S+L logo

An Advent Reflection on the Catholic media we consume

November 30, 2018
CNS photo/Larry W. Smith, EPA
We’re a month removed from the Synod on Young People and there is much to digest and discuss. We, in the English-speaking world are still awaiting an official translation of the final document from the Vatican.
In the absence of that official translation, there is a primary source vacuum. English-speaking Catholics who wish to read the report themselves to inform their perspective on the Synod are dependent on the commentaries floating around the Catholic media and blogosphere.
Depending on what blog or website you read, you will get very different snapshots of what went on at the Synod, what the central points of the final document are, and whether the Synod was rigged or a genuine experience of synodality.
The result is that any ordinary Catholic, simply wishing to be informed, could develop a distinct picture of the Synod that is vastly different from another Catholic, based entirely on the websites they stumble upon or choose to visit. Who is to say whether the snapshot they are getting is the definitive snapshot? Who is to say whether the website they are browsing is even “Catholic”?
Interestingly, there is a paragraph in the final document that speaks to these troubling variations in the propagation of “Catholic” media. Paragraph 146 encourages young people to constructively shape the digital culture, including the development of some kind of verification system for “Catholic” websites. The objective, according to the Bishops, is to counter the spread of fake news regarding the Church.
The underlying question of the Bishops seems to be: What makes a “Catholic” website really “Catholic”?
This is also a question on the minds of ordinary Catholics. I often visit parishes and schools to present S+L programs or documentaries and to discuss current affairs in the church. More and more folks are asking about scandals, accusations, or statements they’ve read on a Catholic website and are deeply concerned with. They are often motivated by a deep love for the Church and for Pope Francis, and are seeking some context or clarification.
This is a grave pastoral challenge in the Church today. Catholics have a right and a duty to be informed about the faith and the affairs of the Church, whether it’s at the local diocesan level or at the Vatican. It will be interesting to see what Pope Francis does, if anything, with paragraph 146 in his forthcoming apostolic exhortation on the Synod and young people (probably to be released in the spring of 2019).
But in the meantime, it is worth reflecting on that pivotal question: What makes a “Catholic” website really “Catholic”? How can ordinary Catholics be confident that the perspective they’re reading reflects fundamental Catholic values and sensibilities?
To help answer that question, we should consider our Catholic media consumption practices and habits.
Here are a few criteria that could be considered. These are not definitive by any means, but reflect my professional experience over the years, as well as my understanding of the mission of Salt + Light Catholic Media to contribute constructively to Catholic discussions. Advent seems like the appropriate time for such a reflective practice, and I hope it serves your journey.
  • Assess your sources and read widely. What is the mission of the media sources we read? Does that mission reflect the basic principles of Jesus: love, compassion, concern for the poor and marginalized, forgiveness, mercy?
    Does their content reflect that mission?
    Are the websites we read “small-c catholic,” meaning, are they welcoming of a variety of views?
    How often do we return to the same sources for our information? And, do we return because the information is honest and accurate, or because it reinforces our own positions?
Practice: Every once in a while read websites we wouldn’t normally read. For example, if we read something critical or suspicious of Pope Francis, search for a commentary from another source on the same topic that is more sympathetic.
  • How they say it.  What is the tone of the content we read? Is it angry? Is it frustrated? Is it judgemental? Is it dismissive, or does it approach topics/subjects objectively, in an honest search for the truth?
    A Catholic website would presumably contain a healthy amount of hope and joy. Even if news is dire, a Christian knows that God is at work in the world and in the Church, and therefore has a positive message.
Practice: When reading the websites we frequent, pause and ask what positive, hopeful things they represent and communicate. If we can’t discern the answer, or if the content is consistently negative or critical, consider broadening your sources.
  • Look for inherent balance. St. Benedict famously wrote for his monks: “All things in moderation.” A Catholic website will always be moderate and balanced. Alternatively, an extreme expression of one charism, or an obsession with one idea, can unbalance any community, or reader. Not everything is always black and white. Catholic commentators who are faithful to the tradition understand how malleable that tradition really is.
Practice: Look for balance in content. If a website is highly critical of Pope Francis on a regular basis, search the site for something positive written about him. A Catholic commentator or journalist will always point out the good in people and in the Church, despite personal preferences. The same goes for Pope Benedict, or any other pope!
  • Catholic-on-Catholic verbal violence. If Christianity is a religion of peace, why do so many Catholics criticise and condemn each other online? Be wary of any media outlet whose expertise is condemnation. A Catholic website will put aside personal or ideological differences to maintain unity in the community. I always remember what Pope Francis said to the American Bishops when he visited Washington, DC, a few years ago:
    “The path ahead is dialogue… I cannot ever tire of encouraging you to dialogue fearlessly. The richer the heritage which you are called to share with parrhesia, the more eloquent should be the humility with which you should offer it. Do not be afraid to set out on that “exodus” which is necessary for all authentic dialogue. Otherwise, we fail to understand the thinking of others, or to realize deep down that the brother or sister we wish to reach and redeem, with the power and the closeness of love, counts more than their positions, distant as they may be from what we hold as true and certain. Harsh and divisive language does not befit the tongue of a pastor, it has no place in his heart; although it may momentarily seem to win the day, only the enduring allure of goodness and love remains truly convincing.”
Practice: Many of us post content on Twitter or Facebook and comment on other content. What is the ratio of positive to negative engagement or comments on our social media? Try to post at least one comment with positive reinforcement for a fellow Catholic every time we sign online.
  • Connected to Peter, the rock. It’s always been a defining characteristic of Catholics. Being connected to Peter, the Bishop of Rome, does not mean agreeing with him on everything. It means believing in the necessity of unity in the community, the presence of the Holy Spirit, and the will of Jesus himself. A Catholic website or media outlet will always show explicit respect for the Bishop of Rome and encourage its readership to delve into his teachings.
Practice: Make a list of the gifts each pope of your lifetime had. Reflect on how they complement one another. How do they challenge us in different ways?