PR – how society sees the Church

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)

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Church and Society. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to PR – how society sees the Church

  1. Trident says:

    Quentin is on a dangerous path. In the reading for Mass today St Paul says “I put this duty to you (Timothy): proclaim the message and, welcome or unwelcome, insist on it. Refute falsehood, correct error, call to obedience – but to all with patience and the intention of teaching.”
    Our problem is not with image (what do we have to do with image?), it’s our failure to speak the truth in the marketplace clearly and without compromise. We are far too wishy-washy. Of course it won’t be popular, as St Paul says, but we have to do our duty and let the Holy Ghost look after the outcome.

  2. tim says:

    I take on board what St Paul says to me, but we don’t want to irritate people unnecessarily. I was recently reading comments on an article by Melanie Phillips in a Spectator coffee house blog. The article complained bitterly (and with transparent justice, to my mind) of the demand by some teachers’ union to boycott Israeli universities. One poster however suggested that, as between Israel and the Arabs, there might be faults on both sides. He was immediately set on and accused of anti-Semitism (‘you wouldn’t let me in to your golf club, would you?’ (paraphrase, but a fairly close one). I started reading the comments in total sympathy with the case put in the article, but ended rather more doubtful. We don’t want to have that kind of effect.

    But nor do we want to go too far the other way. How much easier it is to criticise than to be constructive! With that disclaimer, I wonder how wise it is (say) to compare ourselves with Muslims without making vital distinctions clearer. Otherwise we may give the impression of having admitted particular criticisms are valid, thereby further confusing the well-meaning but inattentive. Thus, to take two points only, to refer to “deep-rooted hatred of sexuality” and “Northern Ireland” without any attempt at rebuttal, may help to confirm a totally false image.

    Oh, and (completely off-topic) I wonder if you were prudent recently specifically to recommend the putting of new wine into old bottles?

  3. I take your point, I am glad to clarify any possible misunderstanding. The problem with image is that the demos thinks in terms of unsubtle generalities. There is just enough truth in the image of Muslims I gave to create an overall impression. Though, were I writing specifically on the topic, I would want to make a number of distinctions and counter arguments.
    Similarly, the impression that others may have of the Church is, taken as a whole, indefensible. Yet it is true that evidence of the suspicious attitude of the Church to sex over the centuries is manifest.
    I remember, when the Northern Ireland atrocities were at their height, a kind office colleague saying he hoped had hadn’t offended me by mentioning them – because I was a Catholic. I was able to assure him that I was as condemnatory as him. He seemed quite surprised to find that I didn’t approve of the terrorists on the grounds of my religious loyalties.
    Many of the secular attacks on Catholic schools and adoption agencies have taken the view that our attitude is based on doctrine, and enforced by religious authority – a matter of discipline rather than individual conscience. And all this is seen as emanating from Rome. The documents are on the Vatican web site to evidence this.

  4. This letter was sent to me by a reader, and I reproduce it with his permission. I think his point of view is one that is shared by many, although rarely expressed so clearly and with such refreshing vigour.
    Quentin

    Wigan 7/6/08

    Dear Mr de la Bedoyere

    So you are upset because the Scottish bishops are doing their job, which is to present Catholic teaching in unequivocal terms, unlike their effete English counterparts . It seems liberal Catholic stomachs can no longer digest a bit of Catholic muscularity.

    It is no secret on the Continent that recent Popes, including the present one, look upon the English hierarchy as a joke and it shows how desperate the church is when there are no internal candidates to replace our present less than dynamic cardinal. If Catholic layfolk were shown pictures of the hierarchy how many could they recognise and that includes their own?

    The root of many of their problems can be traced back to Cardinal Hume, whose evasive moves would make a sidewinder snake look rheumatic. His evasive answers with regard to homosexuality are still discussed at length in Catholic books on the subject (what did Peter Tatchell whisper in his ear?) How on earth can the Church in England oppose adoption by same-sex couples when they sanction Masses, where practising homosexuals are given communion. And there was the CAFOD affair, where certain bishops were either very naïve or economical with the truth.

    The English bishops lost all credibility and respect with their thinly veiled hostility to HUMANAE VITAE because they wanted to appease the sexually obscene Tablet/Guardian reading liberals (remember failure rates are 15% condom, 8% the pill and 1% NFP). All this in fact has done is turn the sacrament of penance into a sacrilegious charade. Recently a listener to Radio 5 phoned in and said that when he went to confession he did not confess to using contraceptives or the fact that he frequently committed adultery. It is of course a commonly heard expression from the English bishops that the problem of confessing to the use of artificial contraceptives is no longer an issue in the confessional.

    Luckily for the Church in England the Vatican 2 dinosaurs are slowly dying out and that is especially so in the priesthood, where there is a new generation of orthodox priests who are often late vocations and so are better equipped to deal with the problem of celibacy.

    It is a pity that the critics of the Scottish bishops did not recall the words of Our Lord when he sent out his disciples into the world, (Remember, lads, if people like you then you are not doing your job.)

    Finally if anyone calls me a fundamentalist bigot I look upon that as the greatest compliment they could pay me.
    Your sincerely

    Bill Fielding

    PS all the priests I know still wear Roman collars. (They are not all Hans Kungs)

  5. Frank says:

    Good for you, Bill. I agree with everything you have written. Still, we are enjoined by Christ to love our enemies, so we have to pray for our bishops.
    Presumably the late Cardinal Winning mean that homosexual acts are a ‘perversion’? I don’t see how else sodomy can be described. Yes – we must be charitable to our brethren of same-sex attraction; but it is better to risk hurting their feelings than neglecting their souls.

  6. I, too, share Frank’s admiration for Bill Fielding’s robust letter, although I suspect I would disagree with rather more items in it than Frank would.
    Words are funny things because they convey both a literal (etymological?) meaning and an emotional load – which can vary according to circumstances. “Pervert” means to turn an action away (from its proper ends). So we can speak of Mugabe’s perversion of democracy and our meaning is clear and uncontaminated.
    But a big emotional load is present when it is used about sexual activities. It is perfectly possible, if one follows the Catechism, to speak of homosexual acts as being wrong according to nature, or against God’s law, or objectively sinful – and satisfy Frank’s wish not to compromise the moral message. But to call them perversion when communicating in the marketplace is simply insulting. It is counterproductive because people who feel insulted are not easily persuaded to re-consider. Their souls are not cared for.
    On average, I would expect that a very large proportion of Frank’s married friends use, or have used from time to time, methods of artificial contraception. By literal meaning, all these are perverts. I hope he doesn’t feel bound to address them as such!

  7. Frank says:

    I take your point, Quentin. But I still think we must differentiate between heterosexual acts that are contraceptive, and homosexual acts. Homosexual acts cannot be put right, except by abstemption; heterosexual but contraceptive acts can be put right and then acted upon. I suspect this is what Cardinal Winning meant when he used the term about sodomy. Further, he used the word ‘perversion’, an abstract word; this is different from calling actual individuals ‘perverts’, which I am sure he would not have done. Deliberate abortion is murder; but we don’t call the mothers ‘murderers’, for the same reason.
    That said, if heterosexuals can engage in ‘recreational sex’ as it is called, there is no reason to object to homosexuals’ similarly engaging in the same ‘recreation.’
    We must always speak with charity. I note that Christ changed his tone of voice when addressing the Pharisees, compared with his tone when addressing the woman at the well, the woman caught in the act of adultery etc. In the same way, individual homosexuals migth require strong language or they might require gentle language.

  8. Lucius says:

    I saw the article on the alleged “homo brain” and the alleged “hetero brain.” Of course the scientists will have to weigh in whether this is in fact proved or not. This is not a new assertion but I don’t believe that this has been established as fact.

    But assuming in fact that there is a homo vs. hetero brain, that really changes nothing in terms of the proper ordering of sexuality according to human nature. After all we don’t simply throw up our hands and say it’s normal when a person is born with an extra 21st chromosome. Nature show us it’s not normal but too many are ready to deny that there is a “normal” in terms of sexuality.

    Of course this dovetails with the culture’s embrace of the contraceptive mentality which denies any intrinsic connection between sexual relations and procreation. There is also a great confusion in our cultural malaise about the love which belongs to friendship, the amor amicitiae, philia, and the special love between man and woman, eros, which is involved in conjugal love. The former of course can be same-sex and quite strong: band of brothers (sisters) etc.,etc. However that love cannot simply ape conjugal love by redefining it so as to deny its procreative meaning without damage to the human person.

    This leads to great unhappiness because all attempts to redefine the natural and create our own order leads to catastrophe. They are variations on the theme of the Frankenstein-syndrome. Hence it is often pointed out that the choice to define oneself and one’s worth on the basis of homosexual actitivty is anything but gay. There is great unhappiness despite the culture’s attempt to state otherwise.

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