The Future of Catholic Journalism

The future of Catholic journalism is of great interest to me. This fact may surprise you, since I am neither a journalist nor a communications professional. I am a sacramental theologian whose doctoral work focused on liturgical formation in Augustine of Hippo.

Yet, it is the doctor of grace himself who is the source of my concern for both journalism and communications in Catholicism. At the beginning of his De doctrina christiana, Augustine notes that in teaching Christianity there are always two things to consider. First, there is the act of contemplation itself, meditating upon the Scriptures to discern the voice of God expressed through the signs of inspired, human speech. Second, there is the act of teaching, of discerning the way our own speech might be attuned to the mystery of love we have contemplated. Every act of teaching or communication, as Augustine addresses in his De catechizandis rudibus, must be attentive to the desires of the listener.[1] These desires are shaped in a certain social context, and if we are not attentive to this milieu, our proclamation of the Gospel will fall on deaf ears.

For this reason, over the last ten years, I have been reading widely in literature related to the social context of late modernity. It is clear, at least to me, a teacher of undergraduates for over a decade, that the Church is experiencing a crisis related to communications. This crisis, in my assessment, cannot be reduced to the problem of technique (if we found a better way to use Twitter or TikTok, we would bring everyone to Christ). Rather, we are experiencing a crisis related to authority itself. The Church, along with a variety of other institutions, is no longer worth listening to.

Let me give an example, perhaps one surprising to a group of journalists and communications professionals. In 2018, Theodore McCarrick resigned after being credibly accused of sexual abuse. In 2019, Pope Francis found McCarrick guilty of the allegations, returning him to the lay state. A colleague of mine wondered what effect this was having on the already tenuous faith of my undergraduate students. I performed an amateur sociological study (one that would make the fine folks at CARA blush with embarrassment) in which I asked the students what they thought about McCarrick. To my surprise, only 15% of my undergraduates knew what I was talking about.

All of this, I suspect, is bad news for Catholicism (and especially for journalists). In 2002, when the Boston sexual abuse crisis broke, there was a visceral anger that had not subsided by the time that I moved to the city in 2006 for my doctoral work. Such anger meant that people still cared about the Church; they were disappointed by the Church’s sins and felt abandoned by its leadership. An institution they had loved had failed them.

For my undergraduates, it was different. They had not heard about McCarrick. They did not really care. For the most part, many of the students were marginally Catholic to begin with. The endless reports of sexual abuse generated something like benign indifference, not because they were apathetic about sexual abuse but because they did not care that much about the Church.

But how is this possible? If you are a denizen of Catholic Twitter, as I am, how could you avoid the McCarrick scandal? It was everywhere. Rigorously committed to ideological diversity in my life and in my social media feed, I read reports from The National Catholic Reporter, The National Catholic Register, America Magazine, and First Things. I read editorials by Ross Douthat and Michael Sean Winters. How could my undergraduates miss this event?

And here, of course, is the perilous thing for a group of Catholic journalists and communicators alike. It is not just that my undergraduates were mostly apathetic about the Church. They are also basically apathetic toward journalism too. Yes, the political science students are receiving daily updates from The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But most of the students have the same reaction to journalism that they have to the Church: “Eh, you can’t really trust anyone. Including the journalists.” The United States, as reported by Reuters in 2021, has the lowest trust in media among 46 countries. Only 29% of Americans trust the media. Only 29% of Americans, therefore, trust you.  

And there you are. The United States is experiencing a crisis of authority of the highest order. It is the media. It is Congress. It is the Supreme Court. It is our educational systems. It is the Church.

And why, to be frank, should they trust us? For the last twenty years or so, institutional failure has been the experience of Millennials, the iPhone generation, and whatever we will call the generation of my 5-year-old daughter. They were told that if they went to college, then they would have jobs and live the American dream. It turns out it was more complicated than that. They were told that the wars we were fighting were necessary. Many of them were not. They were told that they would be happy if they achieved success. And guess what: “the heart is restless until it rests in Thee.”

And with the Church, it is even worse. They have been told, by us, that the Church is a Eucharistic communion manifesting the love of the triune God. But what they see is endless conflicts, hypocrisy, bishops fighting with one another, the confusion of the Gospel with political ideology, and the replacement of serious thought with propaganda.  

But to address this challenge, we must understand a bit more about the crisis of authority that is infecting Church and society alike. For what follows, I will define the crisis of authority in the Church, one that is leading to the phenomenon of disaffiliation. I will attend to the crisis of authority in journalism, focusing upon the three-fold danger of hermeneutic naivety, propaganda, and mimetic violence. Lastly, I will suggest ways that in the sacrificial love of Christ given in the Eucharist, the Catholic journalist may respond to both crises at once.

Disaffiliation and the Crisis of Authority

What is disaffiliation, and how do we fix it? Depending on where we come from, we will likely answer in different ways. To someone who is disposed to a conservative vision of the world, disaffiliation is the result of years of terrible catechesis. The Church taught the wrong things for years, and now we are reaping the harvest of our ineptitude. To another who would identify as progressive, disaffiliation is caused by the recalcitrance of the Church to update doctrines according to the needs of the present day. If only the Church would get with the times on LGBTQ issues, then membership in the Church would increase twelve-fold.

Both positions, in my assessment, fail to understand the dynamics of disaffiliation. It is, of course, cathartic to blame the Baby Boomers for all our problems. But it is not rare for me to hear from parents—who engaged in excellent catechesis of their children—lamenting that their son or daughter has left the Church. The catechesis was excellent, but still, only 1 of 4 of their children are active in ecclesial life. At the same time, we know that disaffiliation is not a Catholic phenomenon alone. It is a nearly universal trend in the United States, affecting a variety of non-Catholic ecclesial communions that are far less rigorous relative to teachings on human sexuality.

Something else is happening. Disaffiliation is not caused exclusively by a lack of knowledge or an overly traditional approach to Christian doctrine. Rather, disaffiliation is linked closely to a crisis in institutions. Religious identity was once understood as linked to our identity as members of a family. Whether one would be a good Catholic or not, you were required by familial bonds to be Catholics, if you were baptized. This is no longer the case, and the Church has struggled to keep up.

Another way of looking at the crisis of authority in the Church is a slightly nuanced account of secularization. Secularization is not a loss of a religious dispositions in human beings. One need only go on pilgrimage to the iPhone store in Portland, OR to see that we continue to reverence our own version of religious iconography. Rather, as the French sociologist Daniele Hervieu-Leger has noted, secularization is caused by a break in the chain of memory. [2] Once upon a time, we told the story of our identities connected to local communities. With the emergence of a version of capitalism that broke all social bonds, we are no longer members of such communities. Yes, the Italian Catholic once went to Mass because Nonna demanded it. Now that we have moved away from Nonna, there are no more leisurely Sunday dinners with the family, and consequently no more forced authority to attend Mass. The Church, in this way, becomes one option among many— which as Hans Joas has noted—does not lead to disenchantment, but to fewer people participating in religious practice out of received obligations.[3]

This is not the only thing happening. Through a liquid modernity where progress means forgetfulness (this iPhone is out of date and must go away), anything perceived as “old-fashioned” must be left behind unless it is consciously chosen—often with a bit of ironic distance. As my undergraduates constantly say in conversations with me, the Church’s proposals for human flourishing are too old-fashioned. They are traditional. They do not work for our time, and therefore we need to constantly remake the Church.

The last dimension of this crisis of authority that I want to attend to is the speed at which we expect this new Church to come into existence. The German sociologist Hartmut Rosa has written that modernity is marked not only by liquidity but by the speed at which such change is expected to come about.[4] Our adulation of rapid progress has led us to embrace a myth that we can control everything. My flight is delayed two hours because of a mechanical problem. Do they not know I have places to go? My internet is not working. Does this internet provider not understand that I need to communicate with people across the globe in seconds? The COVID-19 pandemic hits us, causing us to shut down dimensions of our social life. Why are there not already vaccines that erase all sickness forever?

You can imagine that when all these trends come together, you have a significant crisis of authority. People do not remember or have a sense that the Church offers them anything of note, a vision of human flourishing that comes about through life in Christ. And those who are members of the Church are increasingly impatient with the Church’s failures and foibles. If I, for example, do not really understand what the Church proposes in her Creed, if I do not see how the sacraments are the transformation of my life in Christ, if I do not comprehend how the moral life is the human person fully alive through this encounter with Christ, and if corruption breaks out in the Church, if I encounter hypocrisy, then why stick around?

Now, we are halfway to telling this story about a crisis in authority. And as journalists and communicators, you likely have already thought to yourself, “I know how to solve this.” We need to tell the story of the Church in a new light. We need to communicate the narrative of salvation in a way that is healing for the late modern person. We need to employ the best media strategies, to embrace transparency, to rebuild trust in the institution of the Church.

I, of course, agree with you. You should do all these things. But remember that the crisis of authority extends to you too. It does so in three ways: an awakening sense on the part of the public of the naivety of “just the facts,” a rise in propaganda in western democracies, and mimetic violence operating on social media platforms where many communications and journalism takes place.

First, let’s start with the public’s increasing distrust in journalists. Journalism, in the United States, has always been a bit strange. They have been understood as the priests and prophets of democracy within the United States, unveiling the truth for all of us to behold. This is very different from British newspapers, for example, where it is difficult to find a paper with the sobriety of the New York Times or The Washington Post. The assumption in the United States has been that journalists are just reporting the facts, often avoiding interpretation along the way. And yet, a former student of mine, Renée Roden, who possesses degrees in both theology and journalism suggested to me that this assumption was a bit naïve all along. It was the result of an Enlightenment account of knowledge where nearly everything is reducible to a fact.[5] Despite the best efforts of journalists, who must often confront their own bias in reporting, they are not just reporting the facts. They are always engaging in an act of interpretation.

Therefore, some of the distrust directed against journalists could in fact be good news for the Church. Not simply because this or that secular reporter’s bias against Catholicism will at last be unveiled for what it is. Rather, if properly directed, this critical awakening becomes an opening to address the nature of truth not as mere proposition but more akin to what we find in Thomas Aquinas: the exercise of intelligence in moving from the act of sensing to understanding. This is more akin to contemplation, taking a step back and beholding what is given, asking questions of it, judging it, and then offering it as a proposal to the wider community.[6] Journalists, in this mode, would develop virtues related to both contemplation and intellectual humility in performing one’s service to the Church and world alike.

And yet, this awakening to journalism’s bias is concurrent with the recognition that much of what we take in via digital media is propaganda and not journalism at all.[7] We know that our phones are listening to us. We know with each Facebook like, each retweet, and every TikTok video posted, we are creating data for the benefit of both advertisers and nefarious political actors. Let’s imagine that you post something about gun control on Twitter. This data is being gathered by a company or a political party. In coming months, they will write an article intended to create fear in you about gun control, timed around an upcoming election. The goal is not to report, or to help you contemplate what the United States should do to end mass shootings. It is to get you to vote. For this person.

Now, I suppose, all of this is fine and well until some people wake up from their slumber, exiting the cave of Platonic phantasms and see exactly what is happening. For some, the response will be benign indifference. They love their Facebook, TikTok, and Instagram so much, that they are willing to trade truth for propaganda. For others, there will be anger. Members of the MAGA coalition and Antifa protestors share something in common. They believe—and they are not entirely wrong—that they have been manipulated by forces outside their control. And for this reason, they respond to the violence of propaganda with the physical violence of storming the Capitol or destroying the windows of a store in downtown Portland. Either way, a response of indifference or endless violence is not precisely what Christ inaugurated with his proclamation of the kingdom of God.

How else can Catholic journalists survive without imitating the strategies of the propagandists? Must not Catholic communicators turn to marketing firms to discern the best way to present Catholicism for the late modern person? If Instagram influencers are successful, then we should create publications inspired by such figures, where at the same time we preach the Gospel.

These are the questions that you alone can answer. But let me note that in imitating such strategies, we may in fact be further undermining the authority of the Church and communications professionals alike. We may be performing an anti-Gospel, one based in mimetic desire and therefore eventually in violence. Rene Girard noticed that human beings are mimetic or imitative creatures.[8] We learn from others. And we also learn to desire things from others. There is a reason that two toddlers playing in a room full of toys end up desiring the same toy. I desire what you desire.

Such mimetic desire is important to human flourishing, even if it leads at times to conflict. If someone I admire desires life with Christ, then I may come to want that too. But we must be honest that mimetic desire often does lead to violence. And that the very social media platforms that have been integral to journalism, the Instagram influencer style to some of our magazines, and the way that we desire immediate and provocative communication from our leaders, can do damage to the social body.

Much of what passes today for Catholic Twitter, a space where many journalists dwell, is an exercise in mimetic violence. This or that public figure tweets something out related to Pope Francis. It is phrased in an intentionally provocative way, since the tweeter has come to subconsciously learn that provocations generate likes and retweets. It works. Retweet. Retweet. Retweet. But not everyone likes the post. Others feel the need to correct it, to disagree with this famous Twitter personality. The disagreement eventually becomes violent. Fr. Jim Martin is a heretic. Archbishop Cordileone should be defrocked. In both cases, we have a scapegoat. And now our polarized echo chambers can really get to work. It is the fault of the traditionalists. It is the fault of the boomer Catholics. It is your fault, it is your fault, it is your most grievous fault.

You can see, therefore, what might happen if Catholics let a mode of communicating based on mimetic desire take over. We would not have a communion of love, in which men and women are convoked by the love of Christ. We would be fractured. We would be a loosely connected group of sects. But we would no longer manifest our deepest identity as the one, holy Catholic Church born from the sacrificial love of Christ upon the cross. We would lose the only authority we possess, the only authority that St. Paul—the first Christian communicator in the Greco-Roman world—possessed: Christ crucified. 

Rediscovering Our Eucharistic Vocation

All of this may have taken us to a rather dark place, the kind of place that an Irish Catholic feels especially comfortable. But there is hope, a way that the Catholic journalist and communicator today might respond to this crisis of authority. It will not, first and foremost, be through learning better strategies for SEO analytics or manufacturing headlines that generate clicks. If that is our goal, I fear, we may have already lost. The telos of communication in the Church is always communion.[9] And we learn this art of communion through the Eucharistic mystery of the Church.

As we hear in the opening collect on Corpus Christi, the sacrament of the Eucharist is a memorial of Christ’s passion. It is his life, death, and resurrection made available to us here and now. It the source of all memory, all authority, the gift of divine love bestowed on us in a way that we can receive it. The doctrines of real presence and transubstantiation relate to the hidden way that God dwells with us in history, not forcing us to bend the knee before his presence but wooing us toward love.[10] God desires to unite Himself with us, to become friends, as St. Thomas notes relative to the Eucharistic mystery. And this friendship is meant to be shared by all in the Church. The Church is a communion of love, a love that surpasses anything that we could construct on our own. It is the love of the triune God that takes up our flesh and blood into his very divine life, not leaving behind any aspect of the human condition along the way.

This is the deepest identity of the Church. It is what St. Augustine means when he tells us to become what we have received in the Eucharistic mystery. Journalists and communicators have a role to play here: to let the Eucharistic mystery of the Church manifest itself for the life of the world. The consequences of this are threefold.  

First, in the Eucharist, truth is given in a way that takes a bit of time to behold. What looks like a mere gathering of people is the space where divine love dwells. You cannot see it, touch it, or taste it. Where the senses fail, faith alone suffices. The Eucharist is a slow space, rather than a fast one. It is defined by contemplative wonder more than immediacy of action.

Might journalists and communicators learn a bit of this contemplative wonder in their work. Not every story needs an immediate reaction. If the purpose of journalism and communications, in a sense, is the pursuit of the truth, we need to recognize that perceiving, recognizing, and judging the truth takes time. It requires nuance. It necessitates silence rather than participation in the noise.  

Second, the Eucharist is also anti-propaganda. In the Eucharist, Truth himself comes to dwell among us in a way in which our freedom is not erased. The hiddenness is part of the divine pedagogy. Give yourself, freely in return.[11]

We should be careful, for this reason, in understanding our task primarily as an exercise in a glossy version of public relations. We owe people the truth, because it is the truth that enables us to offer a free response of ourselves. Catholic propaganda on both the left and the right is ubiquitous, and in the end, it is unhelpful. I would encourage bishops to recognize that Catholic journalists—who operate with charity—must continue to be independent. Independence, of course shared in a community committed to the pursuit of truth, enables journalists to pursue together the truth.

Third, the Eucharist is anti-violent. It does not operate according to a certain mimesis or imitation. It is the love of Christ that is given, and our very bodies now become the site of this love.[12] We must imitate this love, reshaping our practices both in the church and outside of it considering the total gift of love that is received. A love that responded to violence with the gift of self rather than force.

This means that we must unplug from the mimetic violence that feeds so much Catholic journalism today. If Pope Francis names Bishop McElroy a Cardinal, this is not a smack down on conservative bishops that are getting their comeuppance. We do not need to respond to every transgression on social media, and we should be very careful to avoid participating in the cancel or spectacle culture where the public sacrifice of the scapegoat brings us all together in Dionysian ecstasy. We need to once again slow down. Our interlocutor is a human being, and if we do not possess a modicum of empathy even for those with whom we very definitely disagree, then how can we manifest the love of Christ to the world?

Lastly, the Eucharist is intended to take up every dimension of human life. It is the sacrament that divinizes men and women, bringing them into the public sphere where they can sanctify every crack and crevice of the cosmos. This is the proper nature of evangelization, not only convincing people to go to Mass, but creating a world infused with Eucharistic love.

In this sense, Catholic journalism and communication alike must move beyond intramural concerns. It is good to know that First Communions took place at this or that parish. It is right and just to have access to the bishop’s schedule. But we are creatures who exist in specific neighborhoods, cities, and states. The Church is not a culture meant to be turned in upon herself, but a culture intended to be leaven for every dimension of human life.[13] Our neighbor’s joys and sufferings are our joys and sufferings, no matter if they are Catholic or not. This is what the Church means by solidarity, a persistent commitment to the common good as made flesh in the life of those before me. Catholic journalists and communicators, therefore, need to engage the public sphere. Catholic papers, especially diocesan ones, must attend to every aspect of human existence in a particular time or space. What is the source of homelessness in Portland, and how can the Church respond? Why is there violence in cities, and what can the Church do? These are questions that Catholic papers must ask.

Conclusion

For those who are Catholic journalists or communicators, I suspect that I have gone on long enough telling you how to do your jobs. But I hope in addressing the crisis in authority that the Church is undergoing, a crisis of authority as intense for journalists, we may have a sense of the problem and opportunity before us. It is a realism that recognizes that we need a Eucharistic renewal of the way that we dwell together, pursuing the truth in love, in charity, in friendship, and ultimately in communion. Journalists and communicators possess this Eucharistic vocation.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay was originally delivered as the keynote address for the Catholic Media Association Conference in Portland, OR.


[1] I am grateful to John C. Cavadini for these insights, shared during the McGrath Institute for Church Life’s Church Communications Ecology Program’s annual conference.  

[2] See, Daniéle Hervieu-Leger, Religion as a Chain of Memory, trans. Simon Lee (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2000), 123-140.

[3] Hans Joas, “Increased Options as a Danger?” in Faith as an Option, trans. Alex Skinner (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014), 78-91.

[4] Hartmut Rosa, Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity, trans. Jonathan Trejo-Mathys (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013).

[5] See David A. Copeland, The Idea of a Free Press: The Enlightenment and Its Unruly Legacy (Evanston, IL: Northwestern, 2006).

[6] For an excellent introduction to this approach to seeking truth, see Jeremy D. Wilkens, Before Truth: Lonergan, Aquinas, and the Problem of Wisdom (Washington DC: CUA Press, 2018).  

[7] Peter Pomerantsev, This Is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (New York: Public Affairs, 2019).

[8] For an accessible introduction to Girard’s thought, see Luke Burgis, Wanting: The Power of Desire in Everyday Life (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021).

[9] Daniella Zsupan-Jerome, Connected toward Communion: The Church and Social Communications in the Digital Age (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2014).

[10] See my Real Presence: What Does It Mean and Why Does It Matter (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2021).

[11] Jan-Heiner Tück, A Gift of Presence: The Theology and Poetry of the Eucharist in Thomas Aquinas, trans. Scott G. Hefelfinger (Washington DC: CUA Press, 2018), 311-316.   

[12] Catherine Pickstock, Aspects of Truth: A New Religious Metaphysics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020), 113-140.

[13] See my recent Becoming Eucharistic People: The Hope and Promise of Parish Life (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria Press, 2022).