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Catholic Media on the Decline

Jose Vallikatt Jose Vallikatt
23 May 2022
Catholic Media on the Decline

A cartoon widely circulated in social media on this year’s Press Freedom Day depicted a pair of huge boots-worn legs and two fallen journalists in front of it in a submission posture donning their journalistic attire. One of them comments, ‘India has further fallen down in the press freedom index,’ while the latter wonders about its reason. The cartoonist Manjul demonstrates the fallen state of Indian media in a few strokes.

Some people define Church as having a ‘communication mission’ which is very tenable with its fundamental theology as well as for its consistent engagement with evangelisation and social life. As the Catholic Church is celebrating World Communications Day on May 29, this article investigates how much its media ministry serves to be the voice of the voiceless and analyse its prospectus. 

A Christian Mission Derailed

Though Church is not a media house, no one would challenge the Church’s positive role as communicators. While the secular media are supposed to serve facts in a professional way, Church has a higher vocation of being ministers of truth. Church’s role to be a ‘medium’ is very much theological and is characteristic to the Trinitarian communication which is an unceasing process. Its media model is Christ who is the messenger of God’s love, as well as who channelise life and truth to everything in the created world. These principles have been delineated in the official teachings ranging from decries, exhortations, and World Communications Day (WCD) messages since the Council of Vatican II.

Even as one accepts the fact that there had been a boom of communication in the Indian Church in the 70s and 80s a sharp analysis makes us conclude that it was mostly reduced to infrastructure development such as publication houses, AV studios etc. The audience it addressed belong to mostly catholic faithful except in the case of some newspapers such as Deepika, a Malayalam daily.

A Kite Without Strings

The simplicity and ubiquity of social media has increasingly helped people to express their personal opinions, tastes and hobbies breaking the geographical barriers. Women, being second to none, came up to the social media with strong messages and a variety of their personal interests. However, Church personnel with an exception of a miniscule minority, are found to be absent in the digital media domain, albeit they own very expensive and sophisticated mobile devices.

Every year the Church celebrates the WCD to remind its faithful, professionals and the clergy about the duty of communications as well as communication of truth. However, the celebrations reduce to the WCD message, some posters or video reels, or to the maximum of a seminar lecture by some so called communication experts. While day after day it is becoming evident that no one can do away with communications, Church needs better approaches to communications and media.

Ecclesiastical leadership including the pastors have failed miserably to understand the language of post-modern generation. This has significantly affected the Church communication ranging from liturgical performance, homilies, Church communique, dissemination of facts through press releases, video statements, discussion forums and finally religious fiction. The body language of the pastors as well as the organisational language of the basic units of the Church is absolutely un-attractive for the present generation. Pastors direly need post-modern imagination as well as vocabulary.

Fake information

However, we cannot completely criticise that the pastors are an absolute non-presence in social media. A few bishops regularly communicate through their official web pages or social media platforms such as Facebook, or YouTube. Though most official websites of dioceses or congregations present outdated statistical data as well as static history, they do not communicate any relevant current themes related to spirituality, theology, social justice, or morality. The content of evangelical and charismatic media -- print, electronic, or interactive -- is unhealthy and unproductive as they are increasingly becoming Pentecostal in style and content. 

Many priests do have Facebook account. But most of them use it to showcase their glamour shoots and as a platform to celebrate their birthdays, anniversaries etc. There are some priests who share brilliant homilies, biblical theological analysis and socio-political criticisms. However, a new set of priests, nuns and youth have emerged in the recent past who are very active in the social media but with Christian fundamentalist and communal extremism, who are characterised with Islamophobia and aligning with right wing Hindutva ideologies. It is surprising that the trend is prevalent in Kerala and, apparently, they are silently supported by the leadership. Whereas some fundamentalist groups have emerged recently with strong anti-Christian messages taking advantages of the Church, no formal ecclesiastical body has yet condemned them. Nevertheless bishops, popular charismatic preachers and organisations have been encouraging some, and some only support them. 

The common trend among these groups is spread of lies, half-truths and fake information. It is a disservice to truth, whereas the Church is called to be ministers of truth. They spread ideas such as communal purity, putting women in bad light, spreading hate and instilling fear among faithful. This approach is absolutely against the communication principles of the Church as it denies truth itself which is God himself.

Polarised Agendas

It is shocking to learn that the Church, which would be perhaps the largest organization in India, has polarised opinions about minority religious freedom and other social issues. Bishop Peter Machado of Bengaluru is very vocal about minority issues even being the voice of the persecuted Islamic community for their rights of religious dress while in Kerala bishops are almost anti- Islamic. They do not dare to speak for those communities, such as oppressed women, Dalits, or on other socio-political issues perpetrated by the right wing ruling class. How come the Church across India, which is under the aegis of CBCI, does not have one single voice regarding national issues?

Flawed Strategies
With regard to communication, the Church does not follow any standard, nor are its stalwarts experts. They think that communication is something like liturgical performance and pulpit preaching which no one questions. However, people are increasingly becoming politically correct and they expect socially responsible people to be politically correct. Some of the recent speeches delivered by bishops as well as high profile priests, and the press statements issued by ecclesiastical organisations suffer from want of clarity, data, and rationale. Spokespersons of the church are unskilled, ignorant and are only politically and communally motivated. These combined flaws reduce Church akin to opportunist political parties with vested agendas. 

As Jesus has taught us, lips utter words from the fullness of heart. A terrible lack of docility to spirit, capacity to listen, critical thinking, sensitivity to the poor and marginalised has gripped the Church. We must say this is diabolical which the Church should overcome through continued renewal and submitting to the Holy Spirit. Pastors envision themselves as managers and are unquestionable. This is because they view Church as a structure rather than people of God or God's communicative agency. When some issues arise, they panic first (a Frankenstein effect) and then resort to easy and temporary solutions. 

Finally, the so-called communicators of the Church often do not have a heart and ear for listening others. The two important anti-dote for communicative pitfalls of the Church are: a) turn to Holy Spirit and renew themselves; and b) make Church more participatory and inclusive.

Without proper and effective communication, the Church is a big zero. This communication should be both internal and external. The Church needs to be more sensitive to Gospel values and its social teachings. It also needs to be well-versed in social developments occurring in the society. It has to respond to the present social milieu by taking a proactive approach in its communication strategies. The Church needs to counter the post-truth mindset by upholding its authoritative and trustworthy position through proclamation of Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. 

Church's communication must primarily rely on some technologies. It must not only get in touch with the secular society in general, but also with other minorities, persecuted and exploited class. Without this two-pronged communication approach, it risks having its voice being drowned out by a plethora of voices both inside and outside of the Church, many of which aim to disrupt unity within the Church as well as with the general public.

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