Are the bishops shouting into the wind?
By Peter James-Smith
In his presidential address to the August plenary session of the Southern Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Buti Tlhagale asked: “Do we communicate enough on the critical issues of the day? Do we bring Catholic thought to bear on issues of concern in our society? Do we have a strong Catholic media? How should the Catholic media serve the community?”
He added: “Surely a critical reflection on the role of Catholic media in both Church and society is highly desirable.” He went on to say that synodal input could help guide initiatives around Catholic media and ownership.
Earlier on in his address he spoke about the laity in terms of Lumen Gentium and Christifideles Laici: “There is a strong feeling that lay people have not been visibly supportive of the positions taken by the hierarchy on the laws that are in direct conflict with the teachings of the Church”. He admitted that the hierarchy may have been remiss in not bringing the laity on board.
These comments are interesting because they they apparently reflect the opinion of the SACBC as a whole; that there is a problem with the Catholic media and that the laity does not always support the hierarchy, or certain members of it, in its interpretation of the teachings of the Church. No mention at all is made of the non-Catholic or secular media, which is quite surprising.
To understand the bishops’ position it is necessary to go back to the late 1960s, the post-Vatican II period and the publication in 1968 of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae vitae.
A small but influential section of the laity, both here and overseas, had become intensely excited at the possibilities for lay participation following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). They were well educated and various groups were formed, seeing themselves as realising the vision of the Council. These groups were independent of hierarchical control and saw themselves as apart from the old traditional lay organisations.
They felt that they had responded more rapidly and enthusiastically to the spirit of the Council than the hierarchy and many of the clergy, who they felt were delaying the implementation of the Council’s teachings. This resulted in some confrontation. The publication of Humanae vitae, with its reiteration of the Church’s ban on artificial birth control, was an enormous shock to these groups. It resulted in a degree of Catholic public dissent never before experienced by the hierarchy.
At the same time other lay groups appeared claiming to speak for the “silent majority” under the banner of faithfulness to the teachings of the magisterium, past and present. The waters were muddied even further by the emergence of a charismatic movement among some Catholics.
Lay Catholics began, for the first time in large numbers, to ignore directives from the hierarchy relating to artificial contraception and over the last 40 years this gap between the hierarchy and the laity has slowly widened as the hierarchy has opposed many issues and scientific advances that are not in the forefront of lay concern.
Moreover, accepted social mores have changed very rapidly over the last 20 years — from cohabitation to gay rights — and the hierarchical condemnation of legislation relating to some of these social changes has been seen by many as opposition to an evolving awareness of an extension of human rights to previously shunned groups.
The most obvious example of a hierarchy increasingly out of touch with the laity was the recent US presidential election where a large number of bishops opposed Barack Obama’s election because of his position on abortion. Some bishops and clergy went so far as to instruct Catholics, directly and indirectly, to vote for Republican candidate John McCain because Mr Obama was, in their view, the pro-abortion candidate.
The impression that these members of the hierarchy created was that abortion was the only electoral issue! The vast majority of the Catholic laity did not so much ignore the hierarchy but were completely indifferent to it and voted for Mr Obama.
This situation is very dangerous for the Church. If public pronouncements by both individual bishops and by the SACBC are perceived as irrelevant and out of touch with reality, then they will not even provoke a response.
It seems that the SACBC is becoming aware of this. But what the bishops may not realise is that the very tone of the address is part of the problem. The days of the laity being told what to do and what to believe are long gone, though it takes generations for the teaching of councils to find adequate application and many of the vast opportunities created by Vatican II for the laity have remained unexplored.
Archbishop Tlhagale’s comment relating specifically to the Catholic media is interesting as there are only two national publications, The Southern Cross and Trefoil — and both run on a shoestring compared to other media. I cannot see that their readership extends much beyond the Catholic community, and perhaps some Anglicans. Both are independently published, though The Southern Cross’ majority shareholders are the bishops.
Any organisation, whether it’s the Catholic Church or Anglo American, expects its publications to be non-critical and gets very upset if something is published that it doesn’t like.
The only other Catholic medium with any profile is Radio Veritas but it is so insignificant in national terms that it has been unable to get a meaningful broadcast license despite years of trying.
All of these media have potential for growth and improvement, but that would also mean that a greater variety of opinions would need to be aired because more controversial polemic would be necessary to attract a greater and wider readership or listenership.
Catholics constitute 9,5% of the population, yet Islam (1,5%) and Judaism (0,05%) have much bigger media presence with their own radio stations and publications than does the Catholic Church.
The SACBC doesn’t even mention the secular media, perhaps because it has given up trying to influence it or even be reported by it. This is completely wrong.
The SACBC’s media desk stands no chance of success if it is seen as an optional extra, understaffed and reduced to putting out the type of press release that none of the secular media would consider picking up on.
If the Church was serious about establishing a proper media presence it would brief a reputable PR and marketing agency to handle its account, and ensure that some positive aspect of the Catholic Church’s presence in Southern Africa appeared in or on the secular media at least once a week.
What is attractive about the Catholic Church is its spirituality, the holiness that shines through individuals and the good that flows from it. This is the Good News that should be proclaimed.
Peter James-Smith is the former head of Religious Broadcasting at SAfm.
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