The Bishops’ Priorities, the Media’s “Agenda”, and the “Francis Effect”

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, the newly elected Chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Communications, discusses the recent General Assembly, the Pope, media spin, and mission vs. maintenance.

Bishop Christopher J. Coyne is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and is the newly elected Chairman of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) Committee on Communications. He received his doctorate from the Pontifical Institute of Liturgy at St. Anselmo in Rome, and is a former Professor of Sacred Liturgy and Preaching at St. John’s Seminary in Brighton, MA. Bishop Coyne is a former director of the Office for Worship for the Archdiocese of Boston and was also the media spokesperson and Cabinet Secretary for Communications of the Archdiocese of Boston.

Bishop Coyne recently corresponded with CWR’s editor, Carl E. Olson, about the USCCB General Assembly, held last week in Baltimore, and shared his thoughts about that meeting, specific challenges facing the U.S. bishops, and the “Francis effect”.

CWR: As you noted in a post you wrote during the recent USCCB General Assembly in Baltimore, there have been competing, even contradictory, media accounts of that meeting and its agenda. How would you, as an actual participant in that meeting, describe the proceedings? What were the main points of discussion, concern, and focus?

Bishop Coyne: The general meetings of the USCCB are driven by a list of priorities established by the bishops for four-year planning and action purposes. Our work in session is intended to assist each ordinary in his archdiocese or diocese in fulfilling his mission as its chief Shepherd. A lot of what we do in the general meetings is routine and often unglamorous: we receive reports from the various regular or ad hoc committees on the present state of the work of the Conference as regards the present “priorities.”

So, for example, two of the priorities of the Conference at the present time are the defense of religious liberty and the traditional understanding of marriage. As such, we had reports both in the public session and executive session from the ad hoc committees which deal with these issues. As someone who has been attending these meetings for the last four years—at times they are very informative and helpful, at other times they can be tedious and routine. It’s the nature of assembles like ours.

CWR: You’ve noted that the top points of discussion were established even before the election of Francis. Yet many seem intent on reading the so-called “Francis effect” into everything. First, how would you describe the “Francis effect”? And how do you think it actually affected, shaped, or challenged how the U.S. bishops are approaching this meeting and their efforts in the coming year?

Bishop Coyne: Well the “Francis effect” plays itself out in a number of ways. First is the increased positive attention that the Catholic Church is encountering now internationally. Pope Francis in his words and actions has captured the attention of Catholics, other Christians, non-Christians, agnostics, even humanists precisely because he has changed the conversation about who we are as Catholics. He has intentionally, I think, chosen to speak about what and who we are “for” rather than what we are “not for” or even against.

This is not to say that Saint John Paul or Pope Benedict did not do this as well. On the contrary, if you read their writings or listen to their preaching, they too were men who spoke of the joy of the Gospel, of the gift of salvation, of our care for the poor, the unborn, the marginalized, the immigrant. Pope Francis is not saying anything different from his predecessors in terms of the content of the Faith. What he is doing differently is the manner in which that content is being expressed. He is a master of the small gesture that seems to capture people’s attention and their hearts.

Second, the “Francis effect” plays itself out in a kind of nebulous free-for-all of interpretation. Because he is a man who has shown great spontaneity in actions and words, his gestures and actions are open to different levels of interpretation. To use an analogy form Christ’s life: Jesus often spoke to the crowds in parables, parables that many did not understand and us such were understood in different ways by different people—the Pharisees, the scribes, the curious, even his disciples. They would ask, “What does this mean?” Some would say this, some would say that. Later on, Jesus’ disciples could catch a moment aside with him and say, “Teacher, what does this story mean?” and he would explain, “The sower is the Son of man and the seed is the Word of God….”

A lot of what Pope Francis does is like that. He speaks from his heart. At times, his words are open to various interpretations that he could easily clarify. For example, if one could have gotten Pope Francis aside and asked him to clarify what he meant by “Who am I to judge?”, he would have clarified what he meant by his words. Now, whether it would have made any difference in how it played out in the end is another story. But he was not changing the rules or the Church’s teaching. Some would argue that as pope he should be more careful precisely to avoid these confusions or misinterpretations. The pope’s opinion is not just one among many: he is the pope.

For me, I think Pope Francis is first and foremost a pastor with a pastor’s heart. He wants to encourage, invite, challenge, and walk with his flock so that they may come to know the fullness of the Catholic Faith and live it. If it is messy at times, so be it. That’s the life of a good pastor. He “knows the smell of his flock” because it is often his smell as well.

CWR: You are very media-savvy and have been employing various forms of newer communication for a number of years [Bishop Coyne uses Twitter and Facebook on a regular basis]. As the newly elected head of the USCCB’s Communications Committee, how would you rate the bishops’ use of media, both more traditional and newer? What are some specific improvements or adjustments that should be made or considered?

Bishop Coyne: I think the staff at the USCCB is making every effort to spread the “Good News” in all that they do. This is at the heart of what I and my fellow bishops try to do every day. Having been a member of the Communications Committee of the USCCB over the past two years I have come to see first-hand how hard the staff works and how much of the resources of the Conference are devoted to this endeavor. My hope is to continue to build upon all of the good things that are already being done.

That having been said, I think there has been over the past few years a recognition that the Conference needs to be more proactive in terms of public and media relations. At one point, the Conference hired a director of public relations to work closely with the president of the Conference and the administrative staff to respond in a much quicker and immediate manner to news stories as they broke. This is obviously a response to the digital culture in which we find ourselves today. With the present speed of the “news cycle” being so much faster than where it was even five years ago, it is important for us to be “out in front” of stories like the Pope’s coming to the US, or some incident, good or bad, that is attracting media and Internet attention.

But—and it’s a big “but”—it is also important to remember that the Conference and its spokespersons do not speak for the bishops either collectively or individually except for those responses that would fall under the heading of general opinion or Church teaching. So, for example, the Conference could issue a statement saying that the Church is very concerned about the needs and rights of immigrants to the United States, both legal and illegal, and urging our elected officials to find ways to protect these people. That is a general statement. The Conference, however, could not issue a statement calling for the passage of a particular bill in Congress (unless some kind of vote was held and all the bishops agreed to this) because a bishop in his own diocese might have serious concerns about the bill, such as a bishop of a diocese on the Mexican border who does not feel the bill goes far enough in protecting the rights of immigrants. So I think the best way for us bishops and the Conference to use digital media is as a means to promote and communicate Church teaching, but more than anything else, to proclaim the Good News that Jesus Christ is the Lord of heaven and earth and the Savior of us all.

May I just take a moment to speak to the relationship between the Conference and the bishops and the “media,” as it has become such an issue for us over the past few weeks? It is easy for us to complain about the media as “not even trying to get it right” or having some kind of an “agenda” against the bishops or the Church or having their own agenda. Media stories often don’t get it right when it comes to who we are as a Church or what we are about or why we teach what we do, and, yes, there are some folks in the media who have a bias against the Church and its teachings for any number of reasons. But there are folks and outlets in the media and digital culture that are trying to “get it right” and be fair. When I worked with the media back in Boston during the height of the abuse crisis and the years that followed, it became clear to me that the starting point had to be that the media “is what it is”—some good, some not so good—and how I was going to respond to this given. A lot of what I had to deal with was just a plain lack of knowledge about the Church. If a reporter got the facts of a story wrong or misinterpreted something it was almost always because they didn’t have the knowledge to understand why the diocese or the Church was doing or saying what it was. A major part of my job back then was to work with the media to educate them about the Church and to clarify as much as possible for them who and what we are. So, if I issued a statement I also tried to craft it for an audience that was really “pre-catechumenate”—unchurched—and then made myself available to answer any questions they had.

I think the wrong way for us to respond to the media is to blame them. For me, the media does what the media does. This is a given that we can’t change. We need to acknowledge this and then develop strategies that deal with the limitations of the present media and digital culture to help get our message out in a clear and true manner.

CWR: The headlines about the recent extraordinary Synod were dominated by stories about remarriage and Communion and how to be more welcoming to those who identify as homosexual. But a huge concern for many Catholic families is the stark fact that many young Catholics are either walking away from the Church, or think they it’s fine to be Catholic without much concern for Church teaching and practice. What was said at the bishops’ meeting about this issue? And what can be done by the bishops to help families address this major problem?

Bishop Coyne: I’ve talked about the four “priorities” that direct the work of the Conference over a four-year term. One of them is “Faith Formation and Sacramental Practice,” of which an effort to increase attendance at Sunday Mass is a major part. Most of this work is being carried out at the committee level. For example, I serve on the Evangelization and Catechesis Committee and a significant part of our work has been focused precisely around this question of how to catechize and evangelize our young people.

The bishops are very concerned about the salvation of souls, and so many are turning away from the Faith, and it’s not just the young. Still, they seem to be doing so in ever-growing numbers. I think the major shift for us as a Conference has to be the move from “maintenance” to “mission,” if I may borrow the phrase from Robert Rivers’ book. What is meant by this is the movement from being a Church that is one of the established culture to one that is missionary. Here in the US, the Church is now in missionary territory. More people are unbelievers than believers. Yet people are still searching for meaning and direction in their lives. That is something we have to offer: the Good News of Christ! What we have to do is “reboot” the system from a program that is mainly concerned with who is in the church to one that is more concerned about who is not.

Getting back to the whole issue of how we help our young people who are presently in the Church to stay and how we attract those who are not in the Church, I think the answer is by being authentic witnesses. There has been an on-going study out of Notre Dame of young people who have been raised in active Catholic families and where they are in the Church as they progress from being teens to young adults. It’s published by Oxford Press and is titled, Young Catholic America: Emerging Adults In, Out of, and Gone from the Church [2014]. Anyway, the numbers are quite stark. By the time these children who were raised in active Catholic families—they went Mass, the kids were confirmed, etc.—enter their mid-twenties, more than 80 percent are no longer active Catholics. The study asks all kinds of questions as to why this is and the reasons are sobering and worth pursuing.

But the study also interviewed a number of the young people who are still active Catholics, and the number one reason was that their parents were not only “active” Catholics, they were disciples. They lived their faith authentically. Personal witness and authenticity matter to young people.

CWR: It has become commonplace for many observers (including many Catholics) to label certain issues—especially sexuality, contraception, abortion—as “political” while insisting that other issues—especially poverty and immigration—are truly “moral” in character. What do you think of that dichotomy? And is it “political” for the bishops to address highly contentious issues such as abortion, “same-sex marriage,” and the HHS mandate?

Bishop Coyne: I think the dichotomy is a false one. These are all moral issues in that they involve questions of right and wrong, good and evil, loving God and loving one’s neighbor. Morality is about right behavior versus wrong behavior, what draws us toward God and others versus what draws us into selfishness. Presently, the most important determinant of what is moral or not moral is that of fairness and tolerance based on a skewed reading of the Golden Rule…. People want to be tolerant. People measure behavior as good or bad based on “fairness,” on how they would want to be treated or judged. All this is very nice but not necessarily moral.

We just had a very important presentation by Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami at the last USCCB meeting on the political and moral attitudes of the people in the pews. The study was broken down by age groups and dealt with just these questions. My read on this is that for most of us the specific questions that are judged to be “political”—abortion, contraception, the HHS mandate, gay marriage, etc.—are ones that affect the folks in the pew personally. They are close to home, in the family. The other category, what is called “moral,” [includes] those issues that are not, for most of the folks in the pews, personal. Yes, we have poor in our pews, yes, we have immigrants. But the ones who are making these distinctions between the political and the moral are for the most part educated, middle-class, and citizens. The immigrant and the poor person are not them. By labeling certain issues as “political,” one moves them out of the realm of behavior and thus there is no claim on my personal behavior since it is private or my “choice.” I think this is true across our society.

I think our response, once again, must be one of authentic witness: I am a Catholic and this is how I live my life because I believe in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and in His Church. And my life is so fulfilled and complete in Him and in my Faith.

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