Print Edition: Feb. 22, 2015
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What the Vatican Point Man on the Media Wants
BY Edward Pentin
John Foley wasn’t
born a communicator.
But, next best thing, he got an
early start. The Darby, Penn., native is president of the Pontifical Council
for Social Communications and has been at the forefront in bringing the Gospel
message to the mass media.
Register correspondent Edward Pentin
spoke to him in January.
How did you first get involved in Church
I guess it began in elementary
school when my parents gave me a book called You Can Change
the World, about changing particular types of work. The book
recommended politics or education or communications, so I thought
communications sounded good and I began to write radio plays on the lives of
the saints. Then those plays were produced on a local radio station and then I
became an announcer on that station and then when I was at university I became
active in television. When I entered seminary, I thought that’s the end of
that, but at seminary I was asked by the editor of a Catholic newspaper to work
there during the summer.
What happened after your ordination?
my ordination and after having been in the parish for a year, where I started a
parish newspaper and also a program in a school where they had a public address
system, I was sent to Rome for graduate study in philosophy during the Second
Vatican Council. I served here as a correspondent for a diocesan newspaper and
Catholic News Service, and then I was sent to the Columbia University Graduate
school of journalism. So, all my life basically has been spent in the field of
communications. I became editor of the diocesan newspaper andpress secretary
for the bishops’ semi-annual meetings in the United States. I had a weekly
radio program and a periodic television program, and then I was the press
secretary for the English language for the synod of bishops for 1980 and then
for the pastoral journey of John Paul II to the U.S. and Ireland in 1979. So
the Holy Father got to know me rather well then. I had first met him in 1967
when he became cardinal.
What was your reaction when you were appointed
president of the council?
It came as a complete surprise to
me; I had no idea that was coming. I got a call from the papal nuncio that the
Holy Father had it in mind to name me to this position. I said, “There are many
more people in Rome more experienced than I,” and he said “Si.”
Certainly there are many people in Rome who speak Italian better than I, and he
si.” And I said, “Do I have a choice,” and he said, “Not really.” So
I took a promise of obedience to my cardinal, and whatever he tells me or the
Pope tells me, I will do.
In the 22 years you’ve been in the Roman Curia, what
changes have you seen?
I guess, directly in our office, you
could say changes would be [when] we were the first office to become
computerized, except for the Vatican bank. And we applied for the Internet
top-level Vatican domain name which is “.va.” They didn’t want to give it to us
but we got it because we wanted to guarantee the authenticity of everything
that came from the Vatican, because a lot of people claim to be Catholic in
their websites — some are, some aren’t — but if it comes from “.va”
you can be sure it’s authentic.
How did you persuade them to give it to you?
ICANN, which is the top level for
assigning names for websites, said we should be part of “.it,” which is Italy,
and I said, “No, we’re ‘it,’ but we’re not in ‘it.’” I said, “We’re surrounded
by ‘it,’ but we’re independent.” Then they said, “Well, you’re a religion, so
you should be ‘.org.’” So I said, “Well, we are an ‘org,’ but we’re the only
‘org’ that’s a country too — Vatican City. So we should have ‘.va,’” and
finally they agreed, and we got it
How has the Internet changed your work?
Certainly, speedy communication, and
it helps us greatly when we have these international television transmissions.
It helped us greatly at the time of the translation of John Paul II and
Benedict XVI because people all over the world wanted to have texts of homilies
and information about what would be happening, and so we were able to send
material through e-mail all over the world.
They could have access to a special
site that we set up which was an “.it” domain because “.va” was so overwhelmed
with inquiries that it was being held up, so we had the collateral Internet
address. Also, it’s an address that we can handle ourselves and we don’t have
to hand it over to the Vatican Internet service. There was an irony that when
we first got it [“.va”], I was the owner of the domain and the Pope would have
to get permission from me to use the Internet, or have an e-mail address, which
I did not think was a good situation. So others wanted to have it assigned to
the Secretariat of State, which was the Holy Father’s principle cooperative
That has proven very good except for
the fact that it takes an eternity to get things changed in the various sites,
and that’s why we had to have a more flexible site available to us, to serve
the needs of broadcasters around the world.
Are you generally pleased with how Catholic media
Well, one thing that distresses me,
and I’m speaking now from an American background, is that the Federal
Communications Commission has taken away what could be called the public
service requirement for radio and television stations.
It used to be that radio and
television stations had to offer free time for public service broadcasting,
which included religious broadcasting. I think religion is an essential part of
human life, and that should be part of the public service requirement. Now the
public service requirement in radio and television has virtually disappeared,
which I think is a real tragedy, because the communications media, the
electronic media, use the public airwaves and therefore they have a public
responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to satisfy the needs of
those who aren’t big consumers (that 18 to 39, 49 age group who are big
They have a right and an obligation to serve
children, the elderly, the poor, the disadvantaged, and one of the primary ways
in which they can serve them and serve society is by contributing to a higher
moral tone through religious programming. But that has gone, and I think that
is a big mistake on the part of the government of the United States.
Is the Pontifical Council mounting some kind of
campaign to redress this?
the American bishops have been very good on this, and I have been in direct
contact with members of the Federal Communications Commission in the United
States. I don’t want to sound solely focused on the United States, but the U.S.
communications policy influences the world, especially in the recently
liberated countries of Eastern and Central Europe, and also in other emerging
nations, developing nations. There are commercial interests and organizations,
of course, who want to control the media in those areas and develop a worldwide
monopoly, or oligopoly.
I think that’s bad for the future,
that there should be a representation of local voices, especially those who
don’t have a great deal of money. They should also be able to use these
airwaves for the common good, and not really to sell products.
In other countries too, such as Britain, there is
pressure from program controllers to reduce what they call “the God slot,”
usually on Sundays.
But you still have an obligation on
the part of the BBC to have religious programming and on the part of
independent television to have a certain amount of programming. There is no such
obligation in the United States. So it’s not that it might be put into a ghetto
at four in the morning; the fact is, it doesn’t exist. And that is the reason
for the development of these fundamentalist religious networks — they began to
buy time on local stations, purchased time for religion, and then they began to
buy local stations and satellite stations for a brand of fundamentalist
Christianity, you might say.
That is because of the
communications policy of the American government — one of the effects of that
has been not only in the United States but throughout the world.
The film The Nativity Story made its premiere here last year.
Do you foresee more “faith films” being produced and do you support them?
We do support them. Of course, we
have the Vatican film library here which is more a repository, or a place for
research rather than a place which will lend out film, because that would
violate copyright and the rights of the producers. But we do try to maintain
contact with the film industry by visits to Hollywood, or going to certain film
festivals. I think that it’s important to encourage good films, not just good
religious films, and I think The Nativity Story was a
good religious film, not everybody agreed but I thought it was good — doctrinally
sound. So to encourage that is, I think, a good thing.
But some wonder whether these faith films coming out of
Hollywood are more geared towards making money rather than being films of
quality. Is that a concern of yours, too?
Well, I don’t think there’s a
contradiction between making money and having a film of quality, and isn’t it
wonderful if a film of quality can make money.
What is your approach to ethics on the Internet?
We did a document on ethics in the Internet and we also did
a document on the Church and the Internet. We weren’t preoccupied with its
evils but were preoccupied with its opportunities. Who knows what the future
will be in communications, with the development of communication through
computers, the iPod, telephones? It’s getting increasingly complex and
interesting with many more opportunities. We as the Church have to participate
in all of this, not that everything has to originate from this council — it
But as I often say, bishops don’t
baptize, they confirm. So if we can look around for good initiatives all over
the world and encourage them and attempt to coordinate them, then good — as we
did recently with a congress on Catholic television in Madrid to attempt to
foster the sharing of programming among Catholic television stations all over
the world. The same now is going on with radio. So it’s about cooperation,
evangelization — the best type of communication of the most important message
human beings will ever receive.
Edward Pentin writes from Rome.
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