Friday, June 4, 2010

From Bishop Zavala on Catholic Media, to Blind Men and an Elephant

I'm pretty sure that Bishop Zavala didn't have me and this blog in mind, when he delivered a talk about Catholic media. On the other hand, since I'm a practicing Catholic,1 and have this blog, I'm a small part of Catholic Media in America. So I've read what Bishop Zavala had to say: and intend to go over it again, to make sure that I've got it straight.

Here's an excerpt from what the bishop had to say:
"Bishop Zavala on Catholic Media"
USCCB Media Blog (June 4, 2010)

"Catholic media professionals from the U.S. and Canada have been gathered for the past week in New Orleans for the annual Catholic Media Association convention. Among the highlights of their gathering was a message from Pope Benedict himself at his weekly general audience.

"Yesterday, June 3, Bishop Gabino Zavala, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles and Chairman of the U.S. Bishops' Communications Committee, delivered a talk on what it means to be a faithful Catholic media organization today. Bishop Zavala plunged right in to the tough questions and dynamic tensions that define the reality of Catholic media today, and in this writer's humble opinion, he hit it out of the park.

"Full text follows ......"

" 'Faithful' Catholic Media – What is it Not

"...I also do not think that we should go to the other extreme and simply say that faithful Catholic media organizations are those who engage in apologetics to defend bishops at all costs. That is too simplistic and does not respect the intelligence of Catholics in North America. They deserve a Catholic media that takes a more nuanced perspective.

"Lastly, I do not believe that faithful Catholic media organizations should present themselves as speaking for the Magisterium. Only the Magisterium can speak for the Magisterium. While this sounds self-evident, it bears saying because there appear to be some organizations who do not see this point.

"...Elements of a 'Faithful' Catholic Media

"I want to now shift to talking about the elements of a faithful Catholic media organization. As I said at the beginning of the talk, there is not a “one-size-fits-all” formula and I cannot give a comprehensive list of characteristics. But there certainly are elements worth pointing out.

"Let's begin with the idea that faithful Catholic media organizations work from a perspective of being part of the Catholic community, not outside it. This carries two assumptions:

"First, Catholic media should work from a Catholic perspective, not the so-called 'objective' perspective of the secular media (and of course we know that secular media are not objective anyway). I believe that it is crucial to have media with a distinctly Catholic voice that offers the unique Catholic perspective on the world and humanity.

"Second, Catholic media has a responsibility to the larger Catholic community. Two useful words here are 'loyalty' and 'service.' As I said before, I am not suggesting that Catholic media should engage purely in apologetics. Rather, I think that faithful Catholic media organizations are loyal in that they wish to see the Church succeed and care about its health and well-being. Their service to the Church is to report the truth, because the truth does set us free. Their loyalty is their care about the Church’s well-being, from its most vulnerable members to the community as a whole. So I am suggesting that the faithful Catholic media organization is one that both reports the truth and does so with an eye to how that reporting can best serve the Church.

"At their core, Catholic media organizations have two main roles to play in our Church: to inform and to teach.

"To Inform: This is the most basic and obvious role – keeping Catholics informed about local and global events in the Church – and many of you already do this very well. There are so many wonderful stories in our large, diverse Church, stories that only Catholic media can cover. As you cover these stories, I want to encourage you to move beyond just reporting news. Rather, I would hope that you would situate your reporting within Peter 3:15 and report within a context of how to give hope.

"Teach: Catholic media has a second, unique role of teaching and helping Catholics to deepen their understanding of their faith and how it is lived out in the world. To do this requires that Catholic media be staffed by people who are theologically trained and able to use media to effectively teach. As bishops we are concerned that this is not always the case. And so we must challenge Catholic media to make this investment. And we bishops must be willing to help with this as well. I hope that our conversation today and tomorrow will identify ways in which we can collaborate in this area...."


The auxiliary bishop wrote, "Only the Magisterium can speak for the Magisterium." That's pretty obvious - providing that the reader knows what the Magisterium is. My guess is that most non-Catholics, and too many Catholics, don't. Here's a definition:
"Magisterium: The living, teaching office of the Church, whose task it is to give as authentic interpretation of the word of God, whether in its written form (Sacred Scripture), or in the form of Tradition...."
(Cathechism of the Catholic Church, Glossary, M)
I'm a fairly bright fellow, I read a lot, and I do my research: but I'm a Catholic layman. I'm not authorized to speak for the Church. I wouldn't be, even if I rounded up a dozen folks who agreed with me and formed a 'mini-magisterium of me and my friends.'

The Catholic Church doesn't work like that. I've discussed the Bible, the Magisterium, and Tradition before: and why I'm okay with being part of a church that doesn't let us vote on which of the ten commandments we like this year.

Not "Objective?!"

I looked up "objective." Depending on how the word's used, it can be a noun or an adjective. As an adjective, it's got quite a few meanings, including:
  • Undistorted by emotion or personal bias; based on observable phenomena
  • Emphasizing or expressing things as perceived without distortion of personal feelings, insertion of fictional matter, or interpretation.
    (Princeton's WordNet)
I won't argue with the dictionary meanings: these, and the many other things "objective" can mean. However, I'm strongly inclined to think that people can't be perfectly objective.

Each of us has a particular viewpoint, a
  • Position in society
  • Unique set of experiences
  • Particular set of working assumptions about how the world works
We can start with "observable phenomena" - but what we think those phenomena are depends on
  • What we think is and isn't so
  • Where we're 'standing'
I'd say that the story of the blind men studying an elephant applies here.

That said, I think people can be more - or less - careful about how they come to conclusions, and more - or less - careful about making sure they've got all the available facts before making their "objective" report.

My model for collecting information and writing about it is based on the way Thucydides worked. He's an ancient Greek historian - who wrote about essentially current events. Many of which he'd been personally involved with. He wrote from his point of view: and was careful about getting the facts straight. I've written about that before, in another blog.

I do think that there is an objective reality - just as there was an elephant that the blind men were examining. What we make of that reality gets, I think, more and more accurate and complete, the more we collect information and check our facts.

Being Catholic, Not Being Omniscient

So, if I don't think people can be "objective," how come I'm a Catholic?

First of all, I think people can't be perfectly objective. Each of us is blessed with our own point of view: which makes things more interesting. We can, if we try, get more and more 'objective,' as we sort out what we feel about something, what we know about it, and what we're able to verify.

Second, the Catholic Church is something of a special case. It's almost 2,000 years old: with detailed records going all the way back. Today's Church has the collected observations and wisdom of folks like Catherine of Siena, Thomas Aquainas, Teresa of Avila, Anthony of Padua, and Thérèse of Lisieux - all saints, and doctors of the Church.

Oh, Wait: The Bishop was Writing about Journalists

Maybe Bishop Zavala meant "journalists" when he said "media." Here's how he wound up his talk:
"...How can Catholic media maintain its integrity as journalists? What are the journalistic standards for a Catholic who also sees himself/herself as having a vocation as a media professional in the Church? Or one who is operating as a media professional?

"How do these issues change when looked at in the context of the 21st century media environment, with Internet and bloggers? What other issues arise? What does it mean to be a universal church in a global communication environment?

"When does an organization cease being a Catholic news organization? What are the boundaries between being a Catholic news organization and a Catholic public relations agency?"
(USCCB Media Blog)
Focusing on news media? That's okay. I plan to re-read that post, anyway. Some of what I do is sort of 'journalistic,' and quite a bit of what the bishop said can apply to many sorts of media.

Somewhat-related posts:
A tip of the hat to usccbmedia, on Twitter, for the heads-up on their post.

1 I'm a "practicing Catholic." So that means I haven't gotten it right yet, so I'm still practicing? Actually: that's pretty close to how it works.

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