The new culture of communication and the Catholic media

The new culture of communication requires that Catholic media rethink their approach, the president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications told a Fort Wayne audience gathered to celebrate the centennial of Our Sunday VisitorArchbishop Claudio Celli spoke about the Catholic Church’s focus on new evangelization and addressed new media and the communications revolution that has created a vast cultural transformation in the past 25 years, as well as the place Catholic communications must have in the digital world. Here I quote some long passages of his speech which is published in the website of the Pontifical Council for Social Communication:

[…]. It is not easy to offer a comprehensive definition of the New Evangelization – I am sure that the forthcoming Synod will help to address this – I would, however, suggest that the ‘newness’ has to do both with the situation in which we find ourselves and with the response that is required if we are to be faithful to our abiding mission to make known the person of Jesus and his message. We must strive to understand the cultural contexts in which we find ourselves if we are to render an account of our faith in the present situation which, unlike in the past, has a variety of new and important aspects (Instrumentum Laboris, 2012, #42) and our response must be new in its ardour, methods and expression (Pope John Paul II, CELAM, 1983). In this context, it has become common to juxtapose New Evangelization and New Media. This is a good and obvious connection. It is clear that the use of new media can greatly enhance our efforts to communicate and make known the Good News but we must be careful that our reflection on this topic does not remain at the technical or instrumental level. It is not enough to ask how we can use the new media to evangelize; we must begin by appreciating how radically our way of living has been transformed by new technologies and how the media environment or landscape has changed.

The last twenty five years have seen an exponential rate of development in the capacities of the technologies available to support and facilitate human communication. The combination of these developments in mobile telephony, computer technology, fibre-optics and satellites mean that many of us now carry with us devices that allow us instant access to an extra-ordinary range of information, news and opinion from around the globe and that enable us to communicate by word, text or the sharing of images with people and institutions in every corner of the world. This revolution in information and communication technologies, however, cannot be adequately understood merely in instrumental terms: it is not simply a question of communication and the exchange of information growing in terms of volume, speed, efficiency and accessibility but rather that we are also witnessing concomitant changes in the ways in which people use these technologies to communicate, learn, interact and relate – we are living through a change of paradigm in the very culture of communication. As Pope Benedict has pointed out: The new technologies are not only changing the way we communicate, but communication itself, so much so that it could be said that we are living through a period of vast cultural transformation (Message, WCD, 2012).

The new culture of communication requires that Catholic media rethink their approach. We cannot simply do what we have always done, albeit with new technologies. In the early life of the Church, the great Apostles and their disciples brought the Good News of Jesus to the Greek and Roman world. Just as, at that time, a fruitful evangelization required that careful attention be given to understanding the culture and customs of those pagan peoples so that the truth of the gospel would touch their hearts and minds, so also today, the proclamation of Christ in the world of new technologies requires a profound knowledge of this world if the technologies are to serve our mission adequately (Pope Benedict XVI, Message, 2009). I would like to identify some of the more obvious features of this new culture and tease out the implications that follow for Catholic media. I do not intend to offer definitive solutions – the cultural transformation is still ongoing and my observations are necessarily tentative – but I offer some ideas in order to stimulate further debate and to encourage others to take up this reflection.

The first and most basic point is that the digital space is a reality in the lives of many people today. We must not think of it as a ‘virtual’ space which is somehow less important than the real world. If the Church is not present in this space, if the Good News is not proclaimed ‘digitally’, then we risk abandoning the many people for whom this is where they ‘live’: this is the forum in which they get their news and information, form and express their opinions, ask questions and engage in debate. Catholic media has responded well to this challenge and much good work has been done by traditional media operations in developing a presence in the digital arena and in achieving the necessary convergences to make their content available also on the web. The further challenge is to achieve the types of transformation in our communication style that will make our digital presence effective. I am convinced that a particular task for Catholic media is that of helping the Church to find a language appropriate to the new media environment created by the technologies and the social networks. This is especially important if we are to be faithful to our mandate to speak to those who are not members of our community – to other Christians, to those of other religions, to non-believers and to those who are now distant from the life of faith having parted from the Church for various reasons.

We must attend particularly to the question of language. In speaking of language, I want to refer of our forms of discourse, our modes of communication and our vocabulary. It is a commonplace to observe that the style of discourse of the digital forum, especially of the so-called Web 2.0, is conversational, interactive and participative. As a Church, we are more used to preaching, to teaching and to issuing statements. These are important activities but the most effective forms of digital discourse are those that engage people individually, that seek to respond to their specific questions and that attempt to dialogue. We need to understand better how our message is being heard and understood by different audiences. We have always, and rightly, focused on the content of our teaching; today we must listen more attentively to our audience, or the multiple audiences we address, and understand their concerns and questions. We need to understand better, and take account of, the contexts and environments in which they will encounter the Word of God. The emergence of the internet as an interactive medium, where users seek to engage as subjects and not just as consumers, invites us to develop more explicitly dialogical forms of teaching and presentation. Adapting a more dialogical style is a huge logistical and resource challenge but we can draw hope jennifer nettles pokies from the example of Father Noll who is said to have responded in person to every letter he received within a day notwithstanding the huge volume of his correspondence. Today, in replying to blogs, in commenting on articles and posts, in debating our positions in different social media we are not just engaging our direct interlocutors but wider publics and audiences.

Within the Church, we are accustomed to the use of texts as a normal mode of communication. Many of the websites that have been developed by different Church institutions continue to use that language. One can find on the web many wonderful homilies, speeches and articles but it is not clear if they speak to a younger audience that is fluent in a different language; a language rooted in the convergence of text, sound and images. We need to rediscover the capacity of art, music and literature to express the mysteries of our faith and to touch minds and hearts. Just as the stain glass images of the medieval cathedrals spoke to an illiterate audience, we must find digital forms of expression that are appropriate to a generation that has been described as “post-literate”. We have long being accustomed to telling our story; we can now aspire to show who and what we are. We need to learn to show how we celebrate our faith, how we seek to serve and how our lives are graced and blest. We must communicate in our witness: simply proclaiming the message does not penetrate to the depths of people’s hearts, it does not touch their freedom, it does not change their lives. What attracts is, above all, the encounter with believing persons who, through their faith, draw others to the grace of Christ by bearing witness to him (Pope Benedict XVI, Fatima, 2010).

We need to be more attentive to our vocabulary. Much of our religious and ecclesial language is unintelligible even to believers. Many of our religious icons and symbols need to be explained for our contemporaries. We can no longer presume that young people, even in countries with a long Christian heritage, are familiar with our most basic beliefs. […].

Another feature of the new media landscape that can pose a particular challenge to the Church’s communication efforts is that it not hierarchical. The digital space is said to be open, free and peer-to-peer – it does not automatically recognize or privilege the contributions of established authorities or institutions. In this environment, authority has to be earned, it is not an entitlement. This means that Church leaders, in common with other established political and societal leaders, are required to find new forms of framing their communications so that their contributions to this forum receive adequate and appropriate attention. We are learning to move beyond the paradigm of the pulpit and the passive congregation which listens out of respect for our position. We are now obliged to express ourselves in ways that engage and convince others who in turn will share our ideas with their friends, followers and dialogue partners. These new forms of capillary or networked communication can of course be primed and enhanced if we structure our Catholic digital presence in a more coherent manner. […].

There is still a need for the Catholic media to offer a view of the Church that it would be difficult to find in the secular media. It involves offering a perspective on various events and happenings that is informed by the values and insights of our shared faith and that is born from an understanding of the Church as the community of believers brought into being by the desire of Christ – an understanding that is largely absent in other media where the Church is often presented in exc1usively political or sociological terms. As Pope Benedict said to a gathering of Italian Catholic newsweeklies: give a voice to a viewpoint that respects Catholic thought in all ethical and social matters (26th November 2010). This does not mean turning a blind eye to problems, also within the life of the Church, but it does mean trying to address them from the perspective of faith. The Church has many unloving critics; critics who seem at times keen to reveal the negative aspects of the Church in order to wound it. The Church is not well served either by those who might be described as uncritical lovers; people who, often out of a misplaced sense of loyalty, try to deny the existence of tensions and problems in a manner that ultimately may damage the credibility of the Church. The Church needs a media that is not afraid to expose mistakes and failures but whose motive is to challenge the community of believers to continue on the path of conversion, so that the Church will be more fully what it is called by Christ to be – a community that witnesses credibly in word and deed to the love of God for all humanity. The Catholic media will not be credible if it does not confront sins, abuse, weaknesses and failings within our community but it would be less than objective and fair if it did not also point to events and happenings that point to the abiding presence of the Spirit. Speaking to journalists during the Jubilee of Redemption Pope, John Paul II said: The Church tries and will try more and more to be a ‘glasshouse’ where all may see what is happening, and how she accomplishes her mission in fidelity to Christ and the evangelical message. But the church expects that a similar effort of authenticity will be performed by those who are put in the position of observers and have to report the Church’s life and doings to others… (27 January 1984).

[…] Respectful dialogue does not mean that we will always reach agreement. It does require that we will never cease to understand the other’s position. We debate not to score points against each other, but in order to grow in mutual insight. Pope Benedict, in the context of his meeting with representatives of the world of culture in Lisbon, reminds us that: The Church, in her adherence to the eternal character of truth, is in the process of learning how to live with respect for other “truths” and for the truth of others. Through this respect, open to dialogue, new doors can be opened to the transmission of truth (12th May 2010).

I would invite the Catholic media to foster reasonable and fair approaches to issues; and to showcase the possibility of ‘disagreeing without being disagreeable’. We all know that the digital arena is one where arguments frequently descend into unedifying shouting matches, where the most outlandish and immoderate forms of expression often enjoy the strongest traction. As Catholics, we need never hesitate to express ourselves forcibly, to correct error and condemn injustices; but we must always speak the truth in love. It is natural that debates about faith and morals should be full of conviction and passion but there is a growing risk that some forms of expression are damaging the unity of the Church and, moreover, are unlikely to draw the curious and the seekers to a desire to learn about the Church and the Gospel it seeks to teach. […]