I wonder, and I worry. I wonder if a situation is emerging in the American Catholic society that ultimately will result in a weakening of the force of morality and of religion itself in our country.
Over the years, America’s Catholic bishops have taken strong stands in matters that have been controversial and wide in their impact upon the overall society. Two such matters come to mind: the Church’s demands that employers, and the law, recognize very defined rights of workers because these rights were seen as proceeding ultimately from every person’s innate dignity as a human being. Then the Church demanded human rights, or civil rights, for persons of African descent, again because every human being possesses dignity and accompanying rights and privileges that all in the society, and the law, must respect.
Arrayed against these views were strong, vocal, contrary forces. It was not easy for the bishops to win the argument that workers were not simply at the mercy of employers, or that citizens who coincidentally had black skin were not guests of, or intruders in, a wider society in which Caucasians dominated.
Still, in those efforts, the bishops had firm allies throughout the Catholic population, gathered together in great measure because the bishops had at their disposal a very active and trusted medium of mass communication, namely the network of Catholic periodicals that once was so conspicuously a part of Catholic life in this country. In short, Catholics understood the Church because the Church’s reasoning was reported, explained and advocated.
Now, the bishops are leading the Church into bold positions that are as disputed as anything in the past. For beginners, the Church is standing firm in opposing same-sex marriage. Wherever adoption of children by same-sex partners has become an issue, the Church has held its ground that any such arrangement is not in the best interests of a child or of society.
The very freedom to act upon religious convictions is under fire. No one knows what this will mean in the future.
The Church needs its members’ solid support as it makes its various cases. I wonder if this support will come, because I wonder how the bishops will promulgate their message. That medium of mass communication once so vital in reporting and explaining the position of the Church that once was so well exercised by the Catholic press is limping.
It limps to a degree because American habits of acquiring information and of communicating are changing. Every Catholic periodical, every daily newspaper and the once highly regarded broadcast networks know it. Add to this the daunting economics of mass communication.
Other factors also come into play. An alarming number of people identify themselves as Catholics but rarely darken the door of parish churches. Many Catholics hesitate in their trust of Church authority. Self-centeredness reigns supreme. Divisions in opinion are too often grossly overdone. The general level of catechetical knowledge is not high.
Still, a great number of Catholics still want to hear the Church and see in the Church an imposing record, and present reality, of service, goodness and honor that give it credibility. Finally, many American Catholics interested in Church thinking still obtain information from print.
Is the Catholic print medium being dismissed too quickly? Can’t the Church develop something truly broad and effective to spread the word?
Strengthen what we have. Search for ways for better outreach. Otherwise, our Church’s message soon may be unheard and support for the message unsure and diminished.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.