In truth I had in mind a somewhat critical column on how we conduct public relations with regard to the Church in this country. Fortunately a fine article by Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor in the Daily Telegraph has provided an example of just how it should be done. I will return to this below.
Public relations itself has bad public relations. We associate the idea with deceitful manipulation, often called “spin”. PR executives rank in the public mind with politicians, estate agents and, sadly, journalists. But, in principle at least, PR faces up to the fact that organisations and institutions convey an image, bad or good, to the public mind. And it is just the same for individuals: we like to “put our best face forward” and make a good impression. We are, in fact, manipulating our image, and doing our own PR.
A number of incidents in the recent past gives us an opportunity to look at how the Church in this country handles its PR image. Adoption agencies, Catholic schools and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill all provide examples. But, and not just to confuse you, I want to start by considering how we may feel about the Muslim community.
We may see it as an essentially foreign community interfering with our traditional way of life. Why do they choose to live among us, yet refuse to accept the value systems of our society? Secondly, we may strongly resent what we perceive as an outside influence; they take their orders from religious authorities in the Middle East. Their primary loyalty is not to the Queen, but elsewhere. We do not, because of course we are liberals, want to interfere with their personal beliefs as set out by Mohammed in the Koran and other early documents. But we regard these as unfounded, and strongly resent the idea that our civil life should in any way be bound by them. We note that they indoctrinate their young, who may take their brainwashing into adulthood, with dangerous consequences. We greatly fear their rising political influence, not simply because their numbers increase but because they have the power to organise themselves so that they can have a disproportionate influence on democratic decisions. And since they do not believe in democracy but in a Muslim state, this is doubly dangerous.
Remember that I am describing an image, parts or all of which, we may share. I am not saying that the image accords with reality. But, having seen how Muslims may look to us, now consider how Catholics may look to others.
Might we be seen as having loyalties divided between the Queen and the Pope? Do we attempt to impose our unprovable beliefs, based on ecclesiastical authority and the Bible? Do we attempt to indoctrinate our children with these beliefs? Do we organise ourselves politically in order to obtain undue influence over democratic decisions? Does our history, if not our present doctrine, show that we would willingly form a state with religious privileges restricted to Catholics, and a legal system which favours Catholic values? And even if Guy Fawkes is old history, terrorism in Northern Ireland is not. Like the Muslims, do we not focus on the negatives, with prohibitions – a religion of “thou shalt nots”? And we combine our deep-rooted hatred of sexuality with a clergy doing unmentionable things to the young, so that a priest scarcely dares appear in public wearing a Roman collar?
Until we realise that, fair or unfair, that sort of image – to a greater or lesser degree – is held by many of our compatriots, we will not be able to correct it.
This is where Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor’s article gives us a lead to follow. In commenting on the outcome of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology debate his tone is one of regret, not anger. Indeed he praises the seriousness of discussion. He declares his belief that there is no conflict between faith and reason. He states the essential ethical neutrality of science. And he identifies crucial questions: “What is it to be a human being? What conditions do we need for our flourishing? In what sort of society can we put our faith and know that we are cherished and valued and above all enabled to grow in our search for what is right and true?” This is the language of natural law and so, by definition, accessible to all people of good-will and open mind. He repeats his call for a continuing statutory national bio-ethics commission, in which a range of perspectives are represented, fitted to discuss these important matters.
I am not going overboard in my enthusiasm. Mistakes have been made in the past in matters such as adoption and Catholic schools, without even mentioning Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s tendency to allow the flamboyance of his language to become the message. His short video on YouTube was a relief by comparison. He follows in the tradition of Cardinal Winning, who described a homosexual act as “perversion”, insensitive to the emotional load that word carries. By the same reasoning everyone who practises artificial contraception is perverted.
And lest you think that this is simply a criticism of senior clergy, we have just as important a part to play too. The childish irreverence of Jerry Springer: the Opera was trivial by comparison with the damage done by Christian protest, to which many Catholics subscribed. And everyone, in each ordinary encounter with non-Catholics, either improves or mars our image.
But it is an excellent sign that we can, when we think about it, present our image in a way that engages people of good will. Of course, fundamentalist opponents will not be appeased. Let them stew in their own juice; but let us not be seen sitting in the pot with them.
Now, make a comment, and tell me how wrong I am.
(See STOP PRESS for an article on the baby with two genetic mothers)