By Greg Erlandson
Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.
— Abbott Joseph Liebling, New Yorker , May 4, 1960
This past anniversary of Roe vs. Wade helped to illustrate the truth of Liebling’s wry observation and the situation Catholics face in the press today.
January 22 was the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion on demand in this country. January is the worst month of the year for an outdoor gathering, yet for 36 years in a row, Catholics have been gathering with others in Washington, D.C., to protest this Supreme Court decision.
Numbers are huge. Catholic young people have filled a special youth rally. Unofficial estimates — because the Park Service won’t do estimates — put the number at 200,000 to 400,000. A handful of counter demonstrators were seen by a few of the marchers.
If you relied on the secular news media last January, and other anniversaries of Roe as well, you would have missed all of this. Newsweek reported on its blog that young women were not present and that the march route had to be shortened to accommodate the older marchers. CNN reported that both sides demonstrated and illustrated the story with a photo of five pro-abortion demonstrators, suggesting equivalent turnouts. The Washington Post, which did cover the march in its Metro section, also featured a photo of the counter demonstrators.
In 2007, the Associated Press did an outstanding series on sexual abuse claims in public schools, documenting that in little more than five years, in 2,500 cases in the United States, teachers were punished for sexually abusing youth. AP said that many of these teachers were shuffled from district to district, and that thousands more cases likely went unreported.
AP reported that 4.5 million of the country’s 50 million school-age children are likely to be the victims of sexual misconduct at some point between kindergarten and 12th grade.
This compelling investigative reporting showed much initiative, but only a handful of secular newspapers ran the whole series. One newspaper ran only the first article of the series, but deleted the paragraphs comparing AP’s findings to the Catholic clergy sexual abuse crisis.
Compare this to the exhaustive study by the U.S. bishops documenting allegations against 4,400 priests over a span of 50 years.
Since 2002, the amount of coverage about the clergy sexual abuse cases has been endless. (The Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the issue.)
Another example: Pope Benedict wrote a spectacular encyclical, Caritas in Veritate , and almost no one has heard of it, much less read it.
Anyone would be hard-pressed to recall articles in the secular media that present the Church’s role or the Church’s position with any degree of accuracy and depth, and when that occasionally does happen, the exception would seem to prove the rule.
For most Catholics, formal education in the faith stops after Confirmation. Many have at best an eighth grade education in their faith.
Yet, too often, most Catholics draw most of their information about the Church from the secular media.
The remedy for this is the Catholic media. Here, I shall focus primarily on print media but also update on what is happening in the Catholic media world of interest.
At the turn of the century, in many circles, there was great concern about the immigrants who were flooding into America, many of them Catholics.
In a Protestant country like the United States, Catholicism was often viewed as a foreign influence.
On an academic level, some social scientists claimed that Catholicism led to crime, because so many convicts were Irish and Italian Catholics.
Father John F. Noll, the founder of Our Sunday Visitor, born on Jan. 25, 1875, ordained a priest on June 4, 1898, was filled with a passion to communicate the truth about his beloved Faith.
He realized that many of the new Catholic immigrants arriving in Indiana were poorly formed in their own faith.
Already battling anti-Catholicism in his native northeast Indiana, Father Noll was not afraid to take on a national publication. His opportunity arrived when, on May 5, 1912, the first issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper was launched. It was an immediate success.
(In 1925 he was appointed bishop of all of northern Indiana, included in the then Diocese of Fort Wayne.)
In time, Our Sunday Visitor became a chain of papers. It was joined by the Catholic Register chain.
The number, and circulation, of Catholic publications exploded. With Vatican II, this system began to break down.
The very first Catholic newspaper in this country had been the Catholic Miscellany , published in the Diocese of Charleston, South Carolina, its first issue dated June 5, 1822. It fought anti-Catholic ‘‘nativism.’’ For a time, this paper’s founder had had to buy advertisements in the secular daily to get the Catholic side of the story told! However, the Miscellany lasted only until the Civil War.
Nevertheless, the Catholic press grew as new ethnic groups arrived and as the bishops tried to get the Catholic message heard in a primarily, and militantly, Protestant land while at the same time educating Catholic adults. It indeed was a critical help to the Church in affirming Catholic identity, informing the Catholic laity, and engaging a sometimes hostile American society.
While the peak of the print market is behind us, at least for now, there still is a large number of Catholic publications, making the United States one of the most robust Catholic publishing centers in the world.
Based on Catholic Press Association statistics, there today are four major national Catholic newspapers, 143 diocesan newspapers, 82 magazines, and 24 major newsletters. (Some publications are in Spanish.)
Overall circulation is at least 13,000,000.
Most diocesan newspapers get the bulk of their non-local news from Catholic News Service, an international wire service headquartered in Washington, D.C., owned by the U.S. bishops’ conference, but with a certain degree of independence as a news organization.
Rival religious news wire services are Religious News Service, which is not denominationally affiliated, and Zenit, which is Catholic.
Sixty American publishers are members of the Catholic Book Publishers Association.
Catholic communications extends well beyond print. There are more than 160 Catholic radio stations, assorted diocesan television efforts, and there is the Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN).
Added to this mix is the Internet, a major social force after less than 15 years. More than 2,000 Catholic blogs and more than 23,000 self-identified Catholic websites are available.
Stresses within Catholic media began with the changes after the Second Vatican Council, as the Church separated into liberal and conservative camps, and as hugely divisive social issues began to divide the Church and society.
Diocesan newspapers were more likely to reflect the conservative or liberal leanings of the local bishop, or at least the editor who was hired by the bishop. The one-size-fits-all approach of the major chains no longer was attractive. All this has multiplied the philosophical fragmentation among Catholics.
Special interest groups now can find niche sources that narrowly cater to their interests. Church oversight is minimal, which raises questions about accountability and how well many items on the Web represent Church teaching.
Finally, people have less time to devote to following developments in any aspect of life, including religion.
Because of this messy free market of ideas and ideology, it is no wonder that the Catholic press is no longer seen as the helpmate of the pastor.
For Father Noll and many of the publishers of his generation, the mission of the Catholic press was not only to educate Catholics in the faith and to resist anti-Catholicism, but also to show Protestant America that Catholics could be good Americans.
In this context that John F. Kennedy spoke to the Protestant ministers in Houston in 1960, assuring them that he would not let his faith interfere with his doing his job as President.
His election assured many Catholics that they were now fully accepted as citizens. Now, some people say that this election was a mixed blessing.
Anti-Catholicism still exists in a variety of forms, but it is not the dominant cultural force it once was. But, Catholics today vote more or less the same as the majority, divorce more or less as often as everyone else, abort and contracept more or less at the same rate, and are even beginning to swap denominations more or less the same.
Evidence shows declines in Catholic Mass attendance, participation in religious education programs and Catholic education, reception of the sacraments, vocations, and the like.
Catholics are less clearly defined as a community, less convinced about their uniqueness as Catholics.
All these factors have led to confusion in Catholics’ understanding of their own faith and in their own vocation to bear witness to the faith in the world
The implication of this collapse in Catholic self-knowledge and faith formation is huge. It is not going away. Given the decline in vocations, it likely may worsen.
To impact our children and grandchildren, to ensure that the faith is passed on, to encourage apostolic effort in the future, the Church must educate its adults now.
Volunteer catechists in the CCD programs, Sunday homilies, and Catholic schools play vital roles, but the Catholic media is essential in building up a genuinely Catholic community.
Catholics must support, and enhance the Catholic press. They cannot throw in the towel or slink off to our support groups, blaming all those Catholics they disagree with for the state the Church, and society, are in.
The Catholic media will thrive only if it is in union with the Church. Always, the Catholic media’s challenge is to recognize the needs of our readers — in the context of Catholic teaching. Catholic media first must ask, “What does the Church teach? Why? How does it apply to life?”
But likewise, the Church must respect the integrity of the Catholic journalistic vocation, all the while encouraging the Catholic journalist to understand the full responsibilities of that vocation.
Information is not only about what the Church teaches, but what it does not teach, or is not. For today, as in Noll’s day, not only is there ignorance among many Catholics, but there remains true anti-Catholicism. Late this past winter, for example, a Tennessee Baptist pastor had members of his church hand out the poisonous anti-Catholic tracts at the local public high school.
The Internet is awash in anti-Catholic sites, generally from a fundamentalist Christian point of view, but also with an anti-Catholicism more secular in orientation.
As an example, the recent health-care debate in Congress, for example, saw various attacks on the Church because of its insistence that any healthcare reform must exclude public funding of abortion. The Church also repeatedly is criticized for resisting population control and for defending immigrants. The entertainment industry constantly mocks the Church and its images.
To be successful at the task of informing, Catholic media must enjoy the support of the Church. That means building, or rebuilding, the alliance between the pastor and Catholic media, between the bishop and Catholic mass communications.
Practically, realizing that there is no universal silver bullet in communications, Church decision-makers must allot funds and energies wisely.
Pastors and bishops should always target audiences, deciding which medium is better as well as the focus of the message. True, younger people are captivated by cyberspace, but more senior parishioners, often the most loyal parishioners, even if computer literate, are accustomed to, and still prefer, the printed page. Things will change, but now is now.
Rather than spending vain hours wooing the secular press, despairing about biases and inaccuracies, and bemoaning the cost of their own publications, bishops, seeing Catholic media potentially as a great resource, should enable freedom of the press and the opportunity it provides them.
Then hopefully, Catholic media in this country will have an invaluable role, in the words of Pope Benedict: “to safeguard the common good, to uphold the truth, to protect individual human dignity and promote respect for the needs of the family.” TP
MR. ERLANDSON is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.
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