Global awakening of lay 'Catholic voices'
catholic voices
Catholic Voices USA participants during a May training session in Virginia. Courtesy photo

The major difficulty for the Church in the media is not bias, but ignorance. Because news is driven by novelty and crisis, and written by people distant from the Church, the face of Catholicism most people see barely touches on the realities most Catholics know. It’s not that the news isn’t true; but it’s missing the bigger picture. The facts may be correct, but they are lacking the context in which those facts can be properly understood. 

Ordinary, lay Catholics — media-friendly and studio-ready — are best placed to supply that context: people who can speak not as theological experts or bishops, but Catholics who know and love the Church and have the authority of direct lived experience. 

It’s a new kind of apologetics, one that we’ve been developing in the Catholic Voices project since 2010, when Pope Benedict XVI came to the United Kingdom. We spent the months before he arrived preparing 25 young people for the spotlight, holding briefings on the hot-button issues and organizing live interviews with real radio and TV presenters. The idea was to ensure that a teacher, a stay-at-home mom or a businessman could carry off a compelling four-minute interview, putting the Church’s case authoritatively but simply on whatever issue lay behind the news stories. Our theory, which turned out to be correct, was that news about the Church is driven by the “neuralgic” issues; prepare for those, and you’re ready for tomorrow’s story. 

Catholic awakening

At the time of that visit, Catholic Voices appeared on more than 100 programs — everything from rolling nighttime news to debates on local radios — where we challenged the caustic myths put out by secularists and humanists, and offered a media window onto the lived experiences and beliefs of ordinary Catholics. Since then, we’ve refined our methods to enable people to put countercultural truths in a challenging environment. 

In February, we were in Mexico City, where Voces Católicas (18 of them, selected from 300 applicants) were on dozens of TV and radio channels during the pope’s late-March visit to Guadalajara. In April, Catholic Voices launched in Poland, with the support of the cardinal archbishop of Warsaw. In May, I was in the Diocese of Arlington, Va., helping to train the first U.S. Catholic Voices, who are getting ready to launch during the June 21-July 4 Fortnight for Freedom. I have also been in Dublin, training an Irish group (they’re calling themselves “Catholic Comment”) who will go public at the International Eucharistic Congress in Dublin starting June 10. 

What all these groups have in common — apart from using the Catholic Voices model and methods — is that they have been organized and drawn from the local Church, with the blessing of the bishops, while not being their official spokespeople. In Ireland, a young Catholic senator is behind the group. In Virginia, it’s two lay women active in the Washington, D.C., political and intellectual scene. 

What brings us all together is a moment which historians will later see as an awakening. Catholic Voices came into being in the United Kingdom just as Pope Benedict XVI was calling on lay Catholics to put the case for faith’s wisdom in the public sphere. Soon after, he addressed the U.S. bishops on similar lines, prompting Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles to write that this was “a time for Catholic action and for Catholic voices,” lay leaders who would not only defend the rights and faith of Catholics but “be leaders for moral and civil renewal, leaders in helping to shape the values and moral foundations of America’s future.” 

The awakening is the dawning realization that the state, and the culture of public life from which it draws, can no longer be taken for granted; that the pluralism we assumed to be the foundation-stone of our democracies is threatened by a new deafness to religious freedom. 

Finding the spotlight

This frame, in which the Church appears as a corporation detached from the lives of ordinary Americans, seeking to impose its dogmas and interests, is hardened by the news agenda, which is concerned with bishops and statements and institutional crisis. The reality of the Church — as a family, or community, bound by bonds of trust — is seldom seen, and the frame is reinforced. It can only be broken by Catholics speaking out of their knowledge and experience, supplying the extra dimension. 

The new evangelization requires a new apologetics. Society and the Church meet at the neuralgic points, where Catholics and secular society seem far apart. We have to learn to be comfortable in those tight spots. We don’t choose the stories, which are dictated by the logic of the news and the frames of secular modernity. But we can choose whether to be present — and to learn to tell our own stories. In Catholic Voices, we call it “reframing” — understanding the frame, and what lies behind it, so that we can replace it swiftly with our own story.  

In the United States right now that place is the First Amendment. It is a wonderful opportunity to tell the story of what religious freedom produces — and what is lost when it is chilled by a state that has forgotten the sources of civil society. It is a chance to talk of the millions educated in Catholic schools, helped by Catholic Charities, or cared for in the Church’s hospitals. It is a time to speak of the respect for equal human dignity and the humanization of society. And it is an opportunity to talk of the healing and ennobling effect of a community of faith in the lives of ordinary people, and of the fruits that it nurtures: the gratitude and gratuitousness on which healthy societies are built. 

This is not something people regard “the Church” as doing. Yet it’s what the Church mostly does. And it’s a story ordinary folk need to learn to tell if we care about our basic freedoms. 

Austen Ivereigh is author ofHow to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues” (OSV, $13.95). Visit www.catholicvoicesusa.org for information on Catholic Voices USA.