Address by Sean Staunton at In-service 2007

Church and Media in Ireland

Your Grace, reverend fathers, it is my pleasure to welcome you to Westport and I hope you have had a pleasant and peaceful stay in our beautiful town.

The time available to discuss a subject as wide-ranging as Church and media will only allow for a brief overview but perhaps this will provoke some ongoing discussion of the delicate love-hate relationship between Church and media, particularly in an Irish context.  The views that I put forward do not have ‘ex cathedra’ status.  They are simply my opinions and they are no more valid and no less valid than opinions that any of you might have to contribute to the Church and media debate.

While not an expert on the Church, neither am I a propagandist for the media.  As a practising Catholic and, until a few months ago, a full-time working journalist, I could be described as having a foot in both camps.  I have seen the Church and society undergo considerable change over the course of my working life.  Fr. Dermot McCarthy, head of religious programming in RTE, commenting on the dramatic changes in the ecclesiastical and media landscapes refers to the “progressive erosion of one before the tidal wave of the other”.  My comments here today are observations on that culture and mind shift and are, I hope, informed by the journalistic ideal of objectivity.

The relationship between Church and media in Ireland has always been somewhat delicate.  In the early days of the Late Late Show, Archbishop Charles McQuaid wrote to the Director General of RTE pointing out that as Montrose was in his bailiwick, he should have complete control over what was aired on the station.  The then DG, Kevin McCourt, politely told him that that was not quite the way it would be, although McCourt’s decision would not have found much favour with many Irish people who, at that time, considered the Church had ultimate and justifiable authority over almost everything in society.  It could be argued, in RTE’s defence, that in subsequent years the Late Late Show turned out to be more friend than foe to the Church in Ireland, especially in the years of Gay Byrne.

When we talk about Church nowadays, we must recognise that as Ireland becomes a more multi-cultural society, there is an increasing diversity of churches and religion.  Any consideration of church and religion must address this and media people must become more informed about individual churches and their effect on each other.  We need specialist, informed journalists who bring their own Christianity to bear in their writing.  Many media people are not very religion-literate and their opinions on religion would not always be well-informed.  Breda O’Brien, teacher and Irish Times journalist, remarks that the main difficulty with the coverage of religion is the almost depressing uniformity of viewpoint among journalists which she summed up as an Enlightenment bias, “the belief that as human beings grow in sophistication and knowledge, religion will fade away as no longer necessary”.

It seems to me that the Church has become an increasingly soft target for liberalised media which, arguably, could be more fundamentalist than the Church itself – unquestioning liberalism is as dangerous, if not more so, as unquestioning conservatism.  There appears to be a drift towards sensational reporting, even in formerly serious newspapers, (the Irish Independent comes to mind) and on radio and television which, in turn, has led to a diminution of quality reporting.

We live in an era of increasing secularism, not subject to or bound by religious rule, most evident in the western world and specifically in Ireland’s relatively recent wealth, which I believe is resulting in a lack of meaning in people’s lives.  The dichotomy between God and mammon has never been more evident with the latter, it would appear, having the edge.  Increased prosperity has led to less need for and more scepticism about religion, an attitude that would appear to be fuelled by the mass media.  Among people to whom faith matters, there is a pervasive sense that Irish media are at best tone deaf or at worst hostile to matters involving religion.

Peter Steinfels, former religion correspondent with the New York Times examined what he regards as the three greatest criticisms of the media’s coverage of religion.  He called them the three “i’s” – ignorance, incompetence and insufficient resources.  He found that the question of ignorance recurs most regularly, with the most common analogy being that one would not be allowed to cover sport if one had no knowledge of it, although this occurs often with regard to religion.  It is, he said, important that journalists of faith be accepted and respected by their peers and that their area of expertise is not scorned at in a professional arena.

This lack of knowledge about the Church among many journalists perpetuates ignorance and the Church needs to become more mainstream and proactive.  The appointment of communications officers in many Church organisations has helped to disseminate information but more imaginative ways of engaging with people must be devised.  It is necessary to think outside the box – society is evolving and so must the Church.

As I suggested at the outset, growing secularism in the western world is resulting in a lack of meaning in many people’s lives.  Family breakdown is on the increase and on a wider level, there is some evidence of the demise of community service and volunteerism.  Individualism and the profit motive seem to be replacing collectivism and the service motive.  The serious rise in deviance and crime is, perhaps, due to the inequity of our new wealth.  This inequity is something the Church must address (perhaps more than it has up to now) and if Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, then the mountain must go to him. With the decline in Mass attendance, the Church must use the other channels open to it to offer instruction, comfort and advice to its flock.  The Church needs to live as a voluntary movement in a society that is becoming more professional and self-centred.  As the ultimate service organisation, it must deliver a high quality, up-to-date product.  In my view the media can be a powerful ally in helping it to do this.

It seems to me that the Church is losing its foothold in society as an all-powerful body; many of the activities in which it traditionally engaged – provision of education, health care, missionary work etc. necessarily cast it in a position of strength over the recipients of such care whose quid pro quo for a long time was that they were unquestioning followers of the Church.  With increased prosperity and educational attainment people feel they have a right to question the Church that they did not have previously.  The Church’s former strength often relied on the blind faith of its followers but the media have helped to open up debate on the Church and its role which, while welcome, may not always be motivated by the purest of intentions.

In my view, today’s world needs the message of the Church to guide it in meeting challenges such as war and peace, racism and ethnic prejudice, structural injustice, ethical behaviour in private and public life, solidarity in times of crisis, courageous defence of the weak against its mistreatment by the strong and issues like homosexuality, contraception, divorce, abortion, capital punishment etc.  With its all-pervasive access, the media must be a part of that guidance channel.

The Church has a pastoral message for the whole world and can only deliver this through the mass media of communication.  Addressing the 25th Patrick McGill summer school in Glenties, Donegal, last July on the question “Will Ireland be Christian in 2030?”, Dr. Diarmuid Martin said the pastoral role of the Church must be structured in such a way that the believer, young and old, knows that he or she belongs to a community which desires that they be free, responsible and fully human.  He said that a church with participatory structures will be much more effective in this than an authoritarian one.

Ireland, he said, is undergoing today a process of secularisation which many would see moving towards a secularised society but which still turns to a religious ethos to hold together and build the most effective consensus possible around a network of values which society needs.  This hopeful note hinges on the existence of something fundamental in human yearning that seeks meaning and hope. In Dr. Martin’s words: “There is something in the human spirit which aspires to ask deeper questions about the meaning of life and to identify what are the deepest realities.”  The media have a vital role to play in this; through their effective use, I submit, such questions can be asked and possible answers explored.

The institutional Church needs to be open to the media about itself in so far as the interests of the public are concerned.  After all, the Church is its people.  Media people complain about what one veteran journalist, John Cooney, describes as the cult of secrecy, “the eighth sacrament” of the Catholic Church – when religious people attempt to impede the legitimate concerns and questions of journalists.  While the appointment of professional communications officers in some areas has improved matters somewhat, there is still a feeling that journalists at times only receive mere crumbs from the master’s table.  Years of mutual suspicion, hypocrisy and disappointment have resulted in a very uneasy relationship between the Church and media in some quarters.

An enhanced role for the laity in the Church should ensure the possibility of a more professional use of the media.  Eamon Conway, a contributor to a summer school on media and the Churches remarked that specifically with regard to the media, “the credibility of the Christian community depends on educated and articulate lay people confidently discussing matters of faith on the airwaves and in the newspaper columns”.  These people must be seen as free agents, not as acting under the imprimatur of Mother Church.  Church leaders need to learn to trust lay people and to accept that some clerics, before they even open their mouths, are likely to send some people scrambling for the remote control.

The Church has to challenge as well as preach, and needs the media to do this.  In 2002, Fr. Dermot McCarthy wrote a reflection on 40 years of Irish television and the changing nature and role of religious programming.  People involved in religious broadcasting, he said, are trying to explore what faith is doing in the world and are sharing the ambiguities, certainties and doubts about values and beliefs.  It is not their job to preach but to examine changing attitudes, banish ignorance and prejudice, allow people to tell their faith stories, investigate new movements or communities and float new ideas.

The Church must not be afraid to tackle the new issues arising in society and, indeed, within its own ranks.  The emotive, perennial question of clerical celibacy is blamed, rightly or wrongly, for many of the Church’s ills, and religious people must move away from the defensive standpoint on this and other matters adopted by the majority and allow them to be discussed frankly and openly.  If the Church allows itself to participate in media debate without directing it, people may be more inclined to sit up and take note.

The Church has always been concerned about how the media reflect questions of morality and the influence they can exert.  Its perceived “we know best” attitude on many issues of morality is offputting to many ordinary people who must cope with the vagaries and hardships of everyday life.  The main problem people have with the Church, however, is not that its message is outdated but that it has not reinterpreted it in modern terms.

Let me pose the question – Do you think there is  an innate hostility in the media towards the Church?  A friend of mine often makes the point that the media in Ireland have three targets – Fianna Fáil, the GAA and the Church.  Given that these three institutions wield such considerable power and are so deeply embedded in the fabric of our society in terms of their individual and combined might, this is hardly surprising.  Breda O’Brien observes that some of the criticisms believers make include that the media treat religion as an offshoot of politics, and go beyond a necessary professional scepticism to a corrosive and cynical attitude towards religious people and institutions.  These charges are vehemently denied by people who work in the media, but they may contain more than a grain of truth.

Historian Professor Joe Lee has discerned an anti-clerical streak in Irish media which manifests itself as anti-Catholicism.  He is also deeply critical of the conformity of viewpoint in the Irish media. One of the problems which he sees is that the Irish media are primarily Dublin-based, a Dublin remote from the everyday concerns of most Irish people who do not move in the tight-knit circle of the media: Lee said of the media –
“Ardently though it proclaims itself liberal, still exulting in its escape from what it sees as traditional claustrophobic Catholic conservatism, it is the reverse of liberal in the classical sense, in its reluctance to evaluate the evidence for all sides of arguments with an open mind.”

That the media merely hold up a mirror to society is an image much beloved of media professionals, but a rare few journalists admit the media help to shape and interpret our society.  Eleven years ago at a seminar in Westport, writer Mary Kenny echoed this point:
“It does not seem, I think, a very good time to be an Irish Catholic.  Certainly looking at the literature and at the media in the 1990s, the historian of the future will get the impression that the Catholic Church was held in low esteem in the Republic of Ireland at this time.  A major new book about Ireland, from John Ardagh Ireland and the Irish: Portrait of a Changing Society reports that with the Catholic Church in Ireland, the trumpet makes a very uncertain sound.”

That faltering sound was subsequently amplified in the wake of the revelations of child sex abuse perpetrated by priests and members of religious orders.  Sex abuse scandals and the Church’s initial reluctance to own up to them were grist to the media mill.  In helping to uncover the sexual abuse of children by priests and religious, the media played a valuable and worthwhile role and in a sense forced the Church to come to terms with the reality of child abuse.  However, John Horgan, professor of journalism in Dublin City University, queries whether the coverage of this issue may have had as much to do with an opportunity to criticise the Catholic Church as with any desire to protect the vulnerable.  Journalists like David Quinn of the Irish Independent and Patsy McGarry of The Irish Times have filed stories more sympathetic to religious orders, including the uncovering of false accusations against members or former members, but, by and large, coverage has assumed guilt on the part of religious, both individually and collectively.  In my view similar assumptions have been made by some programme makers in RTE.

Child sex abuse scandals may have undermined the confidence of religious to such an extent that they are now fearful of preaching the gospel with conviction, fearful of taking a Christian stand on issues lest they be pilloried by sections of the media.  Suspicion of the media has paralysed some in the Church and derailed them from the Church’s true course. In the wake of the publication of the Ferns report on clerical child sex abuse the days and weeks that followed were difficult for the church, for priesthood and for the laity.  Some priests at least had to deal with the question, – should they retreat into the bunker or keep faith with the vast majority of people out there who abhor the abuse of children, but who are well capable of making the distinction between the small number of priests who abused children and the great majority who did not.  Do not underestimate the wisdom of the laity in making this distinction and do not underestimate their level of support for you and your colleagues.

The media must make a distinction between celebrity coverage of individuals such as Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II, and the negative portrayal of the Church as an institution.  My daughter, Reine, was in Rome when John Paul II died and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of emotion and faith in the wake of his death.  For the week leading up to and following his death, to be openly religious or moved by events was not in any way a source of shame and the sense of loss for the late pontiff was genuine, even among those who were not churchgoers and those who didn’t always agree with his pronouncements.  After he was laid to rest the media converted overnight and became atheistic again just as quickly.  It is perhaps not coincidental that John Paul II and Mother Teresa were the embodiment of what most people consider should be the Church’s most fundamental objective – to love thy neighbour as thyself.  While others paid lip service to this ideal of empathy with one’s fellow man, they espoused it and we identified with their humility and concern.

The media never seem quite sure what they want the Church to be.  They forget that the Church’s primary role is the teaching of the truth, the teaching of Christ. It was never meant to be part of a popularity contest.  When we come to religious matters covered in television programmes on RTE, there are immediate and special problems, said Fr. Dermot McCarthy.  There is a perceived incompatibility between a thoughtful approach and high viewer ratings.  Prime time television is a difficult place for the treatment of spiritual matters.  Journalists who ask media-friendly clergy to appear on television or radio or comment on behalf of their flocks, also criticise the Church for not giving greater prominence to lay opinion.

Sometimes the Church is its own worst enemy in that it tries to respond in kind to criticism in the media.  It seeks to be more popular, to make its message more palatable.  The institutional Church should not have to defend its message; Christ’s message is not meant to be comfortable but it need not always be one of hell fire and brimstone.  Is there not even a sneaking admiration for those who stick to their guns, articulate the Gospel message with courage and conviction and show people that personal freedom and religious observance are not incompatible?

There is a tendency in the media to treat religion as simply the exercise of power by an institution leading to a distortion of what religion means to people in their everyday lives.  Religion permeates all aspects of people’s lives even if they are not consciously aware of it.  Most people would subscribe to the teaching that one should do unto others as one would have others do unto oneself.  Media coverage of religious affairs should strike a chord with this basic Christian principle and could do so in a very unobtrusive way.  People are not easily excited by the full text of papal encyclicals; they want to know what their implications are in an Irish context and to identify with religion on their own terms.

Speaking some time ago the Bishop of Clogher, Dr. Joseph Duffy, referring to insufficient coverage of religious affairs in the media said that people were being exploited and conned by the media for entertainment purposes and that journalists should reflect their own Christian values in their work: “If the media does not reflect the underlying Christian values of our society, then the Church will continue to decline and the quality of life will continue to suffer.”  He admitted the Church had been too slow coming to terms with modern culture, that it had not been sufficiently alert or dynamic to realise people are now getting a 24 hour stream of values into their homes via television and radio.

Dr. Brendan Comiskey, himself a controversial figure who provided much material to and for the media, in an address to the Knights of Columbanus in Westport some 15 years ago quoted Commonwealth Chief Rabbi, Professor Jonathan Sacks’ claim which, for its prophesy alone, is worth quoting in full:
“We are caught between two ages, one passing, the other not yet born, and the conflicting tendencies we witness – deepening secularisation on the one hand, new religious passions on the other – are evidence of the transition.  The next chapter in the story is impossible to predict.  But I argue this, that we have not yet reflected sufficiently on how to renew our most basic social institutions, and in an age of transition there is a great danger of secular and religious extremisms causing conflicts for which we are ill prepared.  The discontents of modernity run high, and there are already signs of sharp cultural clashes – most obviously within Islam, but within Christianity and Judaism also – between modernists and neotraditionalists”.  (Sacks, The Persistence of Faith. The Reith Lectures 1990, 20).  Prophetic words indeed.

Dr. Comiskey said he was confident Irish people would resolve any problem that would arise but only if they learned its nature and depth.  Two institutions he said could make a great contribution in this area, namely the churches and the media.

The twin objectives of truth and freedom, fundamental to the Church and the media, are interpreted and pursued differently by each, and this is no bad thing as long as there is mutual respect between both institutions.  Thankfully, we live in a democracy and the media, if they are to be balanced, must accord respect to all opinions. However, such balance can only be achieved through informed comment and debate by and among informed people.  I would be hopeful that if the upcoming cohort of young journalists becomes informed about religious matters, the day may not be too far distant when a genuine liberalism will allow religion to be examined on its own merits, and not primarily through the lens of somewhat dated prejudice.

Ironically, the same prosperity which has resulted in secularisation and a move away from the Church may have reached or be reaching its apex; people are more lonely and unfulfilled than ever.  The Church should cultivate the media to maximise the opportunity to bring faith and God back centre stage.  The need for spiritualism is perhaps stronger than ever.  Archbishop Michael Neary, in his homily on Reek Sunday last year, recognised the difficulties faced by the Church but also struck a hopeful, forward-looking note:

“In these days of darkness in the life of the Irish Church, we may be tempted to think that the Church has largely disappeared from daily life.  We are faced with the setbacks of clerical weakness and sin, with falling vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the seeming weakness of faith in an Ireland of growing prosperity.  But behind the mist and confusion there is still a vibrant Church, calling men and women to seek God with the strength and companionship of others.”

At this early stage in the new millennium the Church has in many ways come of age.  The media have played an important, if not always welcome, role in the maturation process.

The relationship between Church and media should remain dynamic and never become complacent.  Each fulfils a different but valuable role in society and each is probably more like the other than either cares to admit.  This “odd couple’s” relationship will doubtless thrive for many years to come.

Let me conclude with a simple message.  When I was at secondary school we had a religion teacher, now deceased, called Fr Michael O’Carroll.  He was a Holy Ghost Father, a man of great intellect and a man of great humility.  He often talked to us about what he termed the apostolate of communications, particularly the apostolate of writing.

Fr O’Carroll believed with absolute conviction that Christianity, lived fully, is a source of true happiness, which is not to say that there won’t be ups and downs along life’s pathway.  In a world in which so many people are flailing around in a never-ending quest to give meaning to their lives, I believe that the Church can use the media to much greater effect to bring that message to such people.

I am aware that a huge amount of work has gone into organising the approaching Diocesan Assembly.  Many people throughout the diocese are looking forward to seeing it in place as they believe that one of its objectives will be to give the laity even greater participation in the life of the Church.

It seems to me that the media will have an immense role to play in bringing the work of the assembly and other aspects of church life to the notice of people throughout the diocese and beyond.  I am, therefore, suggesting that the Council of Priests would establish a sub-committee of three or four to consider positive usage of the media – as distinct from media manipulation – in the diocese, especially in the area of making the aims and objectives of the Assembly known and understood by the people.

Thank you for listening to me.

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