(OSV News) — At a time when Catholic media in the United States is at a crossroads, Catholic journalists must avoid reducing the church to merely a socio-political organization, instead keeping its role as the “sacrament of salvation” at the fore, said a panelist speaking on the future of Catholic journalism June 5.
“The church is more important than any sociological institution and understanding her sacred identity, understanding her mystical identity and the reality of who she is, and who we’re all called to be has to animate the way that we talk about the church as social communicators and journalists,” said J.D. Flynn, editor-in-chief of The Pillar, an online Catholic investigative journalism outlet. “If we don’t cover that, there’s no point to the whole thing at all, right?”
Flynn spoke alongside Gretchen R. Crowe, OSV News editor-in-chief, and William Maier, CEO of DeSales Media, at the eighth annual 2023 John Cardinal Foley Symposium at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Philadelphia. Titled “On the Future of Catholic Journalism,” the symposium was moderated by Father Tom Dailey, an Oblate of St. Francis de Sales, who holds the John Cardinal Foley Chair of Homiletics and Social Communications at the seminary.
The event included a panel presentation and audience discussion, followed by a luncheon during which the seminary’s Foley Award was presented to Cindy Wooden, Catholic News Service Rome bureau chief, for her work covering the Vatican since 1989.
Crowe, who begins a two-year term as president of the Catholic Media Association June 8, spoke about the difficulties facing Catholic media, and their consequences for the church’s evangelization, including the closure of diocesan publications in favor of less expensive digital efforts or media products void of journalism.
“We have to think about the impact of those decisions,” she said. “Communications initiatives can find themselves as a low priority, or an inconvenient budget line item. But without the Catholic press, how will Catholics and others understand how an issue or an event in the church, the nation or the world affects their lives?”
“How will their consciences be formed? How will their judgments be shaped? How will they grow in their understanding of the Gospel and of church teaching?” she said. “How will they grow in relationship to each other? And ultimately, how will they be prepared to go out on mission sharing the good news in their community and beyond, which is of course the great commission to which we are called.”
Crowe added, “With the absence of good Catholic press, the church’s very mission is at risk.”
She said Catholic media should “form, inform and inspire,” which is the mission of OSV News, the national and international Catholic wire service launched Dec. 31 by the OSV Catholic publishing company. In building the Catholic news service OSV News, Crowe sought Catholics known for excellence in journalism, and also “who were 100% Catholic, who … believed in the teachings of the church — all of them — who had a passion for explaining what the church teaches and why, and who are committed to sharing the truth with a capital ‘T.'”
The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council extolled the importance of Catholic media, she said, pointing to “Inter Mirifica” (Decree on the Means of Social Communication) issued in 1963, which said “a truly Catholic press should be set up and encouraged” and, issued a decade later, “Communio et pProgressio” (On the Means of Social Communication), which stated that the Catholic press “can be marvelously effective in bringing a knowledge of the church to the world and a knowledge of the world to the church.”
“In reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics, Catholic journalists play an essential role in communicating the Gospel and informing the church’s mission of evangelization,” Crowe said.
Maier, whose DeSales Media serves the Diocese of Brooklyn, New York, said his company is shifting the focus of its media content to formation, and has been expanding its collaboration within its diocese and with other media companies to meet its goals.
“What we really do with media is invitation, it’s an invitation to a next level of experience. That’s really what media is all about, and what storytelling is all about,” he said.
Flynn said that he sees Catholic media also serving to hold the church and its leaders accountable.
“I hope that public accountability in the life of the church … is to invite the church to deeper conversion and to invite the church, as an institution, to see the places where she’s both in need of reform and renewal,” he said.
Catholic journalism can include inspiring stories of faith, and also stories that inspire change, he said. Flynn hoped “that the post-McCarrick story of America 200 years down the road or 300 years down the road might be that we remember that as the moment when an extraordinary renewal in the life of the church in the United States began,” referring to the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, one of America’s most influential prelates who was laicized in 2019 due to substantiated claims of sexual abuse and misconduct.
During a panel discussion, the panelists said a Catholic press must not let political partisanship, including their readers’ political persuasions, influence their news reporting, and that Catholic institutions’ communications directors and publication editors should not perpetuate division.
“We have to be transparent and we have to be unafraid to communicate all the parts of the church,” Crowe said. “We can’t be afraid as Catholic communicators to work together. To tell the truth, to tell the story, is what a good Catholic journalist wants to do.”
The annual Foley Symposium celebrates World Communications Day by honoring the legacy of seminary alumnus and former faculty member Cardinal John Foley and his work as president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications from 1984 to 2007. St. Paul VI established World Communications Day in 1967 to celebrate the media’s role in spreading the Gospel. It was observed May 21.
Maria Wiering is senior writer for OSV News.