Pastoral Strategies in a News-Cycle Age

Kudos to Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone who, in liberal San Francisco, instructed his Catholic schoolteachers last week to teach and to act publicly in harmony with Catholicism. Imagine: expecting Catholic institutions and their employees to behave as if they were Catholic. The pushback from the media and “concerned” politicians was predictable. But as you may have noticed, they’re pretty much all already off chasing the next ambulance, and the question is fading from view.

There’s a crucial lesson here. The archbishop – or any Church prelate these days – should follow the playbook of the savvier sort of politicians (on this one point, anyway). Don’t be intimidated or retreat at the initial counterattack. Survive the immediate news cycle. Use the media’s incessant pursuit of novelty and the short attention span of the public to your advantage. Hold your ground until they move on – usually a matter of days, at most. Then fortify the position and treat any additional challenges as old news.

These tactics will not win battles in the media, but it’s not always necessary to win. Asserting what’s right and making sure that it’s followed within Catholic institutions is the basic job description for a bishop. The only way a Catholic leader can win over the media – at least the many in the media who don’t respect and fairly characterize the Church – is not to be fully Catholic. If you’re willing to trade parts of the truth for public approval, you can get “good press.” But you also should be in another line of work.

The more intractable problem, as San Francisco shows, lies elsewhere. Much of the world has reduced Christianity to not judging and inclusiveness – and troublemakers will try to use that narrow Gospel to push an agenda, as far as the law allows. Happily, the law – at least for the moment – doesn’t allow much interference in the internal operations of religious bodies. The Supreme Court has been fairly consistent in giving them wide discretionary powers.

So I myself wouldn’t worry much when someone like amateur theologian and political philosopher Tom Brady, Sr., father of the New England Patriots’ quarterback, who attended a Catholic high school in the Bay Area, remarks, to the applause of national media, of Archbishop Cordileone’s rules for teachers: “It’s totally unfair and it impinges on their personal life and he doesn’t have the right to do that.” Actually, he does, insofar as they work for him in an archdiocesan institution.

But as Brady’s reaction shows, there is a real challenge internal to the Church. The media move on to fresher material in search of ratings, but they will return to a story when there’s a Catholic-bites-bishop angle. And that happens quite a lot when there’s organized dissent anywhere.

If you Google the SF story, you’ll see pictures of solemn young students from SF Catholic schools, who have learned the Gospel of inclusiveness, holding signs about mercy, tolerance, and inclusivity. They even have a Twitter account: #teach acceptance. Tolerance and acceptance being the only Christian values that are allowed to exist in public – and increasingly within parts of the Church itself. Catholicism used to think further: what was being accepted – or rejected – was sort of the whole point.

Amateur theologian and political philosopher Tom Brady, Sr.,
Amateur theologian and political philosopher Tom Brady, Sr.

Some of us still read the real Gospels and, even more eccentrically, believe they speak to our circumstances: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword. For I have come to set a man ‘against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s enemies will be those of his household.’” (Matt 10:34-6)

That’s Jesus, by the way. We may legitimately argue over what exactly he meant by this, but there’s plenty more where that came from about all sorts of things that won’t sit well with #teachacceptance.

Typical of the ethos that has grown up during years of pre-Cordileonean drift in San Francisco is the mission statement of one Catholic school quoted in opposition to the archbishop: “[We] provide the finest education in an inclusive Catholic community of faith. We prepare our students to become service-oriented leaders with a commitment to living the Gospel.” A school’s mission statement will never rival Aquinas, but maybe it would be a little more “inclusive” if Catholicism were among the things included.

Two “Catholic activists,” who cited this statement, wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle: “The recent efforts by San Francisco Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone to change the contracts of our beloved teachers – and to include a declaration of sexual ethics into the faculty handbooks – is not only an affront to teachers, but an affront to the very nature of education, and undermines our efforts to create a climate of safety and welcome for all of our children.”

Well, the affront to teachers, we might have expected, but the affront to the very nature of education? Who knew that, contrary to the whole history of Catholic education and education as it was practiced throughout the world until recently, that its “very nature” is really about safety and welcome.

“Safety” is a new term of art starting to pop up everywhere. On its face, it seems innocent enough, but in fact it’s a code word. My own not-so-alma mater recently held a conference for women at the same moment that another was taking place so that women, able enough for admission to an Ivy League school, would have a “safe” space not to feel “attacked by [unwelcome] viewpoints.” Even the Washington Post mocked them. For some Catholics, Catholicism itself is now one such viewpoint.

The real challenge for our bishops for the foreseeable future is managing nominal Catholics. The bishops will be accused of driving people away. But, brothers, that’s not true. Such Catholics have already moved away, all on their own. When the Church decides to be Catholic rather than just go along, it doesn’t divide. It shows how things truly stand.

Robert Royal

Robert Royal

Dr. Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century, published by Ignatius Press. The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, is now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

  • Howard Kainz

    “‘Safety’ is a new term of art starting to pop up everywhere.” Indeed. Last week the president of Marquette University, explaining the firing of a tenured political science professor who criticized a philosophy teaching assistant for not allowing arguments against gay marriage in class, appealed to the “safety” of sensitive students who would not want to be exposed to such discussions.As he put it, “The safety and well-being of our students will come first in every decision I make as president of this great university.”

    • WSquared

      Except that thinking isn’t a “safe” enterprise, now is it?

  • Chris in Maryland

    As a person long involved with strategic planning and communication for organizations, I have heard it said that the purpose of stating values is to attract the right people, and repel the wrong people. The idea is that the function works as intended when you are true to your values.

    When you betray your values, however, the function works against your organization – you attract the wrong people, and repel the right people.

    Christ is calling people to listen to and follow his way; others expect Catholics to stop listening to and following the way of Christ, and start listening to and following whatever the crowd demands of the them.

    It is painful that nominal “Catholics” are persecuting the Church. These are our very own brothers and sisters, our own flesh and blood. As Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his own household.”

    • WSquared

      As Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I
      did not come to bring peace but a sword. For I have come to set a man
      against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law
      against her mother-in-law; and a man’s enemies will be those of his
      own household.”

      Sometimes, nothing will teach you the value of the First Commandment better than that part of the Gospel can: nothing wrong at all with parental authority, everything wrong with abusing it (I’ve noticed that parents who scoff at obedience while simultaneously demanding obedience from others tend to like St. Paul saying “children, obey your parents,” but almost invariably neglect what comes directly after: “parents, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged”). And almost every practicing Catholic in this day and age has been in at least one situation where they’ve had to defend the Catholic faith in their own Catholic family.

      Matt 10:34-6 often arises in quotidiana when it comes to discouraging vocations, taking almost every opportunity during the Holidays to bash the Catholic Church in front of all present, or demanding that everybody else celebrate somebody’s mortal sin while sanctimoniously lecturing anyone who objects– without any sense of irony– “don’t impose your religion on others.” It’s painful and frustrating, but it can make you a better and well-formed Catholic: after all, it’s no easy task to try to think objectively and deal respectably and charitably with an older relative who may be manipulative and who has a crystalline ego, when what you are so very tempted to do is to yell at them to shut up at the very least. And it will take time. Moreover, it can be difficult to say in charity and truth that some “values” are not worthy of the name. Certainly when it comes to the consequences of moral relativism, knowing that God asks us to forgive instills in us that there is an objective right and wrong, or else forgiveness is meaningless. We are asked to “bear wrongs patiently,” not find wrongdoing acceptable, or even worse, call what is wrong right. Family life really is one area where faith and reason do meet and is concrete, not an abstraction.

      Christ does restore all things, and makes all things new. To choose for Christ is to choose for that transformation. There, but for the grace of God, go you and I.

      • Chris in Maryland


  • Beth

    The whole Virtus ‘safety’ initiative….BUNK! Yeah, we’re so worried about the physical safety of the children but we have allowed them to be spiritually and intellectually abused for 50 years! Dear Pope Francis, bishops and priests: Be true FATHERS and protect our children.

    • WSquared

      Dumbed-down Catholicism is a form of spiritual abuse, because it is a form of intellectual abuse (and vice versa).

      “Dear Pope Francis, bishops and priests: Be true FATHERS and protect our children.”

      Yes. But this has to happen at the level of the domestic Church, too, because renewal will happen on all levels simultaneously: this is not the time to just “let Father do it!” and we all need to start somewhere. What’s almost always missing from Catholic discussions is what authentic solid lay formation looks like, which has to complement a dynamic and well-formed clergy.

      We can have the Pope, bishops, priests, nuns of our dreams and good Catholic schools. But if a child’s parents don’t practice– in this environment of moral relativism especially– and the only narrative about the Catholic Church a child grows up with is “what the Church should ‘change’ and how “antiquated” the Church is, then what goes on in the home can undo the work of even the best Catholic schools.

      • Beth

        Yes, Wsquared, I hear you. BUT, I will say that because so many of today’s parents were ‘schooled’ in the ‘let’s make banners and love, love, love’ era, they are not ABLE to teach their children. You can’t teach what you don’t know. We need to teach the parents if they’ll have it.

        BTW, we pulled our kids from the local Catholic school that wanted more technology and Common Core. Catholic homeschoolers now.

        • WSquared

          Well, I guess it’ll be up to both laity and clergy who take the faith seriously, then. We have to have both, but the numbers will at first be few.

          Yeah, I hear you about the “let’s make banners and love, love, love” thing. Oy, vey. Even worse when you charitably object, pointing out the logical reasons why, and you get a tirade of accusations of how you “don’t love Jesus.”

          Right, because loving Jesus means turning Him into some sentimental caricature.

  • With the direction that things are heading here and in Europe, soon there will be a true issue of “safety” for Catholics. When there is a price to pay for affiliation with the Catholic Church, loss of job, fines, being pelted with rocks as you leave mass, those “nominal” Catholics will have to make a hard choice.

  • GaryLockhart

    One more from Jesus:

    “And why even of yourselves, do you not judge that which is just?” Luke 12:57

    Kudos to Archbishop Cordileone and all other Bishops, Priests and Deacons who understand that truth is not relative. Lord have mercy on those who don’t.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Perhaps bishops will have to hire PR directors who not only know how to deal with the media, but who are also schooled and experienced in pastoral care so that they can advise the bishops about how to approach topics that will be controversial in the wider community. And perhaps bishops will need to consult their PR pros BEFORE they start putting these decisions out in the open.

  • BXVI

    “Much of the world has reduced Christianity to not judging and inclusiveness…”
    Including Pope Francis?

  • WSquared

    A funny thing about reducing Christianity to not judging and inclusiveness is that it’s actually a form of exclusiveness: much like the extremes in its “purer, smaller Church” flipside, that understanding of Christianity often means the following– Jesus ate with sinners. But not the kind we don’t like.

  • Mack

    Perhaps in other sees the Catholic teachers could insist that their bishops, school boards, superintendents, and principals “act publicly in harmony with Catholicism.”

  • JGradGus

    I have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Royal. The real challenge for our bishops is how to keep the ship afloat. Per a Pew Survey from Sept. 2014, only 27% of American Catholics called themselves “strong” Catholics last year, compared to over 42% in the mid-1980s. However, 54% of American Protestants – double the Catholic share (27%) – described their particular religious identity as strong last year, among the highest levels since the GSS began asking the question in 1974.

  • Gsimjohnston

    Mr. Brady and his fellow “cultural Catholics” want to turn the Church into yet another liberal Protestant denomination. The problem is that the Protestant churches that have chosen to go flopping along with the spirit of the age are precisely the ones with the sharpest decline in numbers. Who needs a church that is simply an echo chamber of the surrounding culture?

  • ForChristAlone

    Someone ought to tell Tom Brady Sr that there are thousands upon thousands of non-Catholics who attend Catholic schools. Enrollment is indicative of nothing apart from paying tuition.

  • nady

    It is getting more and more dangerous to be a Catholic these days.Next time you know you are out of job just by being a Catholic.

  • T. Audrey Glamour

    And there is a PR firm behind the “outcry” against Archbishop Cordileone. The same firm works for the local media.

  • kathleen

    Remember: Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life. Nothing else matters. Read the New Testament and the teaching of the Church in the Catechism. No ambiguity, just Truth itself. When we move away from the Truth chaos prevails. The road is wide that leads to perdition, and the road to Life is narrow. Jesus said this. We all need to pay attention. Look at what has happened to the Protestant churches who have chosen to go the way of the modern day culture. What do they believe? Contraception; Gay Marriage; Abortion; Fornication. Anything goes and no one goes to church anymore – very few. By their fruit you shall know them. Amen

  • Joan

    I’m tired of hearing about values. Society has values. Catholics prefer virtues. Do these kids even know what they are? “Tolerance” has become a euphemism for anger and rebellion.

  • Veda

    Mr Royal, Thank you and your co-workers (and benefactors) for the thought provoking and enriching articles provided on the Catholic Thing. One of the reasons I like it so much is that it helps me keep from being too complacent.

  • macay

    Regarding the “reasoning” of Tom Brady, Sr– I think it is wrong that Christ preached against the rich too–don’t you Mr. Brady and son?. How dare Christ made statements that impinge on the life of wealthy people and their personal finances!! Christ definitely did not have the right to do that!