When I started working as a reporter for a Catholic newspaper in London in 2004, I was soon struck by the number of opportunities there were for me to appear on television. Almost every week, a commissioning agent of a news network would ring our office to ask for a talking head to comment on a news story that concerned the Church or the Pope. My superiors were often unavailable, so I would go in their place. This tickled my (not inconsiderable) vanity—here I was, a cub hack without a clue, being invited on to television to discuss matters of eternal importance such as Catholic teaching on life and death, inter-faith relations, clerical pedophilia, and even the meaning of our existence. I convinced myself that I was something of a big deal.
Deep down I realized—rather, I hope I realized—that it was all a bit ridiculous. I was at times hopelessly out of my depth. On one occasion, the BBC wanted somebody to comment on the Pope’s visit to Auschwitz. I agreed, thinking I would be expected simply to provide a little “color narrative” as the Pope walked about the place. Before I knew it, however, I had been shoved into a live debate with an angry spokesman from a Jewish group who wanted talk about Pope Pius XII’s “complicity” in the Holocaust. I knew that there were good arguments to counter the man’s anti- Catholic canards; the problem was that I didn’t know what they were. I bluffed and bluffed, but it should have been obvious to most people watching that I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was talking about. On another TV debate, I recall rambling on meaninglessly—and no doubt offensively— about the weaknesses in Koranic theology, much to the irritation of a devout-looking Muslim spokesman sitting next to me in the studio.
For all my evident ignorance, the networks kept asking me back. It was obvious that the demand for Catholic opinion in the mainstream media far exceeded the supply. And that’s still the case today—in the UK, at least. TV stations, particularly the 24-hour news channels, are often interested in covering religion. For them, it makes a refreshing change from the drudgery of political and financial reportage— and news about Catholicism, in particular, tends to elicit strong, emotional reactions from viewers (both religious and secular). It’s good for what TV editors call “audience interaction.”
Yet while TV and radio channels are attentive to Catholic issues, the Church is notoriously reluctant to engage with the media. Many Church officials—including a number of designated Catholic “spokesmen”—are fearful of the media’s anti-Catholic bias, even when there is none, and thus shy away from the microphone. The job of explaining the Church’s position on air therefore often falls to self-important journalists or self-appointed leaders of Catholic lay groups who may be a bit mad, and cannot be relied upon to deliver an orthodox or coherent response to any particular question.
With the Pope’s September visit to Britain fast approaching, however, a small organization is busily trying to tackle this Catholic communication problem. Catholic Voices, a London-based group, is training some 20 young believers in the art of speaking about their faith on camera ahead of Benedict’s arrival in the UK.
The group was founded by Jack Valero, the director of Opus Dei in the UK, and Austen Ivereigh, a former spokesman for the archbishop of Westminster. The idea, says Valero, came last year following a high-profile “Intelligence Squared” debate on the question, “Is Catholicism a force for good?”, in which celebrity non-believers Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry were pitched against Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria and the Conservative politician Ann Widdecombe. The result was a trouncing: the funny and clever secularist team won with embarrassing ease. “It was awful,” recalls Valero, “Their side was really good and ours was really bad. The Catholic side was not really prepared to cope.”
“Afterwards I spoke to Austen and we said that when the Pope comes its going to be even worse, because all the forces of anti-Catholicism are going to come out, and they are going to be really convincing and we are going to be rubbish.”
The two men decided to do something about it. They already had some experience of countering anti-Catholicism in the press, having worked on
a campaign in 2006 called “The Da Vinci Code Response Group,” which aimed to debunk some of the nastier anti-Catholic myths and misconceptions stemming from Dan Brown’s famous thriller. With the help of Kathleen Griffin, an experienced journalist and broadcaster, they set about trying to find people who could speak about the Church and their beliefs in an eloquent and convincing way. “Once we put the word out,” says Valero, “there was no shortage of people who came out of the woodwork wanting to do it: there’s no lack of people who want to articulate what the Church says in an attractive way if they are told how to do it.”
Valero says that he and Ivereigh looked for three qualities in prospective candidates: “Personality, attitude, and Catholicity. We wanted someone with a sympathetic personality who would come across well in the media; someone who had a positive approach to the media—who is plugged in to what’s going on and knows a bit about how the media works, as well as possessing a knowledge of the Church and doctrinal things.”
The group was established under the auspices of the Catholic Union, a lay group that seeks to promote Catholicism in the world, and its funding (some $55,000 worth) has all come from private sources. This money has been spent principally on media training, with the Catholic Voices team being drilled on how to come across well in TV and radio interviews. (Jack Valero calls it “re-framing”—reappraising potentially challenging questions in a positive way.)
Catholic Voices has no formal connection with the Church’s hierarchy. One might think, in fact, that the group’s very existence is a critique of the British Church’s official Catholic Communications Network. But the “Q and A” blurb on the Catholic Voices website denies any such imputation. “The CCN and diocesan communications officers operate to a narrow remit,” it says. “They speak officially, on behalf of bishops or their departments. By definition, the circumstances in which they choose to respond to media requests are limited by this fact. Catholic Voices isn’t trying to usurp those official channels—because we’re not an official body.”
The website insists, moreover, that Catholic Voices has the blessing of the bishops of England and Wales. “We’ll receive guidance and assistance from them,” it adds.
“We imagine that when the CCN is contacted by the media but don’t want to intervene officially, they’ll refer the media to us…. The relationship is informal but co-operative and friendly.”
Yet while Catholic Voices is obviously a good and practical idea, many of the faithful feel distinctly uneasy about it. A sub-heading for the group’s website reads “Catholics who love the media.” But should Catholics really “love the media”?
On the website itself, a slickly produced video—complete with twinkling airport music in the background—explains what Catholic Voices is all about. “Project co-ordinator” Ivereigh can be heard saying that Catholic Voices is about creating media-friendly, studioready Catholics, happy to talk about whatever issues are in the news.
It’s all very polished-looking and sounding, but it feels somehow un- Christian. Is the project perhaps giving too much credit to the values of the modern world, which holds image and presentation to be more important than the truth? This smacks too much of public relations, and PR is for politicians, celebrities, and misbehaving sports stars, not the One True Church.
The Catholic Voices website insists, however, that the project is not a spin operation. “We want to help people think through the contentious issues for themselves,” it says, “so that they become familiar with the kinds of objections and perceptions that many people have of the Church, and get the media skills training they need to express themselves with confidence.”
Well, yes, but it would be disingenuous to say that Catholic Voices is not a PR exercise of sorts—and to his credit Valero doesn’t bother denying it. “It is PR in a way, yes,” he admits, “but it is pre-PR, I suppose.” “Pre-PR” sounds like a classic spin-doctor phrase, but Valero maintains that the group’s mission is simply “to engage with the media in a positive way, to understand what the media want, what questions they are asking, to accept that these questions are good questions, and to answer them. This is an important goal.”
Looking at the pictures of the young and pretty people who have been picked as Catholic Voices’ speakers, however, one can’t help wondering if the candidates were also chosen on the basis of that least Christian of values, physical attractiveness. “Possibly,” admits Valero, candidly, “but only as a part of their personality. We did want a younger group, yes, although we didn’t reject anybody because he or she looked ugly. But it was important that they had a sympathetic personality.”
This is not good enough for some Catholics, who have set about attacking the project. There were malicious and unfounded rumors—strongly denied on both sides—that Catholic Voices was being secretly funded by the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. And John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, recently denounced Valero on his blog for being insufficiently offended by a story about a leaked Foreign Office memo that suggested the Pope should open an abortion clinic during his visit in Britain.
Mr. Smeaton was furious that Valero, representing Catholic Voices on Sky News, had dismissed the memo as a joke gone wrong and said that most Catholics would not feel angry about it. “Sorry, Jack,” wrote Smeaton. “That’s really not good enough…. Abortion… is not a matter of private morality of concern only to Catholics.”
Others voices on the liberal end of the spectrum have complained that Valero and Ivereigh’s team is too conservative to represent Catholicism today. Pat Brown of the Catholic Women’s Ordination campaign has even started a counter-group called Catholic Voices for Reform, whose purpose is to “open the debate” on various contentious issues rather than explain the Church’s position as it is.
Much of this criticism might just be sour grapes. Outspoken Catholics in Britain have gotten used to having their voices heard in the media, and they don’t like the thought of a well-organized communications outfit ousting them from the airwaves.
Another wrinkle of discomfort might come from Catholic Voices’ links to Opus Dei. Do British Catholics really want their “pre-PR” directed by a man who is also the public face of the notoriously controversial and secretive personal prelature? Valero insists, however, that Catholic Voices is no way an Opus Dei mouthpiece and he is unfazed when I ask him how many Catholic Voices’ speakers are OD members. “The funny thing is that I did ask lots [Opus Dei] people,” he says, laughing, “but they were all rejected: my name is mud now.” Of the group’s 20 speakers, he adds, only one is an Opus Dei member. “There are several representatives of other lay movements, such as the Neocatechumenal Way. They were chosen simply because we thought they would do a good job.”
Perhaps it is too easy to be critical of Catholic Voices. Rather than seeing it as a sort of religious PR scam, why shouldn’t the project be regarded as a straightforward attempt to solve Catholicism’s communications problem? As its website suggests, Catholic Voices might become a useful addition to Church’s apologetic tradition—a sort of Catholic Evidence Guild, the British network established in London in 1908 to explain and inform non-Catholics about matters of doctrine, with a modern twist.
For a long time, well-informed Catholic commentators have complained that the Church’s communications networks are not equipped to deal with the demands of the mass media age— hence the brutal and unjust treatment meted out to the Pope over issues such as clerical pedophilia and gay rights. But how can the Church engage in the rough-and-tumble of modern media without compromising its magisterial dignity and authority?
As a predominately lay organization, Catholic Voices might just be the answer. Valero believes that his project can be rolled out across the world. “I gave a presentation in Rome,” he says, “and it was amazing how everybody I spoke to about Catholic Voices from across the world said, ‘We need this in our country and we need it now.’ Once we have done it here in the UK, I hope we can go around Europe showing others how to start their own similar projects in their own countries.”
Moreover, the initiative would appear to have Pope Benedict XVI’s backing— indirectly, at least. In February 2006, the Pontiff urged lay Catholics “to insist upon your right to participate in national debate through respectful dialogue with other elements in society.” It is hard to think of a more effective way in which this appeal could have been answered than through the Catholic Voices project.
When the Pope finally does come to Britain in September, the centerpiece of his visit will be the beatification of Cardinal John Henry Newman in Cofton Park, Birmingham. Newman himself appealed for “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold and what they do not, who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.” Catholic Voices has taken that quote as its mission statement, and if its spokesmen are sincere in purpose and loyal to Newman’s wish, the project can be a real boon to the Church. Better them than me, at any rate.