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 HIV/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.
How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice (OSV) 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 has 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 at 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.
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.