The relationship between the Church and the mass media is not an easy one. But a new generation of Catholic writers, publishers, and journalists in Britain is breaking new ground—and making good use of all the newest forms of communication, from satellite television to the Internet.
Although old-fashioned anti-Catholic bigotry—the kind that saw Catholics as being “in league with a foreign power, the papacy” and seeking to impose “Roman rule” in Britain—is no longer socially acceptable if couched in that sort of language, Catholics in the United Kingdom today certainly do feel that traditional Christian faith and moral teachings are routinely attacked and that dominant television, radio, and press outlets do not give a fair hearing to Catholic orthodoxy.
It is true that Catholicism is, in one sense, often given prominence in the media. Papal speeches are reported, and Vatican documents are given publicity. But often this is done in a way that spreads confusion as to the content of what has been said. There seems to be a presupposition that the Church’s teaching on love, marriage, and sexual morality is so wrong and so contrary to normal feelings that it is necessary to have someone say this on each and every occasion that the Church makes any sort of pronouncement that even obliquely refers to these subjects.
On the other hand, the reality of the Internet, through which, increasingly, young people obtain their news and information, allows subjects to be presented and discussed without filtering by the media. The books of the British atheist Richard Dawkins, for example, have generated rebuttals on the Internet that bypass the national newspapers but later get discussed by them.
There is another, and linked, trend. In the years during and immediately following the Second Vatican Council, much debate in the media was dominated by speakers dissenting from Catholic orthodoxy. These were the years in which dissenting priests and dissenting nuns, and in due course ex-priests and ex nuns, were the fashionable flavor.
There is still an echo of this around. But something new is happening. The John Paul II generation of Catholics has come of age: those whose understanding of the papacy was shaped by the image of a tall fi gure in white cheered by thousands, toppling an ironclad Soviet bloc by dint of faith, and supported by denim-jeans idealists.
It is all rather different from previous images of the papacy in recent history; whether or not you have ever attended a World Youth Day, or were with that huge crowd in St. Peter’s Square praying during John Paul II’s last days or sharing in that extraordinary funeral Mass, if you are under 35, your concept of the papacy has been shaped by such images.
Writers of this generation—or older ones writing with them in mind—have a new confidence. Last summer’s World Youth Day in Sydney virtually epitomized this: to young Catholics, cheering a pope and carrying banners expressing love and affection for him is part of affirming support for a faith that they find joyful and inspiring, and an expression of solidarity with other believers worldwide. They see the pope as representing values they want to honor: kindness, generosity, friendship across barriers of race and nationality, and above all, real faith in Jesus Christ.
They find, in alternative forms of media, the voice they are often denied elsewhere. How does this work in practice? Veteran Catholic campaigner David (Lord) Alton, a father of teenagers, speaker on pro-life issues in Parliament and elsewhere, and presenter of programs on EWTN, says:
Although there are times when the media distorts the beliefs of Catholics, and times when there is inadequate balance, we should not waste too much energy being distracted by this problem. We should be encouraged that vast numbers of British people share our beliefs and take our message directly to them. Some of the wonderful new Catholic publishing initiatives demonstrate the truth of General Booth’s old adage that “the devil should not be allowed to have all the good tunes.” These excellent publications provide us with a resource that can simply by-pass those who will never truthfully or fairly represent the Catholic case.
The number of new Catholic publishers in Britain is significant in relation to the size of Britain’s Catholic population. Recent years have seen the rise of several.
Gracewing Books, which is run by Tom Longford in Leominster, Herefordshire, began life as Fowler Wright Books owned by the family of that name. Its latest books include English Catholic Heroes, by John Jolliffe (recently launched with a celebration party at London’s Brompton Oratory) and The Church and the World by philosopher and commentator John Haldane (the fi rst Catholic to hold a professorship in philosophy in Scotland since the Reformation). John Jolliffe’s book explores the lives of many Catholic men, from Edmund Campion and Robert Southwell of the penal days to Hilaire Belloc and Leonard Cheshire of more modern times. Its contributors include Clare Asquith— whose recent work on Shakespeare has been part of the rediscovery of the playwright’s Catholicism and its relevance—A.N. Wilson, and member of Parliament Edward Leigh.
Family Publications—launched by the late Dennis Riches, initially alongside his wife Valerie’s campaigning work on family issues—is based in Oxford. It has grown from modest beginnings to a firm with a large list, a wide range of its own books as well as those of Ignatius Press. A recent coup was to get the publication rights for a collection of musings by Pastor Iuventus, apopular young priest-columnist in the Catholic Herald. Published under the title Diary of a City Priest, this book described life on the front lines of modern everyday Catholicism at the parish level with experiences of faith and drama in hospital, school, parish, street, and home.
“Catholic publishing is thriving in this country and the number of new publications is quite remarkable given the relatively small size of the Catholic community,” says Father Nicholas Schofield, historian and popular speaker, who works in an inner-city London parish. “We’re lucky to have some very good presses, such as Family Publications and Gracewing, with regular new publications of a very high quality,”
“There are also smaller presses with an interesting catalogue, such as St. Michael’s Abbey Press, Farnborough. Perhaps part of this ‘renaissance’ is the present Holy Father’s ‘hermeneutic of continuity,’ stressing the importance of discovering our history and tradition. This is one reason why English Catholic history is such an exciting field—people of all ages want to know about those who have gone before, on whose shoulders we stand. It helps us understand what it means to be English and Catholic—something particular and something universal.” Father Schofield’s book The English Cardinals is published by Gracewing and tells the story of every cardinal associated with England.
The success of the Catholic Truth Society (CTS) in recent years is also noteworthy. In the 1970s it somehow had an out-of-date feel. Although it had a specific role in publishing papal encyclicals and other official documents, its other material seemed unimaginative and lacking in conviction. Under its current General Secretary Fergal Martin and a young team, it is producing three-fold leaflets for wide distribution on topics ranging from adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, confession, and prayer to the Church’s message on sex and contraception.
Taking a lead from long ago, when CTS supporters were urged to buy tracts and “leave them on trams and in other places,” young enthusiasts distribute the materials as widely as they can—one group obtained large numbers of copies of a CTS booklet explaining truth of the Church’s teachings in opposition to the fiction of the Da Vinci Code and spent a day on the London Underground, leaving copies on the seats. More usually, CTS booklets are now to be found in parishes and schools across Britain, and the society recently cooperated with the Association of Catholic Women to run a nationwide religious education project for primary schools, with copies of the Compendium of the Catholic Catechism and other books as prizes.
The Internet has dozens of Catholic bloggers, of whom the best-known among the British is probably Father Timothy Finigan, whose Hermeneutic of Continuity blog has a wide following. The international Catholic television station, EWTN, now has viewers in Britain, and an increasing number of programs are made by British presenters and at British locations: a recent series of Catholic Lives featured Father Finigan, along with other luminaries such as Father Alexander Sherbrooke of St. Patrick’s, Charles Cole, who runs—among other groups—the children’s choir at Brompton Oratory, and Kristina Cooper of Good News, a magazine of Catholic charismatic renewal in Britain.
Things are not going to be easy in the immediate and short-term future for Catholics in Britain, especially in relationship with the national media. Melanie McDonagh has recently become Master of the London Branch Guild of Catholic Writers. It’s a thriving group, meeting regularly at St. Mary Moorfields in the city.
McDonagh, herself a regular writer in the national press, is a realist. “I think it’s not a particularly good time to be a Catholic in the media because religion is treated far less seriously than it used to be as a subject in its own right. Papers that used to have religious affairs correspondents no longer do so. In that they probably refl ect the attitudes of society at large.”
But, she said, there might be surprises ahead—as there have been with Pope Benedict, who received a hostile press when his election was announced in 2005. “I do think that attitudes towards the Pope—originally pretty racist— have changed. The whole debate about Islam in the wake of the Regensburg address and the fact he was taken very seriously during his trip to the US (including his meeting with child abuse victims and his reference to a childhood in Nazi Germany) have changed perceptions. I think the reflexive approach is still probably pretty hostile toward a conservative pope but I think there’s a recognition that he is indeed a serious and intelligent player.”
Perhaps the message is that in the end, truth will out. It remains the task of Catholic communicators to do their very best to ensure that it does.
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