The Dawn of Global Communication: Can the Church Rise to the Occasion?

Catholics have fallen behind in the effective use of the mass media. How can Catholics use the media as an effective evangelization tool?
by Alan Napleton | Source:
We live in a media age. Most of us are bombarded from dawn to dusk with an endless stream of information. These messages come at us from a variety of sources, some that we seek, most that we don’t. A recent Madison Avenue survey found that the average adult in this country was subjected to over 500 distinct advertising “impressions” on a typical day.

I live in Texas, and during any 10-minute stint on the freeway I can usually spot a billboard that promises to fill just about all my temporal and even spiritual needs. This advertising blitz can take the form of billboards, newspaper and radio advertising, endless television commercials, and a myriad of other sources including the back of church bulletins. Our kids don’t fare much better, as anyone familiar with children’s TV programming, fast food restaurants, and theme parks can attest.

Modern media also provides us with an almost endless array of options to gain access to information and entertainment. With the advent of the Internet, anyone with a link to the World Wide Web now has access to much of the knowledge western man has been able to accumulate over the past few millennia.

Customized for Evil?
But as any discerning person knows, and as Christians are well aware, not everything one reads, sees on TV, or hears on the radio is necessarily the objective truth. In today’s world, the secular media culture is deeply imbued with a postmodern sense that the only absolute truth is that there are no absolute truths. This reasoning, of course, runs contradictory to the Christians’ knowledge of the never changing divine truth as revealed to us by the teachings of an inerrant Catholic Church.

Certainly it would be naive to think that either Hollywood or Madison Avenue has any interest in our souls. For the most part, their concern is padding their own wallets, and whether wittingly or not, they are more than willing to sacrifice eternal souls for the almighty dollar. We see the results all around us. For the most part, our children understand more about the superficial pop culture that surrounds us than the bedrock reality of the faith. So much so, we might be tempted to see the dawn of mass communications as something intrinsically evil, as a tool customized for destroying our souls.

Baptizing the Media
But this is a dangerous temptation, one which would turn Christianity into a ghetto religion that fears the world it is supposed to transform. Fortunately, the greatest prophet of our age, Pope John Paul II, following in the footsteps of St. Maximilian Kolbe, has reminded us of the potency and power of mass communications and invited us to baptize and “confirm” it. The Holy Father is convinced that the era of global communications offers a unique opportunity for evangelization. Every May he has designated a World Communications Day to deliver a message centered on the relationship of the Church with the media. This year he appealed to the whole Church to make an “active and imaginative commitment” to working in the field of the media. The Holy Father stated that “once the media reported events, but now events are often shaped to meet the requirements of the media.” He went on to say that “the relationship between reality and the media has grown more intricate, and this is a deeply ambivalent phenomenon. On the one hand, it can blur the distinction between truth and illusion but, on the other, it can open up unprecedented opportunities for making the truth more widely accessible to many more people. The task of the Church is to ensure that it is the latter that actually happens.

Certainly one can choose to avoid some of the destructive effects of negative media by simply “tuning out.” But the Holy Father is also calling us Catholics to be active in utilizing the media as an opportunity to spread the Good News. He points out that there is nothing intrinsically evil about communication vehicles like TV or the Internet, and that these tools can be used to accomplish either great good or great evil. He exhorts us to engage the world of media effectively and to speak what he calls “the language of the media” with sufficient force and clarity, to use this great tool for the benefit of the Church.

Missed Opportunities
Yet, this is a daunting task. We Catholics have fallen far behind in the effective use of communications. We can point to some recent successes like Mother Angelica’s Eternal Word Television Network (EWTN) and the past achievements of Church leaders and media personalities like Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and Fr. Patrick Peyton. But, for the most part, Catholics have not taken advantage of the huge opportunities the advancement of communications offers for evangelization.

Our Protestant brothers and sisters serve as excellent examples of how to use media effectively. As a group, evangelical “Gospel preachers” are now one of the most influential media groups in the world. They have been enormously successful in constructing an international network of radio, television, and new technology outlets that reach tens of millions of people in every part of the globe. In the United States alone there are over 1,400 Christian radio stations and several large Protestant TV ministries that cover every major market in the country. In Dallas alone we have 12 different radio stations with a Christian format. But in this city, like most others in the country, there is little if any Catholic counterpart. Although there is no simple explanation as to why we’re in this position, I believe there are two primary factors.

The first is the hierarchical structure of the Church itself. When instituting His Church, Our Lord understood the necessity of empowering the papacy with supernatural authority and knowledge. Only a Church with this structure working within the power of the Holy Spirit could ensure the teaching of inerrant doctrine. But the Church’s hierarchical structure can also complicate the coordination of specific activities. While there is uniformity in the content of the truth, there is not similar uniformity in how to communicate it effectively. And therein lays the challenge.

Each diocese led by its bishop operates fairly independently in providing for the needs of its particular flock. This is true in matters of education, Church ministries, and the area of communications and evangelization. In turn, each parish operates within diocesan guidelines but also with a great deal of latitude in its day-to-day work. For this reason, excellent programs, including communications programs, can be accomplished at a local parish or diocesan level. However, these efforts do not reach upwards easily into larger national and even international activities.

The second factor has been the generally inefficient manner in which the laity and Church hierarchy work together to accomplish special projects. In the area of communications we have recently seen aggressive efforts from both the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and various groups of the laity to launch promising communications programs. Most have had limited success and many have met with almost complete failure. It would be an over generalization to attribute these failures to simply a lack of laity and hierarchy working together. However, as a general rule we have not been able to establish an effective working relationship among the two that would enable the Church to realize the full potential that each brings to the effort. This is a complex problem and one that the Holy Father has addressed.

In Ecclesia in America, the Pope points out the need “to promote positive cooperation by properly trained lay men and women in different activities within the Church, while avoiding any confusion with the ordained ministries . . . so that the common priesthood of the faithful remains clearly distinguished from that of the ordained” (no. 44).

Toward a Solution
Fortunately, there are signs everywhere that this cooperation is beginning to take place. This past October, the president of the Pontifical Council on Social Communications, two cardinals, two dozen bishops, and several dozen lay communication leaders from North, South, and Central America met in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic to craft an effective and comprehensive communication strategy for the Church throughout the Americas.

At this gathering an organization entitled NEA (New Evangelization of America) was born. A lay initiative operating in obedience to the bishops of the Americas, NEA promises to be a shining example of how cooperation and effective communication can result in real accomplishments. NEA’s mission is to help bring about the new evangelization that Pope John Paul II has called for through the effective use of media, especially mass media and new technologies.

Our Holy Father has pointed out that “using the media correctly and competently can lead to a genuine inculturation of the Gospel,” a necessary element in fulfilling the great mission of evangelization to which Our Lord has called us all.

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