VATICAN CITY (CNS) — 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. The 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 ending soon.
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 Europe.
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 leader.
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.