We know how it feels, finding yourself suddenly appointed the spokesman for the Catholic Church while you're standing at a photocopier, swigging a drink at the bar, or when a group of folks suddenly freezes, and all eyes fix on you.
"You're a Catholic, aren't you?" someone says.
"Um, yes," you confess, looking up nervously at what now seems to resemble a lynch mob.
The Pope has been reported as saying something totally outrageous. Or the issue of AIDS and condoms has come up. Or the discussion has turned to gay marriage. And here you are, called on to defend the Catholic Church by virtue of your baptism, feeling as equipped for that task as Daniel in the den of lions.
"Go on," they seem to say, but don't actually put it that way. "Justify what the Church teaches!"
Scrabbling together a few thoughts you put up a valiant defense, and people nod sympathetically. You contextualize, point out x and y, make a few observations they hadn't thought of, bring a little perspective into the question. The mob dissolves; people smile. They're not persuaded, but they don't want you to feel uncomfortable.
Or it didn't happen that way at all? Perhaps what happened was you got a little flustered and said a whole load of things which sounded pretty unpersuasive — even to you. You got irritated at the Church being constantly made to answer to a self-appointed inquisition of secular humanists and accused of bizarre conspiracies by people who had read too much Dan Brown. In fact, you became very flustered and flew off the handle; the feeling of persecution got to you. By the time you had spluttered out your angry defense, the gulf between you and everyone else had widened impossibly — and someone else had quickly, nervously, introduced a new topic.
Either way, here's what didn't happen. You didn't manage to "reframe" the issue. People still had the same view of the Church — dogmatic, authoritarian, anti-democratic, hypocritical, inhuman — as before you started speaking. You didn't turn the tables, recast the issue, open minds and hearts. You were stuck inside your opponent's frame.
As we were saying, we sympathize. It's not easy making the Church's case. The issues can be complex, and the headlines grotesquely simplistic. And it's hard to know, sometimes, what the Church's view actually is. Maybe you heard a bishop or theologian on the radio answering precisely that point. Maybe you've read up on it. But most likely, you just don't have the time to conduct major research on issues that keep coming up in conversations. You're bright and a committed Catholic. But you're also busy.
What you wish you had was an adviser, someone you could summon for a quick briefing, who could offer you (a) a bit of background (b) a survey of the key issues (c) some suggestions of how you might reframe the issue, and (d) some key points you could draw upon next time the question arises.
Well, here we are: not quite an adviser, but the next best thing — a book full of precisely such advice. Practical advice.
What you'll read in these pages is the result of a group of Catholics getting together to prepare themselves for precisely these high-pressure, get-to-the-heart-of-it-quick, kind of contexts: not just around the water-cooler, but in three-minute interviews on live television. Their experience, distilled here, will help you to "reframe'' the hot-button issues which keep coming up in the news and provoke heated discussion.
We call these issues "neuralgic'' because they touch on nerve endings, those places in the body which, when pressed, cause people to squeal. In our public conversation, they are the points which lie on the borders where mainstream social thinking inhabits (at least apparently) a different universe from that of Catholics. Touch on them, and people get very annoyed. "How on earth can you believe that?" they ask you.
Now, this book doesn't tell you what to say in answer to any given question. Every conversation is different. And it can't help you know what's coming up in the news on a given day; not even the people who make the news can predict that. But chances are you'll be in a discussion sometime soon because of something involving the Church in the news and most news stories involve one of those neuralgic issues. In fact, that's often what makes it a news story. Because of the perception in newsrooms that the Church's position on the question of condoms and AIDS is totally outrageous, when Pope Benedict made a few off-the-cuff remarks about the issue in September 2009 it was a huge lead story across the globe. It wasn't the remarks so much as the neuralgic issue that made it news.
So while we can't predict the news story, we can be pretty sure about the neuralgic issues. This book helps you to think through ten of the most common (and the toughest) for yourself; to understand where the criticism is coming from; and to consider how to communicate the Church's position in ways that do not accept the presuppositions of the criticism. At the end of each of the nine briefing chapters, there are some "key messages" which summarise these positions — and which will hopefully help you next time you're challenged.
But there's a bit more to it than that. We'd better explain the method and approach used here, where it comes from, and what we're hoping to achieve.
This book is the fruit a project called Catholic Voices, which was created for Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the United Kingdom in September 2010 and which has inspired similar groups in Spain, Ireland, Mexico, and other countries. A team of amateur speakers was formed, consisting of "ordinary" Catholics — in other words, Catholics who had jobs and children and mortgages — who were happy to put across Church positions and teaching on radio and TV in the run-up to and during the papal visit. They were advertised to the media as "media-friendly, studio-ready and ego-free," by which we meant: happy to be questioned, and sympathetic to the media's objectives and reason for existing; familiar with the demands of three-minute live interviews, and the constraints and possibilities of radio and TV. They were described as "authoritative but not official": we set out to be well-briefed and articulate, knowledgeable, and able to communicate the settled teachings of the Church. But while we had the blessing of the bishops, we did not speak for them. If you wanted to know how the bishops responded to such-and-such a story in today's news, you would need to call their spokespeople. But if you wanted to know what the Church believed and taught, you could call us.
The project was a success. The Catholic Voices were in dozens of debates and news programs on radio and TV, appearing on all the major British channels, and winning the praise of bishops and broadcasters alike.
By looking at the positive intention behind the criticism we were able to get out of the mind-set of "how can I justify this?" and ask: "what is the real source of the disagreement here?"
Perhaps the most important fruit of the Catholic Voices experience was the "method" we developed in the many intensive briefings we held in the months before the Pope arrived, one that we think works for anyone who needs to make the Church's case — not just in a three-minute live TV interview, but also in a three-minute live bar conversation, or a half-hour lunch-break discussion provoked by an item on the news. After all, the two situations are not so different. If you can't say it humanly, succinctly, and compellingly, then you've lost people's interest and sympathy. That may not be a disaster but it's certainly a missed opportunity.
What we learned was a particular mind-set, one that helped us to avoid being defensive or aggressive, which was vital to enable us to "reframe" the criticism. We've summed up that approach in a series of principles which may be a means of reviving the art of apologetics for our age — an era of 24-hour news. Those principles are listed in the last chapter so you can look at them anytime you're about to enter an environment in which you'll be challenged.
At the heart of this approach is what we call "positive intention." Behind every criticism of the Church, however apparently hostile or prejudiced, is an ethical value. The critic is consciously or unconsciously appealing to that value. Issues become neuralgic, in fact, precisely because of the feeling that those core values are threatened. Surprisingly, perhaps, the value behind the criticism is one you might recognize as being valid — Christian, even — or at least derived from a Christian value.
That's not so astonishing, given that we live in Christian — or some might say "post-Christian" — cultures. What secularization means is that people abandon the Church yet continue, unconsciously, to adhere to its values — and often appeal (again unconsciously) to those values when they criticize the Church. It is much easier to persuade the critic if you can appeal to that same value, or show that you agree with it. At the same time, you will be less defensive. Empathy is the beginning of dialogue. Dialogue does not mean abandoning or adjusting your values, but building relationships of trust between people of differing convictions. This book teaches the art of that dialogue: not how to defend positions, but to explain them and to enable others to understand them.
By looking at the positive intention behind the criticism we were able to get out of the mind-set of "how can I justify this?" and ask: "what is the real source of the disagreement here?" For example: The desire for an assisted suicide law is based on the positive intention that people should be spared unnecessary suffering. Now we, as Catholics, agree that while suffering is inevitable in aging and dying, no one should experience unbearable pain and loneliness — which is why Catholics such as Dame Cicely Saunders created the hospice movement. So now that we can agree on that, we can then look at where we disagree — the meaning of death, the question of autonomy, etc. — and then look at the practical issue of what an assisted suicide law would mean for health care, for the view of the elderly, and so on. The discussion can become more rational and constructive because we are not arguing with people from another planet but who are part of our same culture of values.
That is why early in each of the chapters you'll find a small section featuring the positive intention behind the criticism. It will help put you in the mind-set of the critic — and realize that we have a job of explaining to do. You can move away from being threatened by him or her and instead think "how do we get this across?"
At the beginning of each chapter, you'll also see a list of "challenging questions." As we said, no one can predict exactly what questions will be asked about a particular neuralgic issue. News stories vary. Yet because the neuralgic issues remain constant, the questions are reasonably predictable. The Catholic Voices were amazed to find that the questions they faced in studios were almost always variations of the ones we had considered in the briefings. That's because the positive intention behind the criticism generates a series of natural questions. But don't think our challenging questions are in any way exhaustive. You'll easily add some of your own.
Now that we've explained something of our approach, we'd like a word about scandal — and to issue an invitation from Pope Benedict XVI.
The Catholic faith "scandalizes." It causes people to react strongly and ask hard questions. Thank God for that. It's what the Gospel does. "Blessed is he that shall not be scandalized in me," says Jesus, referring to those who do not turn away in disgust or miscomprehension (Mt 11:6, Douay-Rheims). But it's Jesus, of course, who lays down the stumbling blocks — the skandala as they're called in Greek. A skandalon is an obstacle in the path. It causes people to stop and think; their existing frame is threatened. And this can be the start of another path, one that leads, potentially, to a new way of looking at something. Or it can lead to the "turning away" of which Jesus warns.
That turning away — that furious rejection — is the enemy of true communication. Yet just before that point, when people are scandalized and ask questions — even if the questions are in the form of angry accusations — they have not yet turned away; they are open to hearing another view. That is why every tough question in a radio and TV interview, every animated discussion over a beer, every awkward dinner-party moment, is an opportunity. Is this evangelization? We see it more as "clearing the obstacles to evangelization." It's clarifying misunderstanding, shedding light where there is myth and confusion. It hopefully causes people to reconsider their objections to what the Church says. Whatever we want to call it — "apologetics," "communication" — it's a witness, and a vital one.
In media news terms, it's getting in at the beginning, to reframe the story as it's breaking. Some call this "spin-doctoring," a term dating to the 1980s that is discredited because it suggests the dark arts of media manipulation. That's why we prefer the term "reframing." Reframing tells a different story from what's out there. It's not a disreputable or manipulative thing to do if what you are doing is telling the truth: indeed, reframing only works if what you're saying is true. "False ideas may be refuted indeed by argument," said Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman, our lodestar in this enterprise, "but by true ideas alone are they expelled."
This is a witness. It's also a vocation. And here's the invitation. We're hoping that this book helps "ordinary" Catholics — that's probably you we're talking about here — to see themselves as communicators. Some people (again this may be you) have a natural gift for this. They are the kind of people who love to gnaw on an issue, or the kind of person who loves to clarify and build bridges. There are many kinds of Catholic communicators: some delight in concepts, others speak out of experience; some are impassioned orators; others are gentle, thoughtful types. But they are all motivated by a desire to put across their faith in human, compelling ways; and a bit impatient to get out there and correct some of the frustrating misapprehensions they hear every day about the Church they love.
No one is excluded from this calling, but it is preeminently a mission for lay people, as Pope Benedict said in his homily in Glasgow after arriving in Scotland:
I appeal in particular to you, the lay faithful, in accordance with your baptismal calling and mission, not only to be examples of faith in public, but also to put the case for the promotion of faith's wisdom and vision in the public forum.
Reframing tells a different story from what's out there. It's not a disreputable or manipulative thing to do if what you are doing is telling the truth: indeed, reframing only works if what you're saying is true.
In a January 2012 address to the U.S. bishops, Pope Benedict repeated that call. Warning of the pressure from a new radical secularism and the threats to freedom of religion, he asked for Catholics to step up to meet those challenges.
Here once more we see the need for an engaged, articulate, and well-formed Catholic laity endowed with a strong critical sense vis-à-vis the dominant culture and with the courage to counter a reductive secularism which would delegitimize the Church's participation in public debate about the issues which are determining the future of American society. The preparation of committed lay leaders and the presentation of a convincing articulation of the Christian vision of man and society remain a primary task of the Church in your country.
This is a task bigger than "defending the Church." In his response to the Pope's address, Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles said:
Now is a time for Catholic action and for Catholic voices. We need lay leaders to step up to their responsibilities for the Church's mission, not only to defend our faith and our rights as Catholics, but to be leaders for moral and civic renewal — leaders in helping to shape the values and moral foundations of America's future.
It's about learning to articulate what is a treasure for the whole of society — the value of religious freedom, from which all other freedoms flow; an authentic pluralism which allows for a vigorous civil society based on strong families and committed marriages; and the building blocks of "an authentically just, humane and prosperous society" in Pope Benedict's words. It means, as he also said, "proposing rational arguments in the public square," applying the insights of the great social encyclicals, highlighting the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, calling for virtue in public life and the building of institutions, and helping to define a better relationship between state, market, and civil society. It's about advancing a vision of society that defends life — however feeble or invisible — and the dignity of every human being. It's about helping to build a civilization of love.
Hence the need for Catholics who — to use Blessed Cardinal Newman's phrase — "know their creed so well that they can give an account of it." The public square is, to a very large extent, defined by the media. That's where the chatter of the marketplace is to be found; and it's where Catholics need to learn to be at home, speaking humanly, succinctly and compellingly of their Church's vision. But the public square is also where you are, where you meet and interact with others in the many crossroads of our contemporary society.
Actors and writers often talk about finding their voice — that moment when the character they're been working hard at creating comes alive and hits the right notes. That's something the Church always needs to do, in each generation: to find its voice in society. And it's something every Catholic is called to do — in the media, yes, but also in the workplace, among friends, and at those dinner parties which suddenly freeze over.
We hope this book helps you find that voice.
Austen Ivereigh. "Introduction." from How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice: Civil Responses to Catholic Hot Button Issues (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor Press, 2012) 4-11.
Reprinted with permission from the author and Our Sunday Visitor Press.
Austen Ivereigh is a London-based Roman Catholic journalist, author, commentator and campaigner. A former deputy editor of The Tablet and later Director for Public Affairs of the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, he frequently appears on radio and TV programmes to comment in stories involving the Church.
Dr Ivereigh is the founder and coordinator of Catholic Voices, which trains people to put the Catholic Church's case in the media. He is author of The Great Reformer: Francis and the Making of a Radical Pope, and Faithful Citizens: a practical guide to community organising and Catholic social teaching.Copyright © 2012 Austen Ivereigh
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