“**** the Pope” shouted the bull-voiced man at me – but he did not use asterisks. Remembering my training I temporised with: “You seem to be suggesting that I should involve His Holiness in some form of sexual activity of which he would disapprove.” The man was silent, the crowd was silent. Then he spoke up again, “Nah,” he shouted, “I said: **** the Pope.”
You can’t win them all, I reflected, as I continued to address my little crowd in London’s West End on behalf of the Catholic Evidence Guild. That was in 1957.
In those days a smattering of Christianity was to be found in the heckling classes and some debates could even be settled by appeal to a common Scripture. And, intensely disliked though the Catholic Church might be, there remained a certain unwilling respect. To have your head man regularly stylised as the Beast of the Apocalypse suggested that at least you could not be ignored.
Today it is different. The audience is different; it is not the public audience looking for entertainment, but perhaps your friend at work who wonders why anyone as normal as you can actually be one of those Catholics. Or it might be a friend of mine who feels it entirely wrong that public taxes should be used to subsidise Catholic schools which she can’t get her children into – though, by heck, she’s tried.
And nowadays the mass audience is not the ephemeral groups at Marble Arch or Leicester Square but the listeners and viewers on local radio and television whose ears prick up when they hear their prejudices aired, and look for an answer.
I have an idea. For a start, why do we not get a group of young Catholic professionals who would be willing to appear on the media and explain what the Church believes and why? Much more attractive than a clerical collar or a knock-kneed old warhorse like me. They would need to be trained, of course. Not only would they need to be well briefed in their topics, they would have to understand how to put ideas across effectively, and how to master the tricks of the old three-minute-interview trade. The media will be delighted to know that there are competent commentators available on tap.
Ah well, too late again! Catholic Voices already exists. It was set up before the papal visit, has achieved some excellent work and is gradually developing into bigger things.
But, although their task is of great importance, it does not directly address the problem of our friend in the pub who wants to know or wants to criticise. And this I think is why they have produced their book Catholic Voices (by Austen Ivereigh and Kathleen Griffin, Darton Longman and Todd, £15). While the bulk of the book is given to providing a thorough briefing in the topics which are most likely to be raised they also consider the manner in which the message can be most effectively conveyed.
A central concept here is described as “re-framing”. This starts from the Voice suggesting what the real value is that concerns the objector. Then the Voice re-frames the issue so that the objector can see how the Catholic Church addresses this same value, perhaps at a more fundamental level. For example, in the matter of assisted suicide one might well agree that we share a positive wish to avoid unnecessary suffering. It then becomes possible to have a discussion, rather than an argument, about how this value is best to be achieved.
The value of re-framing may be gauged from its history. From Socrates in the fifth century BC to Dale Carnegie in the 20th, the secret of persuasion has proved to be “to find out what a man wants and help him to get it” (Carnegie). And Catholic Voices sets out 10 principles of communication which apply not only to their members but, as the book puts it, “also in a three-minute live pub conversation”. Were we to observe all of these in our conversations we might make many friends who, if they are not always convinced, can say with the young woman in a pub who had just heard an explanation from two Catholic Voices: “Well, I suppose they’re not all crazy then.” It’s a start.
And Catholic Voices is just a start. It was born, by the determination of enthusiasts, for a particular occasion. But it must not stop there. Strongly supported by the community, it can become the seed-bed of the intelligent and well-instructed laity “who know their creed so well that they can give an account of it”, which Cardinal Newman envisaged.
This book gives a thorough background to several topics which are in the public eye today. Readers will not only, in many instances, be studying the real issues behind the topic for the first time, but learning how they might communicate them most effectively. It would be a tragedy if this initiative were not developed into major ways of helping our fellow citizens to see just how dedicated the Catholic community is to defending and promoting the values which we and they share.
And I have every reason to believe that Catholic Voices is, even now, planning for the extension of its work in the future. Visit its web site for background information. There is a link at Secondsightblog.net where you will have ample opportunity to comment on this initiative and suggest how it might develop for the greater glory of God.
(Second Sight Contributors, I know that Catholic Voices will be looking out for any ideas and suggestions which appear on this Blog. Their web site, for further information, is at http://www.catholicvoices.org.uk/)