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Religion and the News Media: A Theologian Reflects

  • AVERY DULLES

The Church has not been conspicuously successful in its relations with the press.


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Having run afoul of newspaper reporters at various times, I am always delighted to learn that even bishops sometimes fall into traps. The Jesuit Peter Henrici, before he himself became a bishop in Switzerland, told an instructive story (a true one, I hope) about a European bishop arriving in New York City. He was asked by an aggressive reporter: When you come to New York do you go to a night club? The bishop, not wishing to give a full account of the matter, by nature asked with mock naivete: Are there night clubs in New York? He was shocked the next morning to read in the paper the headline, Bishop's First Question: Are There Night Clubs in New York? The headline was not untrue, but, like so many news stories, it failed to communicate the truth.

Communication of the truth is not an optional matter for the church. From her divine founder the church has a commission to spread to the whole world the good news of Jesus Christ, including the truth which Christ taught which he was and is. In every age the church has made use of the currently prevalent media oral proclamation, letters, folio manuscripts, printed tracts, radio messages and television broadcasts. Speaking of new mass media, Pope Paul VI declared in 1975: The church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means of communication that human skill is daily rendering more perfect. Pope John Paul II has frequently called attention to the immense power of the communications media and the importance of keeping them at the service of truth, justice and moral decency. It is a particular responsibility of the lay faithful, he says, to prevent these media from being used to manipulate and misinform.

The church has not been conspicuously successful in its relations with the press. Everybody from Archbishop William H. Keeler to Bill Moyers has been saying this in recent months. Some put the blame primarily on church bureaucrats, who are said to be incompetent in presenting the church's story. Others blame the journalists for their allegedly anti-Catholic bias. Neither of these contributing factors can be denied, but the real sources of the difficulty are deeper.

Marshall McLuhan coined the aphorism, The medium is the message. Like most aphorisms, it is not completely true, for no medium is confined to a single message. But the saying calls attention to the fact that there must be a certain affinity between the medium and the message. Every medium is predisposed toward a certain type of message and resistant to messages of certain other types. It will tend to twist the message to suit its own communicative powers.

Many of the difficulties between the church and the press can be explained if one takes account of the nature of the church's message and the communicative powers of journalism. The two are, I believe, in necessary tension. Seven points of contrast may be mentioned.

First, the content of the church's message is the holy mystery of God's presence and redemptive activity in Jesus Christ. This is a mystery of faith, to be approached in a posture of reverent worship. The press is by nature investigative and, one might almost say, iconoclastic. Far from being reverent, it revels in exposing what is pretentious, false and scandalous. The Catholic Church, with its exalted claims, is a particularly tempting target.

Second, the essential message of the church is the one and eternal Gospel. Convinced of the permanent validity of God's revelation in Christ, the church seeks to maintain continuity with its own past. It cherishes stability and shuns innovation. The press, by contrast, lives off novelty. It thrives on the ephemeral and panders to the itching ears of its readers. In reporting religious news, it accents what is new and different, thus giving the impression that the church is in continual turmoil.

Third, the church seeks to promote unity and reconciliation, minimizing discord and dissent. The news media, however, specialize in disagreement and conflict which evidently arouse greater interest and boost circulation. A story without a struggle between contending parties will frequently be turned down as dull. If no news is good news, it follows that good news is hardly newsworthy. Understandably, therefore, the press tends to give the impression that the church is divided into warring factions and that every point of dogma is hotly contested within the church itself

Fourth, the church seeks to dispose people to receive interior grace with a view to eternal salvation. These spiritual blessings, however, are not sufficiently concrete to make good copy. The press, therefore, tends to overlook the spiritual side of the church's mission and to concentrate on more tangible phenomena. Doctrinal pronouncements of the church are of little interest to the popular media unless they have a bearing on the usual fare of the Press. Church teaching is very selectively reported, often in such a way as to leave the impression that the Pope is chiefly interested in sex, politics and power.

Fifth, the press in a democratic society tends to import democratic criteria into its assessment of any organization. It has great difficulty in appreciating a hierarchical society in which the leaders hold their authority not from the people but from Christ, by apostolic succession. Any effort by the church to control the teaching of its own members is regarded as equivalent to censorship of the press by the state. Journalism, therefore, has a built-in bias against the authoritative teaching of popes and bishops, especially where that teaching runs against the ethos of contemporary democratic culture. The disobedient priest and the dissident theologian are lionized as champions of freedom.

Sixth, the teaching of the church on matters of belief and moral practice is frequently complex and subtle. As a result of hundreds of years of acute theological analysis, it deals with fine points that cannot be expressed without technical terms. The precise distinctions of dogma and moral teaching demand a degree of attention that cannot be expected of the average reader. The press and the electronic media are hungry for stories that are short, simple and striking. If they report doctrinal statements at all, they slur over nuances and qualifications that may be crucial.

Seventh, the church aims to persuade its hearers of the truth of revelation. It seeks to arouse a firm commitment to its creed and to the following of Christ. Journalism, by contrast, intends to report facts that are accessible even to unbelievers and to give an account that is acceptable to people of any or no religious bend. The secular press cannot presuppose or assert the truth of revelation, especially as that revelation is interpreted in any particular community of faith.

For these and other reasons, which readers of this magazine can no doubt supply, a permanent inbuilt tension exists between the church and the popular media of communication. The church cannot rely primarily on secular journalism to communicate its message to its own members. The formation of Catholics normally takes place in a context of faith and worship. The ideal framework for such formation is the liturgy, where the celebrant is able to preach on the word of God. Beyond this, religious education can be conducted in the family, in catechetical instruction and in Catholic schools. Religious news, including current official teaching, is most suitably conveyed in an ecclesial environment rather than through the secular press.

There is clearly a place for religiously oriented journalism that tries to offset the natural bias of the media to which I have called attention. The Christian press should consciously endeavor to present the church as it understands itself with the emphases that flow from faith. The ecclesially responsible segment of the press, while trying to reach out to a broader public, will be on guard against the temptation to indulge in iconoclasm and to exploit the popular appetite for the sensational and the scandalous. While censorship by church authorities is not desirable, a measure of self-censorship on the part of editors and reporters may properly be expected.

Without prejudice to the religious press, it must be recognized that many Catholics learn about what is happening in their Church primarily, or in great part from the secular media. It is also true that the church has a responsibility to communicate not only with its own members but with the general public. The popular media of communication have a legitimate interest in religious news. It would be neither desirable nor possible to keep the Catholic Church out of the secular press.

This being the case, greater efforts must be made from both sides to bridge the barriers between the church and the popular media. From the side of the church vast improvements have been made in recent decades, but there is still a long way to go. It seems to be generally agreed that the church could do a much better job publicizing its views on controversial issues such as marriage and divorce, contraception, homosexuality, abortion or women's ordination. The doctrinal pronouncements of Roman authorities are often expressed in precise, judicial terms and issued in an authoritative tone that is disconcerting to people accustomed to discussion and argument. I personally believe that the official positions of the Catholic Church are consonant with reason and favorable to human dignity, but they are too easily portrayed as arbitrary and dehumanizing.

One example would be the Declaration on Certain Questions Concerning Sexual Ethics issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Dec. 29, 1975. The treatment of homosexuality in this document infuriated many of the gay and lesbian communities. Shortly afterward on Feb. 11, 1976, Bishop Francis Mugavero of Brooklyn N.Y., issued a pastoral letter, Gift of Sexuality, commenting in a very sensitive way on the C.D.F. declaration. If that commentary had appeared only with the declaration itself, it would have done much to defuse the anger.

In recent years it has fortunately become common that sensitive documents are accompanied by explanatory press releases and are presented at press conferences and that bishops receive advance copies so that they are not caught off guard. The release of the encyclical Veritatis Splendor last fall, both in Rome and in this country, provides an excellent model to be followed.

Not content to ward off negative reporting, the church may advantageously mount occasions at which it can show itself in a favorable light. An example would be the Pope's visit to the World Youth Day at Denver last year. Although the media showed a tendency to focus on divisive issues that were marginal to the event, the coverage was on the whole favorable, and deservedly so. The Pope himself, the bishops and the young people gave an excellent account of themselves and their faith.

The Catholic Church can take advantage of the great interest that it inevitably holds for the press. Because of its numinous ritual, its long history, its worldwide expansion and its insertion into the cultures of many lands, the church is an object of fascination to many who do not share its faith. Efforts should be made to see that the beautiful, edifying and spiritually inspiring aspects of the church are given due emphasis. The recent restoration of Michelangelo's frescoes for the Sistine chapel and the recent completion of the Catechism of the Catholic Church provide splendid opportunities for the church to show its best side. Perhaps more could be done to exhibit the church as a worldwide force for peace, love and international understanding at a time when whole nations are being dissolved by the forces of hatred and division.

From the standpoint of the news media, conscious efforts should be made to restrain the negative tendencies to which I have called attention. At times it may be necessary to resist the temptation to stimulate sales by spreading unfounded rumors or publishing slanted accounts. I recognize that the press has a legitimate interest in reporting bad as well as good news about the church. But more care must be taken to put the bad news in proper context and to give greater emphasis to the elements that journalism is inclined to neglect. As many critics have pointed out, most newspapers and magazines have no professionally qualified reporters in the field of religion. Such ignorance on the part of reporters would not be tolerated in other areas, such as politics, sports and business.

While every effort should be made to improve the handling of religious news, we cannot hope for total success. Christ, it is often said, was the perfect communicator. In him, as nowhere else, the medium and the message did coincide. He literally was the Gospel that he proclaimed. He communicated it without fear or compromise, by word and deed. But he met with misunderstanding and hostility. He clearly told his disciples to expect a similar reception: If they persecuted me, they will persecute you. (Jn. 15:20). Because the Gospel is alien to the world around us, it will always be, in some respects, a sign of contradiction. The secular press, because it belongs to this world and is directed towards a worldly audience, will never be the ideal organ for transmitting the Christian message. While relying on other media as well, the church must relate to the press as best it can, with full awareness that tensions and oppositions will persist as long as human history lasts.

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Acknowledgement

Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J. Religion and the News Media: A Theologian Reflects, America 171, no. 9 (October 1994): 6-9.

Reprinted with the permission of Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J. and America Press, Inc., 106 West 56th Street, New York, NY 10019 USA.

The Author

Avery Dulles S.J. is the Laurence J. McGinley Professor of Theology at Fordham University, Bronx, N.Y.

Copyright © 1994 America
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