eloquence (he had already disseminated an admirable, though largely unreported, pastoral letter on the subject).

But it was too late. What a pity that he and the other bishops did not speak up on this issue during the months and years before, instead of leaving it all to the last minute, when

Archbishop MurphyO'Connor appeared to be a lone voice.

Admittedly, the joint appeal by leaders of the Christian and other faiths a few days before the vote had a considerable impact; but this was not a Church initiative. It needed a Catholic layman to make it happen.

For all the talk of ecumenical dialogue, it is rare that the churches unite on issues such as this. Once again, the media is ready and willing to listen, but the Church must take the The long cloning debate, which I followed closely and participated in as far as I could, is an excellent case study of what has gone wrong between Church and media.

I could see why the hierarchy was wary of weighing in too heavily: there was enough anti-Catholic bigotry without that. Catholic scientists who tried to explain the alternatives to the use of embryonic stem cells were excluded or discounted, there were calls for Catholic members to "declare their interest" (ie identify themselves by religion, as Matthew Parris did in his Times sketch by putting the letters "RC" after each Catholic MP's name), while the Government pulled out all the stops to get its legislation through.

But this was a momentous step towards a brave new world. Within a generation, we face the possibility that Life may not merely be deprived of dignity, as it already has been by such practices as abortion and euthanasia, but be transformed by cloning and genetic modification to the point where humanity bifurcates into two biologically distinct castes: a "perfected" master race, and a much larger proletariat.

The Church ought not to stand by when such a nightmarish dystopia is in prospect, particularly when public opinion is overwhelmingly an its side. Yet there was no discernible attempt by the Church to co-ordinate its opposition with that of other groups, let alone with sympathetic organs and voices in the media.

IN THE END, the Government won; but if 60-odd peers had been persuaded to vote the other way, this pernicious legislation would have been postponed indefinitely. Given that all but two of the Anglican bishops (plus the former Archbishop of York, Lord Habgood) abdicated their responsibility by failing to vote, it was all the more necessary for the Catholic Church to speak out loudly and clearly.

Indeed, it could and should have drawn attention to the international outcry against Britain by bringing representatives from Europe and America here to protest. The Pope himself might have been persuaded to speak out on the issue. The universality of the Catholic Church ought to have been a great asset in this case.

Instead, we had to wait until the vote itself to hear the Archbishop of Westminster interviewed on the Today programme, a mere token presence. Clerics are not best qualified to answer scientists on the technical aspects of embryological research. But the Church could have mustered scientists as well as moralists to put the case against cloning. This was a rare — indeed unique — opportunity when the media was listening. It was not exploited to the full.

One lesson which can be learnt from this case is that the media is still stuck in a Victorian time warp whenever science and religion overlap. Ever since the great Darwinian debate of 1860, in which TH Huxley bested the Anglican "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce, the press has preserved the stereotype of boffins versus bishops.

But Christianity is not antiscience, nor was the argument about cloning a conflict between science and religion. It was an argument which ranged eminent scientists on both sides, while theologians joined philosophers and many other laymen in debating the ethical issues it raised.

The Church needs to be aware of this media stereotype in order to challenge and eventually overcome it, for in a militantly secular society a battle between science and religion is no contest.

The Church needs to draw one very specific conclusion from its recent battering in the media, however: if you can't beat 'em, hire 'em. It is extraordinary that the Catholic hierarchy does not have a heavyweight journalist to speak for it, to liaise with key figures in the media and politics, to plan campaigns and enlist support.

I do not know most of the people at the Catholic Media Office and Archbishop's House; no doubt they are all useful in their way, But there is no instantly recognisable figure, with long experience and excellent contacts, to impress the press. The Catholic Church needs, not an Alastair Campbell exactly, but a William Rees-Mogg, a Charles Moore, a Hugo Young, an Edward Stourton, a Clifford Longley, a Mary Kenny, a Cristina Odone, a Melanie McDonagh, an Anne McElvoy, a Christopher Howse, a Damian Thompson.

Modesty arid ignorance inhibit me from extending this list of Catholic journalists, but there are doubtless several others who might fit the bill. Persuading anybody of this calibre to take on a post of such daunting difficulty would not be easy, might indeed prove impossible.

If so, that merely means that the Church might need to look to younger talent, which would be no bad thing in itself, but might lead to tensions with the gerontocratic elements within the Church. A Catholic spin doctor — for so he or she would inevitably be caricatured — would need to enjoy real influence within the hierarchy. institutional inertia might prove insuperable. None of these objections means that the idea of using one charismatic individual to overcome the media-unfriendliness of the Church is not worth trying.

I am under no illusions that it will be taken up immediately. It is the peculiar fate of English Catholicism to have been prodigiously productive of literary and journalistic talent, yet to have remained largely oblivious of the fact. Newman may have the unique distinction of having been successively the greatest Anglo-Catholic writer and the greatest English Roman Catholic writer; but as soon as he achieved his red hat his attitude to younger scribblers was no different to that of the rest of the hierarchy.

VEN A Chesterton remains a prophet without honour in his own land, but revered in America. The Church is not interested in Catholic journalists and its indifference is often reciprocated. 1 for one refuse to be discouraged by this mutual antipathy. Think of Innocent ill's reaction to St Francis: contempt turned to admiration by a miracle of submission. The Mendicants were as great an innovation, and for many a threat, as the media are today; but the Church grew to love them, It can happen again.

The Holy Spirit is not the zeitgeist, the spirit of the age. To suppose so would be a grave heresy, and one to which all too many people unconsciously subscribe.Yet to deny the Paraclete any presence in the here and now, the fashions and fads of the moment, would be to diminish the glory of God. Journalism may be ephemeral, but that does not mean it is unimportant, even sub specie aeternitatis.

We who live by the word exist in a kind of nunc stans, a perpetual present in which we pursue the elusive, enduring truth in the evanescence of the incessant novelty. But who, ultimately, makes the news? We pray to the Holy Spirit, not as a remote observer, but as a dynamic, creative power in the present.

Veld, creator spiritus: come, creator spirit. We, the media, have the opportunity to be close to that creator spirit: not as the adversary of the Church, but preparing the soil amid the arid wastes of secularism.

This article is the text elan address recently given to the Keys, the Guild of Catholic writers

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