Catholic media is thriving in America, and it has a great opportunity to save secular media. In a culture where relativism prevails, Catholic publications can provide a bold voice that leads people back to the powerful, tangible realities of truth, goodness and beauty. We live in an age of seekers, and the time is ripe for Catholic journalists to step up and spread the Good News that everyone, even postmodern Americans, are longing for in their heart of hearts – whether they know it or not. To truly evangelize in this postmodern culture, Catholic journalists and publications need to be present in the public square and willing to tackle controversial issues in a way that will catch the attention of everyone who is genuinely seeking truth ‒ no matter their background, religion or political persuasion.
How Catholic Publications Enrich our Faith
Every diocese in the U.S. has its own newspaper, keeping Catholics up to date on all the happenings in the local Church community. In addition, the Catholic Press Association, Catholic News Services, Catholic radio programs and EWTN are just a few of the many media ministries of the Church that have national and even global influence. Diocesan newspapers cover everything from youth group events to natural disasters to the pope's general audiences. Dozens of Catholic magazines seem to offer every reader's style preference; Crisis, Catholic Answers, Catholic Digest, Columbia, to name a few, all serve their audiences well and enrich people's faith. Most Catholic parishes, establishments and events have their share of Catholic publications in their lounge areas or vestibules. In other words, there is no shortage of Catholic media in our country, and the crisis in the Church's media today has much to do with the crisis in the world of media at large.
The Secular Media Crisis
Where to begin? Let's start with what I believe to be the root of the problem in postmodern journalism. Secular newspapers are fact-heavy, but don't tie the facts together. A journalist is considered professional when he gets the facts straight, while avoiding the temptation to sneak in his own message, opinion, or agenda. As good as the intentions of postmodern journalism may be, its cold-hard-facts approach often makes newspapers as dry as sandpaper. This often isn't even seen as a problem, because it's not the journalist's job to make his article interesting. It's his job to make it factual. In fact, if the story is too interesting, people are suspicious that he twisted the facts to make it that way. I've worked with reporters who have called journalistic writing the same as technical writing ‒ comparing it to the text of a computer manual, or the terms of agreement we scroll past or at most skim over while signing up for something online.
The same principle applies in both journalistic and technical writing: Get the facts straight. But just because a journalist is communicating facts doesn't mean he's communicating truth. In attempt to compensate for the dull fact-heavy articles, newspapers resort to sensationalism ‒ publishing articles that simply shock the audience as they see the headlines while passing newsstands on their way to work. Secular newspapers are trademark examples of relativism in action. Since they have no underlying truth, they lack the adhesive that brings news stories together. In result, instead of helping us make sense of the world, secular publications just bombard us with erratic information and make us more confused.
So those are the two ends of the spectrum. On the one end we have an abundance of Catholic publications, news sources and media outlets that promote the Church's worldview and provide a voice for the faithful. On the other end we have the secular media culture of postmodern America, that also has an abundance of news agencies, but lacks the vitality of truth -- perhaps the most important element in any piece of reading material, the lifeblood that makes following the news the duty of a responsible citizen, and not just a trend of the cultured class. While living in such a cultural landscape, the Catholic journalist should be keenly aware of his mission. As we are bombarded by the bare facts of events from around the world, our longing for the deeper meaning underneath it all becomes stronger -- and the mission of the Catholic journalist to communicate that deeper truth becomes more vital.
The Role of Catholic Media in a Postmodern Culture
The objective of a journalist is to spread the news. The objective of a Catholic journalist should therefore be to spread the Good News to all. The mission of the evangelist and that of the journalist are intrinsically the same. Both are relentless when it comes to finding the truth and getting it out to the people. Both are often considered annoying for simply fulfilling their mission -- the journalist is considered a nuisance as he tenaciously asks questions that no one wants to answer, and the evangelist is considered a nuisance for being outspoken in spreading the Good News. Both are called to spread the word about the things other people need to know. The word 'evangelist', as many know, comes from the same root as angel, meaning messenger of God. Many newspapers, likewise, appropriately take the name "messenger" or "herald" or "courier", because they have a similar mission to spread the news they have discovered. But somewhere along the way, bad news became more important than good news. Somewhere along the way, hearing the news became less about finding ways to help your neighbor, and more about simply being informed of all the evil in the world.
We need find out how to authentically share the Good News in a culture that for the most part sees Jesus as irrelevant to their lives and today's society. The universal, timeless story of Christ has not lost its significance. We just have to find a way to communicate it in postmodern America.
If the Gospel message doesn't illuminate our lives with truth, what else can we infer after hearing the news except that the world is an evil place? If the Catholic journalist does not fulfill his mission by spreading the Good News to the masses, we will continue to live in this cultural climate. As Jim Mafredonia, the founder of WFJS Radio, the only Catholic radio station in NJ, said, "We live in a world of media. Therefore, we need to use media to promote the Gospel."
So the Catholic journalist needs to evangelize in secular culture. But how? This, I believe is an area where Catholic media has really struggled. As much as I support diocesan newspapers and independent Catholic publications, the newspapers tend to cover mainly what's happening in the Catholic community of the diocese; and the independent magazines that have an evangelical mission aren't in the places where evangelization needs to take place, like on the newsstands and magazine racks of grocery stores and book stores.
Catholic newspapers began to emerge in America at a time when the new influx of immigrants from Europe's Catholic countries noticed how they are surrounded by a predominantly Protestant culture. The publications thus provided a voice and refuge for a suppressed lower class. While it's still important for these newspapers and magazines to provide a voice for the less fortunate among us, their potential reaches beyond that now. Many Catholics in America have risen in social status since the time their ancestors first came to this country, and they are influential enough to promote the Gospel in the public square. They simply need a voice that understands the paradigms of the age.
We Live in an Age of Seekers
If we are to evangelize in postmodern America, we need to speak postmodern. What is postmodern? It has hints of progressivism, the idea that our society is rapidly progressing toward a technological Utopia. It has many traces of relativism, the idea that all opinions and lifestyles are of equal merit; which thus leads to tolerance, the central pillar of postmodernism that must remain present at all costs.
Where does Catholic media step in when it comes to evangelizing in this sensitive culture? To be an evangelizing Catholic journalist in such a culture is like walking through a minefield. It's hard enough to live a reserved, subtle Catholic lifestyle in this culture, let alone actively promote the values of the Church in the public square. Nevertheless, that is what all Catholics, especially Catholic publications, are called to do.
I'm not saying Catholic publications don't do this. What I'm saying is they don't do it often enough in postmodern language. If we truly want to evangelize a culture, we must first genuinely love that culture, and that means meeting them where they're at.
In the book Forming Intentional Disciples, Sherry A. Weddell writes about the many misconceptions regarding the average postmodern American, and explains how many Catholics actually believe in God less than those who would call themselves "unaffiliated" with any religion. While it's tough to give an accurate portrait of the average American today, it is fair to say that they're all seeking God in one way or another.
"We live in a time of immense challenge and immense opportunity," Weddell writes. "Millions of American adults are seeking a religious identity and are at least open to the Catholic faith. At the same time, huge numbers of self-identified Catholics are not certain that a personal relationship with God is even possible."
A Catholic publication is a community that ought to be open to all. By open I do not mean it has to publish the opinions of every other community; but it does have to be there for every community, relate to everyone, and meet the contemporary American at his or her spot on the journey of life. A good Catholic publication has the potential to strengthen the faith of seekers inside and outside the Church, whether they have a personal relationship with God or not.
The Controversy over Controversy
Our faith has a strong literary tradition. Arguably the most popular Catholic journalist of the past century is one we all know well, G.K. Chesterton. His take on journalism is an expression of exasperation and deep love; exasperation for what has become of his profession in modern times, but still even greater love for the essence, beauty, practicality and purposefulness of it.
In studying G.K. Chesterton’s journalistic style, one cannot help but notice his eccentric ability to surprise readers with his eloquence in controversial matters. “I can be a journalist,” he said “because I can be a controversialist.”
While many secular newspapers can be nicknamed Controversies-R-Us, when Catholic publications bring up controversial issues, those articles hardly reach communities that need to be part of the debate. They don’t normally reach an audience that would keep the debate going, and that is after all the main reason to bring up controversial issues – not to stir up anger, but to engage people in dialogue on the very issues that separate them, and ideally bring them closer together, helping them reach common ground.
Don't you feel as if Catholic publications have been pigeon-holed, drawn into a corner so they appeal only to Catholics who may or may not even bother to read an article in a newspaper or magazine? This is the handiwork of a popular media culture that has taken full advantage of the freedom of the press, even to a fault. Popular media is so far from being censored that it has grown large enough to censor other media outlets. If news doesn't come from one of the few popular media outlets, it supposedly lacks reliability or pertinence. Catholic media is a victim of the latter. It lacks the popularity it should have because popular media tells us what is important -- and according to popular media, Church-affiliated stories are not important unless they provide an avenue for criticism.
Bishop Thomas J. Papropcki of Springfield, Illinois, said that Catholics should be aware of an “unconscious hatred for the faith” as they seek to interact with postmodern culture. Cardinal O'Malley of Boston says similarly that Americans today, especially young Americans because of their public education, have been "vaccinated against the Gospel."
In an interview with the Washington Times, published Sept. 3, the Bishop Paprocki reflected that in past generations, “many of the values in our secular world mirrored the values of the religious world.”
“And I think what’s happening now is that relationship – that symbiosis between our culture and the church has been ruptured,” Bishop Paprocki said.
In an article published by the Catholic News Agency, the bishop noted that Catholics need to adjust to this 'cultural bias' toward the faith, this "outright rejection" of Judeo-Christian values.
At World Youth Day in Rio de Janiero, for example, the largest gathering in the world, mainstream media reporters only asked Pope Francis for his beliefs on hot-button issues like homosexuality. The pope's answer was very charitable and open-armed, but also misinterpreted. The common viewer's attention was thus directed toward a small press conference where the media made it seem like the Church has changed its position on homosexuality, and meanwhile the phenomenon of WYD was lost amidst all the upheaval.
As G.K. Chesterton wrote, “Knowledge is now a monopoly, and comes to the citizens in thin and selected streams…. We do not need a censorship of the press. We have a censorship by the press.”
Casting into the Deep
“The Church exists in order to evangelize,” --Pope Paul VI, Evangelii Nuntiandi.
Pope Francis has been called the Pope of the People, because he speaks a message that the common person can understand and appreciate. In a way, he camouflages the deep, complex social teaching of the Church with down-to-earth everyday language. Do Catholic journalists have to camouflage their faith as well, as a fisherman hides his hook with bait? Do they have to fashion their faith so that it blends in with the rest of the media culture? Yes, but not so much that he changes what he believes. Jesus did say "I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16).
In this postmodern age where so many people are vaccinated against the Gospel, sharing with them the Good News at the wrong time and in the wrong way can easily do more harm than good. So it is important to remember that the primary message of the Gospel is love. The challenge for the Catholic journalist is to find out how that message can be translated into postmodern journalistic language. In many cases, it may require the Catholic journalist to resort to more universal Catholic language -- anchoring his stories upon foundational concepts such as truth, goodness, beauty and justice. This challenges the journalist to not only appeal to his audiences' natural attraction to God, but also helps him get to the core of his own faith as he sifts through all the facts of his story, thereby searching for the deeper meaning therein. In no matter what he may be covering, that foundational seed of truth is the pearl of great price for any true journalist.
When we fashion the Gospel message so that it is relevant in our culture, that message takes on a more authentic form and rings with deeper truth, proving how the message is "ever ancient and ever new." This is especially essential when re-evangelizing America, since people have most likely already heard the Gospel and are tired of the same fundamental representation of it, because they don't see how it applies to their way of life and their concerns. To learn their concerns we have to be where they are, use the words that prove we've been listening to them, and tell them the Good News the way they need to hear it. There is no other way to do this except to love them.
Half the battle is getting the Good News out there where it needs to be. If a Catholic publication is only at the back of our churches and in other Catholic establishments, they're not reaching out enough. There are plenty of store owners and newsstand owners who are looking to offer a new kind of magazine or newspaper. Many of them are even Catholic and just need to be connected to the right circulation department to get the Church's most powerful publications on their shelves.
And I haven't even begun to mention the possibilities in the new frontier of multimedia: social media, online video channels, podcasts, and who knows what else the future has in store. We should continue to work hard to get a good foothold in these markets while they're relatively new (yes, in the overall history of media they are still kind of new). This is new mission territory where the Church has only started to truly gain ground in recent years.
The struggle to evangelize a secularized culture is not one that Catholic editors and journalists take lightly. They are coming up with new strategies all of the time. Am I saying I have the solution? Am I saying I know the recipe to bring my generation back into the fold? Not exactly.. All I can say is that I have been part of the fight, searching for the voice of my generation, trying to find the truth, goodness and beauty within all the things the postmodern American is after.
This blog post was first given as a presentation at the The Catholic Social Scientist Conference at Franciscan University, Steubenville, Ohio in 2013.