Pope John Paul II called for a “New Evangelization” to build a civilization of love. You can read about it here, if you’re not familiar. One of the problems cited in the context of the Americas is “the scarce presence—in certain cases, the complete absence—of the Church in the field of the means of social communication. ” In other words, in an increasingly high-tech world, the Catholic Church still rocks out the AOL-era wallpaper on a site that, while improving, is still a bit behind the times for a Church with as much going on as this one. By way of contrast, here’s Shaun Gallagher’s vision for a Vatican website done more in the style of Obama’s popular campaign website and the current whitehouse.gov. If there’s one thing that the Obama camp has done very well, it’s presenting the message that it wants to present: it’s done clearly, and in a way which regular people understood, and can log on to the website and explore.
In contrast, the Church is often slow to respond to crises, and when it does, it’s often in a disorganized manner. When it comes to answering the questions of faith which people have (Catholics and non-Catholics alike), it was long the case that one could much more readily find people assailing and misrepresenting the Catholic view than find an actual Catholic source explaining the issue in question. Two solutions have been proposed to solve this problem:
- the use of the media to transmit the Gospel message and the Magisterium of the Church. At this level, even where the Church in all America is utilizing various means in the media to transmit her news (periodicals, various publications, radio and television broadcasts, computer networks, etc.), there is evidence that the use made of these media is often inadequate for lack of updated equipment, economic resources and sufficiently skilled personnel.
- the integration of the Gospel message in this “new culture” created by modern communications. The evangelization of present-day culture indeed depends to a large extent on the influence of the media. At this level, there is a need to bring the values of the Gospel to bear on the ethical principles underlying the handling of information, the content of communication transmitted to the masses and the goals of working in the world of communications. Too frequently the goal of the agents of communications is economic gain and not the promotion of the person.
In other words, we need the creation of modern, high-tech media whose goal is the conversion of souls, not the selling of papers or turning of profit. In large part, this goal has been achieved (or at least strived for) by laypersons: whether it’s the small fish like myself, or the big fish like First Things Magazine, Scott Hahn, Patrick Madrid, Peter Kreeft, Francis/Frank Beckwith, Mark Shea, Thomas “American Papist” Peters, Jennifer Fulwiler, Rocco Palmo, and so forth.
Yesterday, I had a four-hour lunch with a priest friend of mine (who joked that I’d mention him on my blog today). We talked about dangers facing the Church now, and threats which seem to be just around the corner. One of the issues we talked about is the risk that the extremely public lay presence in online evangelization will make priests seem less relevant, and damage the priesthood as an institution. For example, when the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion came into greater usage (that is, the laypeople who help distribute the Eucharist after the priest transubstantiates it), the priesthood began to suffer a pretty crippling shortage – EMHCs weren’t the sole cause by any means, but they were one factor in a trend which made priests briefly seem anachronistic. If the priest turns the homily over to a deacon (or even a layperson, in some cases!), turns the distribution of the Eucharist over to laypeople, and is overshadowed by a layperson-run choir, it’s not exactly surprising when little boys aren’t jumping out of the pews wanting to become priests. Of course, many of those who still jumped are the best of the best: the kids who realized why the priest’s function was unique and irreplacably priceless, even when so many of the adults seem to have forgotten that; these kids, all grown up, are one of the best commodities that the modern priesthood has.
Now, the priesthood may face a bit of a catch-22. The vibrant and growing online apostolate is peppered with priests (Fr. John Corapi and Fr. Z come immediately to mind), but they remain a minority. Even most priests’ blogrolls seem to be heavily tilted towards lay Catholics. There is a risk, below the surface right now, that priests will again begin to seem irrelevant or outdated, or worse: their absence from the frontlines of electronic sparring may appear to be an apathy to the care of souls. But realistically, there’s little priests can do in response to this. The amount of free time that most priests have is heavily taxed, as they’re in high demand for those things (like Confession, Mass, and Last Rites) which only they can do. Whereas in the past, priests could simply become more involved in the Mass – distribuing the Eucharist themselves, giving their own homilies, etc., maintaining an active electronic presence is a big time commitment.
Second, priests always seem to speak as agents of the Church, particularly when speaking on religious matters. One of the major dangers is that a priest will err, even innocently. Even if a layperson confronts him, the benefit of the doubt will likely (and usually, properly) reside with the priest. By the nature of their office and authority, a priest needs to be careful about public remarks.
Third, there’s another risk, which isn’t unique to priests, but perhaps most notable there. To save their own souls, priests must actively fight the people’s desire to turn them into celebrities. Although some (like Bp. Fulton Sheen) can navigate the perils of clerical fame, the risk of developing a sense of pride or hubris is real. When clerics start needing the people’s respect and adoration, they’re less likely to take a bold stance on unpopular issues, less likely to admit to being wrong, and so forth. While this is true for all of us, it’s perhaps most true for priests, since most of us really do love our priests. (Case in point: during our four-hour discussion yesterday, the Five Guys manager offered my priest friend free fries – a small gesture, but a significant one).
Dr. John Armstrong, springboarding off of N.T. Wright’s commentary, makes a good case that this isn’t a problem unique to Catholic priests, but in fact, is true of all Christian pastors. In fact, I think many of these are the same problems facing politicans. They obviously have strong views on public issues, and many of them would have interesting points in online discussions, but they wisely tend to keep their electronic output to a minimum (other than silly, poorly written Twitter posts).
It seems to me that this is one forum where the laity should lead the way, but in a manner which supports our priests. We should be like the pundits and talking heads who support and advance the politicans’ agendas (only much more genuine, naturally); or like the WebMD which provides general advice and support online until you can get to your local physician. But just like pundits can’t pass legislation, or online medical resources perform surgery, blogs such as this are incomplete. They should call you towards the priest at your local church, not towards more time staring at the glowing screen o’ information.