The Church and the News

Information sources have changed significantly in the last 20 years, with the growth of cable television and the advent of the Internet.

As president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop John Foley has witnessed it all.

His own background in mass media — from newspapers to radio to television — has provided him with a unique look into how the Church can respond to and use the media to impact the world with the Gospel message. He spoke with Legion of Christ Brother Raymond Cleaveland about the media and the Church's approach to communications.

Can you provide some examples of the way in which the Church is using radio and television to positively impact individual lives?

The Holy Father's Christmas Midnight Mass is the most popular televised religious program in the world. It goes to about 70 countries. And the Italian Television Network, the RAI, said Christmas of 1999, when the Pope opened the Holy Door, it had an audience of 2 billion people. I think they exaggerated, but even if the exaggeration was by 1 billion, that is still one-sixth of the population of the world.

When I do commentary on these religious ceremonies, I view it as a tremendous opportunity for evangelization. I try to gear my comments so as not to offend the people who are familiar with the Catholic liturgy, so as not to leave in the dark the people who are not familiar with it.

You are referring to television in the above example. What about radio?

You have spot announcements on the radio: “Come home at Christmas” campaigns; campaigns for Holy Week and the Easter season inviting people to the Church at Pentecost; and I think these radio spot announcements can be very effective.

There are two types: The “reflective” spot announcements that dedicate 30 seconds or a minute to reflect on a certain theme, giving people something to think about. Then you have spot announcements aimed at a specific event or inviting people to come to a particular activity in the parish church. I have also heard of “radio retreats,” which can then be made into audiocassettes to be played back in your car.

How well does the Church use radio and TV around the world?

The Church universal uses radio and TV very well. The largest radio network in Portugal is Catholic. Spain has a Catholic radio network and France has two of them.

In the Synod of Bishops for Asia, one particular bishop said he realized the importance of having a Catholic radio station because one day he saw a man coming down the mountain, totally naked, holding just an umbrella over his head to protect his tiny transistor radio. So he said that the impact of radio in rural areas of the developing world is great because the little transistor radios are inexpensive. Everybody can have one.

In Latin America, you have many networks of Catholic radio stations. Some of them are developmental, focusing on helping the poor to grow in knowledge of the faith; others are primarily devotional. I would personally like to see a combination of both.

In other parts of the world, activity is equally vigorous. Chile's Catholic University has the most popular television station in the country. There are at least two Catholic television networks in Brazil and about 24 radio stations in Venezuela. Furthermore, the archbishop of Santo Domingo wants to start a continent-wide television network in Spanish.

Your council's recent document, “Ethics and the Internet,” makes reference to the “profound changes” journalism is undergoing. Can you describe some of the positive changes in journalism that are currently helping the Church make inroads in the mass media?

Well, regarding schools of journalism, I went to Columbia [University in New York]. We had a course called “Basic Issues” — which considered the economy, education, politics — and I told them that religion was lacking. I said religion was one of the most profound influences in the world. In fact, now they have a regular religion department in the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

I have also tried to sensitize the networks to have regular religion reporters. And I have emphasized that they must have producers who are literate in the field of religion. There's the old story about a reporter sent out to cover the ballgame who knows nothing about sports. Well, they send a reporter out to cover religion who knows nothing about it and they call it objectivity. I call it ignorance.

We have seen some positive effects of our work with the networks. CNN is good. NBC has always been cooperative. CBS said the program they did here a few years ago, “48 Hours: Inside the Vatican,” was the best they have ever done in that series. And “The Today Show” continues to say that its week here in 1985 was the best in the history of the program.

So you don't just focus on the Catholic networks? You are orienting your pastoral outreach to the mainstream, secular media?

We believe that through cooperation with the secular media, our message will have greater credibility and a wider audience. We are trying to reach people with the message of Jesus Christ and the example of those who are trying to follow Christ; doing so through the secular media is more effective than if we just focused on our own channels. If we get the message from “48 Hours” or “The Today Show” or the nightly news, you reach many more people and it's much more credible.

Here you are referring to a national or international level. What is the best way to reach out to and befriend the secular media at the diocesan level?

I think that an effective program of public relations is the best thing a diocese can do. First, the public relations officer should be informed, always honest and very approachable. Second, that person should be creative in searching out stories that would make good feature stories for news publications or TV stations. For example, he or she could prepare stories about those who work with the poor, showing how the Church imitates Christ in that way.

Can you also touch upon some of the negative trends in journalism that we have to be aware of?

We live among people who are suspicious. I think that's good. There's nothing like a lot of suspicion to keep us on our guard. Now, as you know, we are going through a particularly difficult period in many nations with regard to sexual misconduct, and that tests us all. A cardinal asked me what we could do about cases like these. “Virtue,” I said. “The only adequate response is virtue; and in the absence of virtue, candor.” If we're not virtuous for God, we're virtuous for fear of getting caught. Forgive me for saying that, but it goes back to the old adage: “If you don't do it for love of God, do it out of fear of hell.”

What specific instances stand out in your mind as examples of how the Church was unfairly treated in the mainstream media?

Well, let us consider for a moment the case of Cardinal [Joseph] Bernardin, who was falsely accused of sexual abuse. I talked to CNN about this because it was the first mainstream news medium to report it. I said: “How could you accept the word of an admitted male prostitute, who was a drug addict, who said he ‘vaguely recalled in a suppressed memory’ something that had happened in his teens when this young man was a seminarian?”

“If a seminarian had really had a sexual contact with an archbishop,” I continued, “that memory could never be suppressed. It would cry out.” So I asked them point-blank: “Wasn't there any suspicion on your part about this truth of these accusations?” And they admitted that they had made a mistake.

In that instance, you personally went to bat for the Church, but there are probably lots of other times when you cannot do so. What should be done on a local or diocesan level in this regard?

Well that is why I have insisted on good public relations officers who establish an atmosphere of trust with the media. The journalists will know that if they ask a question, they will get a prompt and honest response; and they have confidence in him. One of the worst things we can do is to hide or say, “no comment.” So, I think that effective public relations are one of the best means of getting better coverage. I don't think the news media deliberately want to do the Church in. It's true that if they see a “juicy story” coming up, they will jump on it. However, if you have a well-informed public relations officer, that person will be able to give complete, honest and informative answers. For some people in the media, the Church is unapproachable and unresponsive, and we have to overcome that.

The other recent document that your council published, “The Church and Internet,” called for Church leaders/pastors to “receive media education.” Do you remember any instances when that education was sorely missing?

Not a specific moment, but it is seen in the general failure to prepare people to respond to questions accurately, giving specific facts instead of opinions, and not reacting with anger. I do think that some type of “ambush interview preparation” would be very good for everybody who is ordained a priest — whether that be in radio or television. How careful we have to be: accurate, honest, open, but careful.

What about the formation of seminarians to meet this specific pastoral challenge? How do you envisage future seminary training so the clergy of tomorrow will be able to “hit the ground running” with regard to the mass media?

I still think most people under-value the importance of the media in the Church. There was a document in 1984 from the Congregation for Catholic Education about the training of future priests in communications, but it has been universally ignored. And I think that's a tragedy.

One of the areas where we should see good communications skills is in the formation of priests — even in the example of the seminary teachers: They should be creative and interesting in their lessons. Jesus said that he “came to cast fire upon the earth,” and often we throw wet blankets because things are presented in a manner which is dull.

Now I don't know why that 1984 document isn't being enforced. It would seem so obvious to me. You might have the most precise knowledge of theology, but if you don't know how to present it, what a waste it is! What good will it do? We're supposed to preach the Gospel, and all of our theology should be taught in a manner in which we will be able to go out and share it and preach it.

So I think the Church is at fault for not having implemented those indications for training in seminaries and also for not trusting creative people and encouraging them. The Church has always been a great patron of the arts, but why hasn't She been a great patron of communications and drama? Those means can carry a powerful moral message.

As you come up on your 20th anniversary as president, describe for us the greatest contribution — the greatest achievement — your council has made to the Church of the 21st century.

The document Aetatis Novae, the 1992 Pastoral Instruction on Social Communications, which has been effective in trying to get people to incorporate communications into every aspect of the Church. The appendix contains concrete guidelines for designing pastoral plans for social communications. It is not enough for every diocese or Church institution to have a pastoral plan for communications; communications should be part of every pastoral plan.

You have to let people know what you're doing, and make what you're doing attractive and compelling and linked to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So that document, obviously, has been the most important activity on our part. We have to plan to be able to take advantage of every opportunity not only to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ but to show what the Church he founded is doing in his name.