There is no silver bullet, and there never has been one. I am speaking of Catholic communications and its appeal to the masses. I particularly have in mind the recent study conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, commissioned by the Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada, and funded by the USCCB’s Catholic Communications Campaign.
Here are the basic findings. Readership of Catholic diocesan papers has held fairly stable over the past six years, a very different statistic from that pertaining to the commercial press.
Hordes of Catholics are not rushing to the Internet for religious news, but parish websites are seeing better results than diocesan websites.
Let’s hope these results give Church administrators and pastors an incentive to think more carefully about mass communications within dioceses and within parishes.
This report does not destroy or even dilute the fact that print is facing very significant challenges. These challenges confront every diocesan paper in the country.
At Our Sunday Visitor, we know from whence the diocesans come in this regard. Handling printing, postage and all overhead costs is a major question for Catholic publications. Either costs must be passed onto subscribers, and this is a risky proposition, certainly in a bad economy, or they somehow must be offset by funding provided from other sources, more advertising, not easy either in this economy and in the vast mix of media.
Another component in this discussion is the downward drift of religious practice, even among Catholics, in American culture. Regular, weekly attendance at Mass is very much on the downswing. Interest in news about the Church, as a rule, is decreasing.
Overall, this country is marching into secularism. It is no wonder that the appeal of Catholic mass communications is waning, either in terms of print or electronic.
Then there is the avalanche of media available now to anyone, hundreds of TV channels, the Internet, iPods, the list is so long.
Looking for the silver bullet is no stranger to the process of mass communication in the Church. Two decades ago, many Church communicators and decision-makers earnestly thought that television had all the answers. Put something on a screen and every Catholic would rush to watch it. To an extent never fully reported, the Church at the national level invested much time and very considerable amounts of money in television. The national episcopal conference had a television network. Eventually it was closed. Why? It simply did not attract sufficient audiences.
Other Catholic television projects fared better, but, in spite of results admittedly edifying, have never reached a genuinely wide representative group of Americans. They may have quite faithful audiences, and they provide outstanding service to the Church, but their outreach is minimal when compared with the multitude of offerings by other facilities.
Modern communications is a wondrous opportunity for the Church. It is little short of a disgrace that we Catholics do not concentrate our resources and focus our energies on utilizing the many media available today.
We need planning and action in this regard. Put the emphasis on planning, and bring into the project sound research and level-headed thinking. Options are many. None hits every mark. Not even parish bulletins and homilies are everyone’s cup of tea.
The Church needs to do something regarding mass communications, but to say it one more time, there is no silver bullet.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.