Few probably know it outside the ranks of the craft, but February is Catholic Press Month, when the church in the United States and Canada recognizes the importance of Catholic media and members of the Catholic media reflect in a special way on their service to the church.
These are not easy times for Catholic journalism, which no less than its
secular counterpart has been deeply unsettled by technologically driven
changes in how readers and viewers receive and share information.
disruption seems bound to continue indefinitely and there is no
consensus about where it will lead.
Yet Catholic Press Month 2014 should be an occasion for new hope. The
last year has witnessed developments within the church that offer
Catholic journalism major opportunities for greater influence, among the
faithful and the public at large.
On Feb. 11, 2013, Pope Benedict XVI announced that he would become the
first pope in nearly 600 years to resign. Those who were at the Vatican
press office that morning remember how quickly it filled with seemingly
all the accredited journalists in Rome, many of whom rarely covered
papal events. Approximately 5,600 journalists were accredited to report
on the conclave that elected Pope Francis March 13.
As it turned out, that papal transition was just the beginning of the
Vatican's longest stretch of global media attention since the
pontificate of Blessed John Paul II, and perhaps since the Second
Vatican Council half a century before. The attention shows no sign of
Pope Francis' colossal popularity has been a boon for news outlets of
every kind. Practically whatever he does excites curiosity that
translates almost instantly into higher television ratings or more
online page views.
Yet interest in a pope does not necessarily translate into interest in
the church as a whole. Much secular coverage of Blessed John Paul
focused on his unique work as a charismatic, world-traveling evangelist,
and on his role as a protagonist in the struggle for freedom in Eastern
Pope Benedict's announcement that he would step down initiated a period
of intense coverage of the church's traditions, practices, institutions
and teachings. What were the problems within the Vatican that had
reportedly prompted the pope to resign? What would it mean to have two
living men who had both served as pope? Such questions reflected an
interest in the church that transcended the actions of any single
Pope Francis has used his popularity to draw attention to a range of
concerns, especially the plight of the poor. But, with his ambitious
agenda of Vatican reform, his denunciations of "spiritual worldliness"
among the clergy and his frank critiques of church personnel and
institutions he deems insufficiently merciful or pastoral, the pope has
kept the secular press unusually focused on the internal life of the
church at every level.
Here is where the Catholic press can make a special contribution in at least two ways.
For the benefit of its Catholic readers and viewers, it can provide an
explicit corrective to oversimplifications, misunderstandings and
outright distortions in secular coverage of the church.
At the same time, the Catholic press can indirectly inform the many
people -- including a great number of Catholics -- who get their news of
the church primarily from secular media. Because secular journalists,
logically enough, turn to Catholic media for information and guidance
when they write about the church. The better their sources, the better
their reporting ultimately will be.
The latter role is a more modest one for the Catholic press, and
fulfilling it will do even less to solve the business challenges that
almost all its outlets face today. But in both ways, members of the
Catholic press are uniquely well positioned to help the church take
advantage of an extraordinary opportunity to reveal itself to the world.