Catholic bishops need to be a bit more careful about how they approach the media. Not only are there real world consequences when they fail to understand how the media works, but the media must become a tool for the bishops in evangelizing the culture and correcting the gross ignorance of and bias against basic Catholic beliefs and ideas.
Last night, Bishop Tobin of Providence went on MSNBC’s "Hardball" with Chris Matthews. The first problem was that Tobin did not appear in the studio with Matthews but was in a studio in Providence. The momentary delay in transmission always makes the interlocutor look a little slow, especially with someone who talks, and thinks, as fast as Matthews. The interview began with a clip from JFK’s Houston speech about separation of Church and State in which the future President said, "I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute…where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any ecclesiastical source." Now, if Bishop Tobin had only read my book Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats he would have had a ready and thorough critique of JFK’s speech. The short-hand critique is six words: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. All the liberal canards about ecclesiastical encroachment, or about not legislating morality on others, require a bit of refinement when you consider the career of Dr. King.
The interview got worse as it went on. The bishop was completely unprepared to answer the questions asked, unprepared for the rapidity of Matthews’ questioning, and all too willing to get into a bizarre adult version of the playground excuse, "But, he hit me first!" Take five minutes and watch the interview. It could become a textbook case in how not to conduct a media interview. Indeed, Matthews' show is called "Hardball" for a reason and the bishop never should have been on it.
Sunday before last, the priest at my church here in Washington apologized to the congregation for the dreadful public relations job the Archdiocese had done in dealing with the impending fight over the same-sex marriage bill and its requirement that the Church provide same-sex partner benefits. Indeed, the Church was getting rolled in the press, and in speaking to reporters covering the story, it was clear that even after four or five days of covering the story, they were not clear about what precisely concerned the Church. I had a neighbor call me one morning after reading a front page story in the Washington Post that suggested the Church was closing down Catholic Charities. She was confused and distraught and deeply shaken in her confidence in the Church.
In my dealings with the press, almost all of whom are really bright people, it is always worthwhile to take your time and make sure that you explain how differently the Church approaches some issues from the way the mainstream culture approaches those same issues, that it is not mere disagreement about outcomes, although there is that, but more often a completely different point of departure for analysis and understanding. In explaining the Church to politicians, one of the things I find you have to say over and over again is "Yes, but you know they are bishops not politicians." (The reverse is true, too: Sometimes I have to say to clergy: "Well, you know they are politicians not theologians.") For too long, bishops wanted nothing more from a communications director than to keep the Church out of the news, but those days are gone. We need the media if we are to reach our people and spread the Gospel. We need the media if we are going to reframe the national debate on an important issue like health care reform or abortion. In my experience, the media are fascinated by the Church and eager to learn how and why the Church does what it does. I have encountered ignorance of the Church’s ways but never hostility. Bishops should draw the right lesson from their recent fiascos: Get it right, but don’t think it can’t be done well.