Conference: Catholic Press Helps Faith Formation

Our Sunday Visitor President Reflects on US Situation

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ROME, OCT. 4, 2010 (Zenit.org).- When the Catholic identity of the faithful weakens and the level of formation falls, so does the readership of Catholic publications, says the president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing.

Gregory Erlandson said this today at the Catholic Press Congress organized by the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, which is being held this week in Rome. The four-day meeting will conclude Thursday with an audience with Benedict XVI.

Some 230 communicators representing 85 countries are participating in the meeting, including directors or representatives of Catholic newspapers or digital publications, bishops and priests who are members of ecclesial commissions or institutions responsible for communication, as well as university professors.

In his address, Erlandson, who has worked in Catholic journalism for 30 years, outlined the challenges facing the Catholic press in the United States, which he said has the appearance of remaining "quite vital."

He noted that there are some 300 Catholic print publications in the United States, including four major national weekly papers. Additionally, there are 140 diocesan newspapers, more than 100 magazines and newsletters, other publications in Spanish and other languages, a major Catholic television network (EWTN), some 160 Catholic radio stations, and dozens of Catholic book publishers.

"But appearances can be deceiving," Erlandson continued. "Most of the mainstream Catholic publications have been under great financial stress, and those which are not owned by dioceses have generally seen a decline."

He pointed to several challenges that he believes are particular to the Catholic press: "1. The decline in knowledge about the faith; 2. A growing distrust of institutions; 3. A resulting decline in Catholic identity."

He said the first factor is one that affects the younger generations: "We now have two generations of Catholics who have been significantly under-catechized in their own faith" and that often do not "understand Catholic vocabulary or Catholic concepts."

Regarding the distrust of institution, Erlandson said the tendency is one that is particularly prevalent in the United States, and that it's an "impulse that transcends religious identification" and is "shared by the secular media."

Identity

The first two factors, Erlandson said, lead to the third factor: "The Catholic identity of our people is eroding."

"The lack of knowledge of the faith has led in turn to an inability to distinguish what is truly unique about the faith," he explained. "This also means that there is less of an impulse to seek out Catholic-identified books and publications."

On the positive side, Erlandson reported that there is a large Catholic presence on the Internet, which is reaching a much larger audience. "What is critically important," he added, "is that the information they receive is of sound quality, but the means of oversight that the Church has exerted over traditional media does not work nearly as well for the new media. Without editorial or institutional accountability, the risk is a Babel of voices claiming to be Catholic."

He also noted that the recent sexual abuse crisis in the Church has led the Church to change how it communicates: "Church leaders have become increasingly aware that most of their flock gets its news about its own Church from the secular media, and that media is often an unreliable source.

"My hope is that Church leaders are seeing that if they value their own media, and if they allow them to be transparent and honest, they will gain in credibility over the long haul. To do this well, however, will mean changing the media expectations of an institution that often sees its first responsibility to protect itself from bad news."

Erlandson underlined as well that there is a new generation of Catholic press "who understand the role they must play in bolstering Catholic identity." 

"This does not mean becoming mere propagandists," he said in conclusion, "but it does mean becoming collaborators with the Church, recognizing that professional news coverage and solid features and special reports can genuinely help the adult faith formation of our Catholic audience."