The Catholic press in the United States faces the challenges of writing for a Catholic population with a weakening identity and a distrust of institutions, the president of Our Sunday Visitor publishing has noted. However, he sees causes for hope in new technologies and a new generation of writers and editors.
Speaking to a meeting of the Catholic Press Congress (CPC) in Rome on Monday, Gregory Erlandson of the Indiana-based publishing house Our Sunday Visitor drew on his 30 years of experience as a Catholic reporter and publisher.
“It has been a very challenging field really since the Second Vatican Council, but most certainly since the 1990s. In the United States, Mass attendance, attendance at Catholic schools, numbers of priestly vocations, marriages, baptisms and more have all drifted lower,” he commented, noting that surveys suggest Catholic practice is in decline.
“On the surface our Catholic media remains quite vital,” he said.
There are four major Catholic national weekly papers, 140 diocesan newspapers, and more than 100 magazines and major newsletters. There is a major Catholic television network in EWTN, more than 160 Catholic radio stations, and dozens of Catholic book publishers.
“But appearances can be deceiving,” he warned, noting the great financial stress on most publications. Those which are not owned by dioceses have generally seen a decline, as have diocesan newspapers which often benefit from mandatory purchases.
The Internet has had an impact on the Catholic press, with business models being “unclear or rapidly changing.” Changing demography is also a factor, with fewer young people being interested in Catholic news.
Erlandson listed three special problems for the Catholic press: a decline in knowledge about the faith; a growing distrust of institutions; and a resulting decline in Catholic identity.
“(W)e now have two generations of Catholics who have been significantly under-catechized in their own faith. A larger and larger share of our potential audience often does not understand Catholic vocabulary or Catholic concepts.”
He cited University of Notre Dame professor John Cavadini, who has said contemporary religious illiteracy is worse than partial blindness, something like “retinal detachment” that results in “the system in which the words (of Catholicism) made sense" failing.
Many publications are dependent on a shrinking older audience while many Catholics have a poor understanding of what the Church teaches and why.
Discussing the distrust of institutions, Erlandson said the sexual abuse crisis perhaps made this worse for the Church but that the lack of trust is part of broader cultural trends. There is a kind of “congregationalism” in the Church where Catholics feel less of a bond with the bishop or with national and international Catholic institutions even though they may like their priest and their parish.
The secular media shares this distrust and most Catholics get most of their news from this source.
“The result is both a latent suspicion of Church authorities and a lack of a felt need to know what the Church is saying about social or spiritual matters, two primary reasons to read the Catholic press,” he commented.
The decline of Catholic identity is shown in the greater likelihood of Catholics moving to Protestant or non-denominational churches. “They view all churches as more or less the same,” he said. The lack of knowledge of the faith has led in turn to an inability to distinguish what is truly unique about the faith. This also means that there is less of an impulse to seek out Catholic-identified books and publications.”
Turning to positive developments, Erlandson noted that the internet allows the Catholic press to reach a diverse audience in a cost-effective way. There is “significant and growing” Catholic use of the internet, with many websites and blogs.
“While usage of digital means of communications is constantly changing, more and more Catholics are accessible, at least in theory, through these means,” he said.
While it is “critically important” that Catholics receive sound information, the oversight of the Church does not work well for new media. Without accountability, Erlandson noted, there is a risk of “a Babel of voices claiming to be Catholic.”
Another positive aspect was Church leaders’ increasing awareness that most Catholics get their news about the Church from the secular media, an often unreliable source.
“My hope is that Church leaders are seeing that if they value their own media, and if they allow them to be transparent and honest, they will gain in credibility over the long haul. To do this well, however, will mean changing the media expectations of an institution that often sees its first responsibility to protect itself from bad news.”
Erlandson also saw the arrival of a new generation of Catholic editors, writers and publishers who understand their role in bolstering Catholic identity.
“This does not mean becoming mere propagandists, but it does mean becoming collaborators with the Church, recognizing that professional news coverage and solid features and special reports can genuinely help the adult faith formation of our Catholic audience,” he explained.
Cardinal Newman desired a laity who know their religion so well they can give an account of it, Erlandson said. So too must Catholic publishers need to shape an informed Catholic laity willing to engage the world and to value the Catholic press as a means of deepening their own understanding.
Hundreds of representatives from at least 85 countries are attending the four-day Catholic Press Conference, which is sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications (PCCS).