Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Africa: Church Needs Formidable PR Machine to Counter ignorant Media

Fr. Deogratias Ekisa

Just as I was gathering my thoughts to shoot an article to CISA on the media coverage of Pope Benedict's visit to Africa, Henry Makori beat me to it by penning an excellent analysis of the relationship between the media and the Vatican. I would like to discuss further some points the CISA editor raises.

Experts in interpersonal relationships say that when there is a breakdown in communication, it is best to start the discussion by taking the blame. For example, if someone did not understand something you said it is better to say, "I am sorry, it seems I was not very clear," rather than, "I am sorry, you did not understand me." In the recent media blitz against the Pope, however, I will dispense with the political correctness of this principle and lay the blame squarely where it lies.

As Makori hinted, much of the Western media is clearly the handmaid of secularism. (Secularism is an ideology which must be distinguished from the ideologically neutral concept of secularisation, the process of separating religion and secular society). Now secularism has an agenda, which is to drive out (not merely separate) religion from the public square. This ideology, which believes in the absolute primacy of reason and utility, considers religion to be an obstacle to its most cherished values. And so, if anybody seriously thinks that the recent media onslaught on the pope was about condoms, then they need to think again. For much of the Western media, this was a chance to put down religion and show how silly and opposed to scientific "progress" religion, especially the Catholic religion is.

But leaving aside the media's secularist and ideological intentions, the modern press is inherently incapable of understanding what the Church teaches, since they operate in a different worldview and paradigm. The media looks for literal, straightforward meanings; the Church for the fundamental meaning of life. In the condom case for example, it is very clear for the media that condoms save physical lives; but that point of view is markedly different from the Pope's position who is not commenting on the scientific capabilities of condoms, but on their capacity to promote a lifestyle that is inimical to life (both physical and spiritual). It is like the Pope and Western media were speaking different languages, since they were starting from different fundamental premises.

Even worse, much of the media is either incapable of understanding the subtleties of profound intellectual thought or merely ignores them. That is why they rightly consign scientific, economic and other specialised disciplines to esoteric specialist magazines and occasionally call in the help of expert scholars to enlighten the public about these complex issues. Religion, however, is considered to be a common man's possession and is not conceded that luxury. But how can we expect the theologically untrained journalists to understand the theological nuances of Christian thought? Most of them do not even make the effort to inform themselves on the subject. Besides, religious thought does not seem to fit the categories of sound bites, which are the bread and butter of media coverage.

But we cannot blame the media alone. As I said earlier, any breakdown in communication could be caused by either the sender or recipient or both. We Catholics are sometimes unwitting supporters of this secularist attack on religion. This happens especially when we dissent loudly and virulently against the Pope and Church teaching. Of course there has always been internal dissent in the Church. One just has to refer to the differences between Paul and Peter on the requirement that non-Jewish converts observe Jewish laws. Various Early Fathers of the Church approached and explained the mystery of Christianity differently, sometimes disagreeing bitterly. Even saints have sometimes disagreed, like the different takes on the sacrament of penance by the Dominican position of St. Thomas Aquinas and by the Franciscan position of St. Bonaventure. These agreeable disagreements, however, have never been about the fundamental message of God's saving love in Jesus Christ and his Church, which is an instrument of that message.

Now of course today's disagreements by Catholics are on such issues as contraceptives, abortion, war, immigration, excommunications etc. One might argue that these are still those peripheral issues that are only tangentially related to the fundamental message of the Church. And sometimes that is truly the case. Often, however, is a naive interpretation of the situation. As I have said above, if anyone for one moment thinks that the "condom" issue on the recent papal trip to Africa was a debate about condoms, then they have another thing coming. This was a debate about the fundamental role of religion in life, with the media towing the secularist line, and the Pope promoting the Catholic vision of things. And so, when a Catholic who disagrees with the Pope on that or any issue attacks him like the media has done or dissents in a vehement way, he is in effect promoting the more fundamentalist secular agenda and not just that specific issue.

I am reminded of an incident a couple of years ago when President Hugo Chavez made a bitter attack on President Bush at the United Nations in New York; he compared him to the devil himself etc. When this happened, even starry-eyed left-wing Democrats who are naturally opposed to Bush and tend towards the liberal mindset of the Venezuelan President abandoned Chavez and ran to the defence of their President, because they realised that the stakes here were higher; it was the presidency itself and their country that were under attack and not Bush's particular ideological stand.

Similarly, it is time for Catholics to discern when they can reasonably disagree with the Pope and Church teaching and when their disagreement constitutes an attack on the very foundations of the Christian faith. This call goes not only to the more progressive members of the faithful whose rebellion tends to be the loudest, thanks to the more liberal media, but also to the right-wing sections of the Church, who have been known to wage silent but equally vituperative attacks on certain members of the hierarchy whom they consider too liberal for their liking. Actually, in the 1960s and 1970s, the attacks from the right were the ones damaging the Church. Now when confronted by a common enemy, secularism, it is time for us to lay aside our ideological differences and confront that enemy. The very survival of God's Church is at stake. If we let it fall, or in fact, if we assist in pushing it over, then we shall have failed in our mission, which is to establish the Kingdom of God here on earth. It is time to stand up and be counted. The battle lines have been drawn; on which side are we fighting?

An effective weapon to include in the Church's arsenal for this battle is a radically new communication attitude and strategy for dealing with the media. Here I am not talking about the usual spiel about using the mass media for communicating Jesus' message; we are doing this already through Catholic television, Catholic radio and Catholic print-media. I am instead suggesting a more profound public relations exercise. Let me explain what I mean with two examples.

Several years ago when I was a first-time parish priest, I had to preside over the election of the Parish Council officials. Naively, I thought that the best people would be elected, since "good always prevails over evil." And so, I did not share with anyone my thoughts on the candidates, nor try to "campaign" for any candidate, trusting in the "inherently" just process of democracy. To my surprise, the candidates I thought would have been elected, barely got any votes; I later found out that some members of the Council, for obviously private interests, had done their homework and had ensured they had the votes to push their men into office. I admit that I failed miserably, in putting forward my vision of what kind of Parish Council leadership I thought was best for the parish.

I now turn to an example as far removed from the parish situation as possible. I recently learned that in the recent war between Georgia and Russia, the news we were getting about the war (or at least most of it) was being managed or influenced by two Western European public relations agencies based in Brussels. So, both sides hired (at great cost I suppose) two professionals to put their side of the story to the world.

This is the kind of strategy we need in the Church today: a full-fledged, professional, well-financed PR team to front the message of Jesus to the world. It is this kind of team that would advise, for example, whether a particular papal document would be more effective if released on a Friday rather than on a Monday. Such a professional PR machine would know who to contact in particular media houses or particular temples of power for the achievement of a specific goal. It is such a PR strategy that would organize a major media blitz to counter certain situations or to explain them.

Now some people might find my idea objectionable, on the grounds that God's everlasting message is being subjected to secular concerns and being managed by methods more suited to the things of this world. Such an objection does not stand up to scrutiny, if one critically looks at how God has dealt with the world throughout the history of salvation. A cursory look at the Old Testament reveals that imperfect men Moses and David, imperfect institutions like sacrifice, imperfect methods like wars were used to achieve God's plan of salvation. Even more fundamentally, the fact that the Son of God took on human nature (an imperfect condition), to bring about salvation shows that the things of this world can certainly be used for the achievement of God's glory and the salvation of humankind. Even in post-biblical times, the Fathers and the Scholastics both used pagan philosophy to explain the mysteries of God. The structure of our Church has largely followed secular models of both monarchy and democracy.

And so, while the basic message of Christ has not changed, the way it has been expressed and presented to the world has changed over time. Today we need a serious public relations campaign to overcome the media machine that has been kidnapped by secularism or at least that chooses to operate on purely secularist principles. It is quite naive and disingenuous for anybody to think that because God's Kingdom is the truth, it will just establish itself.

I repeat: the survival of the Church is at stake. The predator is attacking. We need to stock the Church's armoury with the necessary weapons to help us win this battle. I suggest that part of this arsenal has to be not just a prayerful and exemplary life from all Catholics, but a media-savvy approach and all Catholics pulling together to publicly counter what is becoming a death blow to religion, even if it is often clothed in convincingly reasonable sheep's clothing. It is time to wake up from our slumber!

[Fr. Ekisa is a priest of the Archdiocese of Tororo, Uganda, now at Pontificio Ateneo Sant'Anselmo, Rome]