Catholic news is, itself, in the news. The latest kerfuffle concerns a statement from Archbishop Jose Gomez (president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops) on the inauguration of President Joe Biden, the intervention of the Vatican Secretariat of State, and the dust-up that followed among American bishops – along with a slew of opinionated comments on social media.
In light of the feast of the patron of Catholic writers and journalists (St. Francis de Sales, on Jan. 24), perhaps it’s time to revisit the practice of issuing episcopal statements.
Bishops exercise a special pedagogical authority in the church. Being “successors of the Apostles as pastors of souls,” and appointed “to teach all nations, to hallow men in the truth, and to feed them,” they alone serve as “true and authentic teachers of the faith” (Vatican II, Christus Dominus, no. 2).
That teaching finds its primary medium in catechetical preaching, whether in liturgies or lectures. It also takes written form through pastoral letters, seasonal messages, and even ecumenical greetings.
These days, amid a 24/7 news cycle, the diocesan press office has become a new pulpit. Through it, “statements” issued to the media allow bishops to share their views on people and events making news locally, nationally, or internationally. Once the purview of public relations, this means of communication raises some questions about ecclesial leadership in the digital world.
The church, while universal in mission and magnitude, operates locally, within a diocese or “particular church” defined as such by its geography. There the bishop’s voice can and should be heard – by the faithful as an authoritative teacher and by others as a concerned leader committed to the good of all. Thus, it makes perfect sense for a church leader to comment on newsworthy matters significantly affecting the lives of people in his locale.
But no national diocese exists. Some bishops have greater prominence in the news world given their ecclesial rank (e.g. cardinals, archbishops), the size of the diocese they govern, or the prominence of the city in which they work. But we have no “bishop of the USA.”
As a result, the multiplication of statements can dilute a unified message. At best, issuing numerous statements creates information overload rather than theological insight or spiritual succor.
Even when bishops issue statements on national issues (after all, “all politics is local”), what ecclesial purpose do they serve? Is the communique intended to provide clarity (catechesis) or conviction (mystagogy)? Does this form of teaching offer food for the mind (meaning) or heart (care) or soul (guidance)?
Whatever the intent, “statements” suffer a fundamental flaw. A pastoral letter is addressed to a particular group. A bishop’s message is sent to someone. Episcopal greetings are extended to specific recipients. But for whom are statements made? Society as a whole? The general public? The believing community? Lacking a defined audience, statements transmitted into the digital ether risk falling unattended into empty space.
To guide their flocks effectively, the church’s shepherds do need to be engaged with breaking news and active in media relations. To do that efficaciously, bishops should consider the methodology of a fellow pastor of souls – Francis de Sales (1567-1622), bishop of Geneva and doctor of the church.
Francis de Sales undertook ecclesial and diplomatic missions that involved contentious matters and oppositional forces. European “wars of religion” between and within Christian communities, along with the political machinations that instigated or accompanied them, gave rise to divisions on a scale much greater than today’s partisan polemics.
Into this disunited world, Francis de Sales brought a distinctive brand of communications.
Specifically, he engaged in a highly successful press action. To teach about doctrinal matters, he wrote pamphlets about articles of the faith. He distributed these to townspeople who, owing to fear or constraint, would not listen to him preach. That innovativeness factored prominently in his being declared the patron of journalists (by Pope Pius XI in 1923).
More generally, Francis de Sales communicated personally and personably. He courageously interacted with his adversaries, whom he regarded always with Christian esteem. According to Father Joseph Chorpenning, the Salesian method set Francis apart from both the violence by which Calvinists coerced the citizenry and the aggression employed by fellow Catholic missionaries.
Francis won people’s hearts “through gentle persuasion, other-oriented dialogue that seeks common ground and restores unity through reconciliation, and humility in the service of collaborative ministry that was often difficult and challenging.”
In today’s challenging world, where commentary now dominates the media, “statements” formulated as episcopal teaching seek to shape social understanding and action. In making them, and in commenting about them, perhaps we could all turn again to the example of Francis de Sales, whose own approach to church communications made of him “the gentleman saint.”
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Father Thomas Dailey, O.S.F.S., is the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary, Wynnewood, and a research fellow for the Catholic Leadership Institute in Malvern.
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