WASHINGTON — Media coverage of the Health and Human Services “contraception mandate” debate has intensified demand for appealing arguments that win minds and hearts, yet effective spokesmen and women for Catholic teaching are in short supply, giving an edge to those who spin the bishops’ position as a “war on women.”
Enter Austen Ivereigh, a British Catholic journalist, community organizer and onetime spokesman for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the now-retired archbishop of Westminster. Troubled by the British bishops’ struggle to counter partisan attacks on Church policy dealing with AIDS and condoms, same-sex “marriage” and abortion, Ivereigh developed a plan to help ordinary believers defend countercultural truths in media interviews.
With the backing of Church leaders, he established the Catholic Voices training program. His immediate goal was to reset his countrymen’s negative view of the Catholic Church, just in time for Pope Benedict XVI’s 2010 visit to Great Britain. By the time the Pope headed back to Rome, the Catholic Voices team had participated in more than 100 media interviews, helping to make the trip an unexpected success.
Now, Catholic Voices has “crossed the pond,” holding its first training program on U.S. soil, in the Diocese of Arlington, Va.
Ivereigh is also rolling out the U.S. edition of his training manual that explains his recipe for Catholic apologetics in our 24/7 news cycle.
Published by Our Sunday Visitor, How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice includes chapters on debate strategy for tough social issues and savvy tactics for responding to hostile interviews by “reframing” the issue to shed light on the Church’s perspective.
Once a predictable discipline of traditional Catholic education, apologetics disappeared from the curriculum after the Second Vatican Council. Yet the impact of the sexual revolution and rising secular currents in the West have only increased the demand for articulate Catholic spokesmen. The public receives much of its information from the media, which often repeats secular and partisan attacks on the Church as the enemy of human liberation.
An Oxford-educated cradle Catholic who received much of his education at a Benedictine school, Ivereigh is the first to admit that effective apologetics is not for slackers or cowards. Anyone who aspires to defend Catholic teaching must first “inhabit” the world of those who view the Church as the enemy of progress.
When he launched his initiative, Pope Benedict was under attack for opposing the use of condoms to stem the spread of AIDS in Africa. “The media tended to ‘frame’ the controversy as the story of AIDS patients being victimized by an overly dogmatic religious institution," Ivereigh recalled.
"The answer was to ‘reframe’ the issue by acknowledging the real needs of AIDS patients, and then pointing out that the Church had been in the forefront of teaching ‘behavior change’ — the key to slowing the infection rate.”
The ideal apologists, he said, are compassionate individuals who aren’t angry at the Church or society: They are committed believers who joyfully express and live their faith. They believe that the Church has the answers for problems that bedevil society, and they want to take every opportunity to share that message.
The goal of each encounter — on a television show, at a community forum or at a cocktail party — isn’t to “win” the argument, but to shift the audience’s perspective and stir a thirst for more contact with Catholic witness.
Normally, those who attack the Church’s stance are actually expressing a worthy value — justice for victims or help for the defenseless, he noted. Accordingly, an effective response begins with affirming that value before redirecting the concern.
Thus, in the context of the HHS mandate debate, when a U.S. bishop is accused of fomenting a “war on women,” he responds by acknowledging the challenges women confront and then reframing the mandate issue as a First Amendment fight: The Church is not the oppressor, but the victim of an overreaching federal government.
‘People of Words’
As the culture in the West turns its back on natural-law principles, the demand for Ivereigh’s services continues to increase. Since he and his team established a beachhead in London, he has trained Catholics in Spain, Mexico and Ireland, with more trips planed for Latin America.
New programs must receive backing from the local bishop, raise funds and select appropriate candidates.
Catholic Voices’ arrival in the United States coincided with the May 21 announcement that 43 Catholic institutions had filed 12 different lawsuits across the country, challenging the constitutionality of the HHS mandate.
Domenick Canale was among the selected candidates for the Virginia training sessions.
Canale is a co-founder of The Catholic Pulse, a business just started in the Archdiocese of New York. The initiative focuses on connecting local parishes and pastors with the best in Catholic resources to grow their youth groups and faith-formation programs, including speakers and videos.
“The training has helped me think through the issues an opponent is dealing with and then to respond gently and charitably with the Church’s position. In an era of 24-hour news and sound bites, this skill is vital in reaching the often skeptical public where they are,” said Canale.
Father Roger Landry, a priest and popular retreat director from the Diocese of New Bedford, Mass., served as the chaplain for the Catholic Voices training session in Virginia. He was invited by Kathryn Jean Lopez, a syndicated Catholic columnist and a regular contributor to the Register.
“Back in 2010, after observing the impact Catholic Voices had during the papal visit to Great Britain, I said to myself, ‘We need to start Catholic Voices in the United States,’” recalled Father Landry, who also serves as the editor of The Anchor, the newspaper of the New Bedford Diocese.
During the training program, said Father Landry, he “sought to help them learn from all that Jesus teaches us about communications in the Gospel, to learn how to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, who helps us to speak with an authentically Catholic voice.
“As we become people more and more of ‘words,’” he said, “God’s words and the thoughts behind them, (we will) purify our ideas, so that others will be able to hear an echo of the voice of the Good Shepherd,” he said.
Catholic Voices is designed to help trainees directly engage incendiary subjects like same-sex “marriage.” Faithful Catholics tend to back away from any discussions about the issue, fearing that they’ll be labeled “homophobic.”
But Ivereigh believes that an emotional response to Catholic teaching actually provides an opening for discerning apologists. “Emotional heat” signals that the audience is engaged and prepared to respond. Indifference, on the other hand, is less fertile ground.
Canale and other participants at Catholic Voices’ training session practiced roleplaying and endured tough on-camera interviews, which featured challenging questions that demanded quick but thoughtful responses.
“There was some question about whether the issues on which they were to implement the training were going to be too hard for those learning a new skill set,” noted Father Landry.
“But I have always believed that it’s important to throw people 95-mph sliders rather than moderate batting practice fastballs, because then we give them a chance to rise to the occasion and show that, in some ways, they’re ready for the major leagues. Not only did that happen, but a few of them hit tape-measure grand slams.”
Ivereigh is enthusiastic about the establishment of Catholic Voices in the United States.
“The New Evangelization asks us to engage societies that are post-Christian and to propose afresh the Gospels. In the news media, the controversies open up the space to present a true picture of the Catholic Church and its teaching," he said.
Catholic apologists succeed “insofar as we demonstrate the true face of the Church. We need to leave them thinking, I want what they have,” offering Pope Benedict as a model of effective Catholic engagement.
When the Holy Father addressed skeptical and even hostile audiences at Britain’s Parliament and Germany’s Bundestag, he disarmed them with his gentle invitation to reconsider the Catholic faith.
Put simply, the challenge for the Pope and for Church leaders throughout the West — and all the faithful — is to “reframe” the public’s understanding of the Church in the modern world and the shifting dynamics of Church-state battles.
Indeed, recent public opinion polls, which signal a shift in favor of the bishops’ stance on the HHS mandate, suggest that Church leaders and their allies have already succeeded in ‘reframing’ the conflict.
More Americans now view it a battle between an overreaching government and a Church that seeks to carve out room to advance its ministry to the needy — and to defend fundamental human rights that exist prior to those of the state.