June 24, 2010


Bishop Gabino Zavala

June 3, 2010


I am very happy that we have a chance to have this conversation about what makes for a faithful
Catholic media organization. I think this is a crucial question for the Church in North America in this time of unprecedented changes in media and telecommunications. It seems every
month there is a new website or technology that appears. No one can keep
up with everything. Not even we bishops, known as we are for our
technical expertise!

All joking aside, I want to say very clearly that we bishops do not
approach this conversation as if we have "the answer" to the
question of what it means to be a faithful Catholic media organization.
Rather, we are looking forward to a positive, constructive exchange of
ideas. We expect to learn from you and your expertise as people immersed
daily in the realm of media. Nor do we expect that there is a
"one-size-fits-all" answer. But we do believe there is much to be
learned by exploring the question together.

"Faithful" Catholic Media - What It Is Not

To sharpen our focus, let me start by saying what a faithful Catholic
media is not. Today's secular media culture is often competitive and can have little regard for the damage done to people's lives and reputations. There is a tendency to be mean-spirited and engage in
personal attacks.
Many times the secular media present only a
superficial rendering of a story, often choosing what is sensationalist
over in-depth reporting.

While I think we can all agree that we do not want to see any of these
qualities in our own publications, programs or Web sites, I think we
have to admit that at times they are present. Avoiding them requires
ongoing vigilance, since secular media and its influence are vast.

I also do not think that we should go to the other extreme and simply say that faithful Catholic media organizations are those who engage in
apologetics to defend bishops at all costs.
That is too simplistic and does not respect the intelligence of Catholics in North America. They
deserve a Catholic media that takes a more nuanced perspective.

Lastly, I do not believe that faithful Catholic media organizations should present themselves as speaking for the Magisterium. Only the Magisterium can speak for the Magisterium. While this sounds
self-evident, it bears saying because there appear to be some
organizations who do not see this point.

Elements of a "Faithful" Catholic Media

I want to now shift to talking about the elements of a faithful
Catholic media organization. As I said at the beginning of the talk,
there is not a "one-size-fits-all" formula and I cannot give a
comprehensive list of characteristics. But there certainly are elements
worth pointing out.

Let's begin with the idea that faithful Catholic media organizations work from a perspective of being part of the Catholic community, not
outside it.
This carries two assumptions:

First, Catholic media should work from a Catholic perspective, not the so-called "objective" perspective of the secular media (and of
course we know that secular media are not objective anyway). I believe
that it is crucial to have media with a distinctly Catholic voice that
offers the unique Catholic perspective on the world and humanity.

Second, Catholic media has a responsibility to the larger Catholic community. Two useful words here are "loyalty" and "service." As I said before, I am not suggesting that Catholic media should engage
purely in apologetics. Rather, I think that faithful Catholic media
organizations are loyal in that they wish to see the Church succeed and care about its health and well-being. Their service to the Church is to report the TRUTH, because the truth does set us free. Their loyalty is their care about the Church's well-being, from its most
vulnerable members to the community as a whole.
So I am suggesting that the faithful Catholic media organization is one that both reports the truth
and does so with an eye to how that reporting can best serve the

At their core, Catholic media organizations have two main roles to play
in our Church: to inform and to teach.

To Inform: This is the most basic and obvious role - keeping Catholics
informed about local and global events in the Church - and many of you
already do this very well. There are so many wonderful stories in our
large, diverse Church, stories that only Catholic media can cover. As
you cover these stories, I want to encourage you to move beyond just
reporting news. Rather, I would hope that you would situate your
reporting within Peter 3:15 and report within a context of how to give

Teach: Catholic media has a second, unique role of teaching and helping
Catholics to deepen their understanding of their faith and how it is
lived out in the world. To do this requires that Catholic media be
staffed by people who are theologically trained and able to use media to effectively teach.
As bishops we are concerned that this is not always the case. And so we must challenge Catholic media to make this
investment. And we bishops must be willing to help with this as well. I
hope that our conversation today and tomorrow will identify ways in
which we can collaborate in this area.

Catholic Media - Tackling Difficult Subjects

Of course, sometimes the truth that must be reported is not easy. We
are all aware that we are living in challenging times for the Church. So
what is the role of the faithful Catholic media organization in the
context of scandal and other difficult and divisive stories?

I believe that we cannot be afraid to name the truth of what is
happening. Our Catholic people are intelligent and they want and
appreciate getting the "straight scoop." However, there are several
things that we bishops are looking for when Catholic media tell
difficult stories.

The first is to adopt a basic principle of "Speak the truth in
love." Speak the truth out of a love for the Church, and a love for the people of God. There also has to be a place for mercy.
All too often, secular media seems to seek the destruction of individuals when they are caught in a mistake. This is not what our Lord taught us. And
so this is something Catholic media can teach the secular media - how to
report divisive or scandalous stories in a spirit of love and mercy. To
do this, we have to have a "nose for grace" and a conviction that
God turns everything to the good. So even in the midst of dark and
depressing stories Catholic media can be asking, "What is the potential for good in all of this?"

Second, Catholic media should always proceed with humility and civility. The humility comes from the realization that none of us have all the facts of a story. There are always other perspectives beyond our
own. Committing to civility means moving away from positions of
attacking or being defensive so that genuine dialogue and exchange can
take place. It is OK to point out when mistakes are made. As humans, all
of us make mistakes. But I think that when Catholic media point out
mistakes, it must be done with fairness and civility.

Third, we hope that Catholic media will always work to present Church
teaching fairly and accurately.
It is fair to present multiple opinions
on a topic. But we hope that Catholic media would present the Church's
position accurately.

What Makes Catholic Media Unique

I deeply believe Catholic media has a unique role to play in our Church
and as a witness in our secular society. In particular, I want to
emphasize three unique and vital roles for Catholic media.

First, in a world with a plethora of media outlets, many of whom are
delivering news and commentary about the Church, the role for Catholic
media has never been more important. We need a Catholic media that can
help Catholics (and everyone) understand what is happening in our world and our church from a Catholic perspective. The more information and data there is out there, the greater the need for interpretation - how
do we make sense of it all? What does this mean, to be holding one's
iPhone in one hand and the Gospel in the other? How does the information
in one device mesh with what has been handed down in our faith? And this
is a vital role that only Catholic media can fulfill.

The second unique role for Catholic media is to model a civil and
respectful media.
As I said earlier, secular media often falls into a
trap of being cynical, disrespectful and sensationalist. Whatever is
rudest or most sensational is what they often gravitate to. Catholic
media can model what a civil, substantive media can and should be.
Civil, substantive media pursues and presents stories of substance and depth that enrich all of our lives. This is very important in today's
media culture.

As I talked with brother bishops in preparation for this presentation,
there was consistent agreement that one aspect that is most alarming to
us about media is when it becomes unchristian and hurtful to
individuals. For example, we are particularly concerned about blogs that engage in attacks and hurtful, judgmental language. We are very troubled by blogs and other elements of media that assume the role of Magisterium and judge others in the Church. Such actions shatter the communion of
the Church that we hold so precious.

The third unique role for Catholic media is to provide bishops with
guidance about how to best engage with media organizations. You are much more practiced in this area than we are. And so we need your help.

I know we are not always the best students in this area, but we need your
input and guidance. Let's talk about how we bishops can do a better job
of letting you help us in the area of media.

Relationship with Secular Media

I also want to take a moment to discuss Catholic media's relationship
with secular media. The time has passed when the Church could either
ignore the secular media or expect that the secular media would give the
Church the benefit of the doubt. So it is crucial that we as a Church
recognize that we have to engage and educate the secular media.
Otherwise, we will continue to be saddled with depictions of our Church
in the popular press that are inaccurate and unflattering. And these in
turn influence many Catholics, especially those who are not currently
participating in our Church.

We bishops have a key role in improving the Church's relations with the
secular media. But so do you. Catholic media can help educate the
secular media about our Church and its realities. We have such a rich
tradition that it is difficult for non-Catholics to grasp it.
So there is a great need to help secular media better understand our Church, in the hopes they will be able to more accurately report on it.

As their media colleagues, Catholic media is an excellent position to
provide this education for secular media. To do this will require
cultivating relationships with the secular media. And then taking
additional steps to educate them about Catholic issues and provide
useful background and depth on Catholic stories. Of course, there is no
guarantee of success in this effort. But we bishops believe it is one
that is well worth taking on.

What Catholic Media Should Expect from Bishops

In this talk I have identified some hopes and expectations that we
bishops have of Catholic media. But you also have a right to have
expectations of us as bishops. It is essential that we strengthen our
collaboration - and good collaboration requires efforts on both sides.

Sadly, the reality of the current economic times means that we bishops
are not in a position to offer increased financial support to Catholic
media. But there are three things that you have a right to ask of us:

Spirit of Collaboration: You have a right to expect that we bishops and
our diocesan offices should view your organizations as collaborators,
rather than as outsiders.

Access and Support: We bishops recognize the value of Catholic media,
and should be doing everything we can to help you succeed. That means
providing access to both the people and the information that you need to
get your questions answered when you are working on a story.

Quick Response: The world of media moves at an incredible speed and we
bishops need to recognize that. Often you are working on a deadline.
Providing a response to your request after your deadlines is often of
little help, so we must learn to respond quickly.

Conclusion and Questions that we bring to the conversation

As I said at the outset, we bishops do not have all the answers. We are
here for a dialogue and as learners as much as teachers. I hope you have
found the ideas I presented to be helpful. And now we want to hear from

I have four questions that we bishops would like to hear your thoughts
on. They are:

How can Catholic media in North America (US and Canada) best serve our Catholic faithful? What are the particular challenges we should be
looking at?

How can Catholic media maintain its integrity as journalists? What are
the journalistic standards for a Catholic who also sees himself/herself
as having a vocation as a media professional in the Church? Or one who
is operating as a media professional?

How do these issues change when looked at in the context of the 21st
century media environment, with Internet and bloggers? What other issues
arise? What does it mean to be a universal church in a global
communication environment?

When does an organization cease being a Catholic news organization?
What are the boundaries between being a Catholic news organization and a
Catholic public relations agency?


  1. Many thanks, Sr. Helena, for highlighting the salient points on this important message. It's helpful to go through it and not be stuck. I'll be happy to continue blogging. May God bless you always.

  2. Marika5:18 PM

    Hi Sr. Helena, thanks for sharing this. Just as an FYI, whenever you post things and use huge font size + bold text to emphasize stuff, I tend to copy an paste the text and homogenize the font size. For me the changes in font size in the middle of sentences makes the text almost impossible to read...

  3. Marika! Ha ha--sorry! I just know we live in a "skim" culture and I do it for the not-so-serious readers! (Also for myself for quick reference.) In other words, stay tuned for more GLOBBINESS! ha ha ha. your friend, Sr. H <><

  4. Happened upon this -- what an interesting entry. I found it fascinating. I find my own church (and I've become very lapsed, I am ashamed to say) to be very behind the times in terms of keeping up with modern technology -- except in a key area, where a web site sprang up that was so incredibly negative and divisive it should have been shut down. Truly awful things said about parishioners (it all started with a sexual abuse case by one of our now-defrocked priests, who went to prison). But as someone who has worked with other churches as well, I am drawn to the idea of improving my experience -- going to church has been frustrating for some time. I've been looking at The Gathering by Ray Barnett, which shows from Scripture the way to recover the church's roots and to become an effective community of men and women bound by love for Christ and each other. Easy and compelling to read (outside the Catholic church, but still Christian!) -- and it kind of exposes the big-business institutions as not necessary very connected with what God has shown us in his word about the local church. It's interesting reading, no matter your denomination.

  5. P.S. My sister is a nun -- I'm sending her the link to this. She loves computers and new media, etc -- used to do work for her community. She'll love it. Thanks.

  6. I found the Bishops's thoughts to be comforting. Good to know that he and others are working to give good guidance and are also interested in hearing from the folks in the media trenches themselves. I hope you had an opportunity to present your ideas.