When first I heard of the Catholic Voices project, I thought it a great idea. I was fed up with heterodox people popping up on the BBC allegedly representing the Church - and even the occasional orthodox person they found made me look young (and I was born before Vatican 2).
So training up some young orthodox Catholics in media skills, and helping and encouraging them to present a positive and accurate view of the Church in the public square was a solution to a real problem.
However, recently there has been quite a lot of antagonism between some members of Catholic Voices and others on the Catholic blogosphere. I think the roots of this go quite far back and have little or nothing to do with some of the Catholic Voice members who have got involved more recently.
I hope, in this post, to shed a little light, from one perspective at least, on some of this mess, in the hope that more light will equate to less (inappropriate) heat.
I think there are several separate but intertwined issues that make the CV project very hard to execute successfully as things stand, including the context, the remit, the history, and issues of competence.
The context, as I see it, is that the Catholic establishment in this country has lost its identity and purpose. There is a degree of institutionalised dissent (pace The Tablet, CAFOD etc) and a larger degree of ambiguity and poor leadership, such that Catholics are frequently surprised and dismayed to witness bishops and their officials say and allow things that would have been unimaginable in previous generations (pace Soho Masses, ‘Who knows what’s down the road?” etc.)
In that context, providing a positive and clear voice for Catholicism to the media poses some immediate challenges. What is CV to do when something emerges from the bishops or their agencies that is ambiguous or frankly dubious?
That leads us to the remit. I think for CV to work, they should stick very closely to the areas where there is clear and definitive teaching by the Church: that is areas of Faith and Morals. They should avoid areas where there is scope for prudential judgement and therefore legitimate diversity of opinion between Catholics in good faith. However, many of our bishops seem to like to talk definitively about such things (eg Fairtrade) whilst maintaining a studied ambiguity or steadfast silence about issues of Faith or Morals. When CV start to back the bishops’ positions on prudential matters (whether or not these positions are right) they are inevitably going to alienate some, and position themselves as a mouthpiece for the bishops rather than doing what it says on the tin.
When it comes to history, I was first really alarmed by Catholic Voices when they proclaimed the BBC Programme The Pope’s British Divisions to be ‘superb’ which was an extraordinary verdict, and seemed to me to suggest more complicity with the establishment than Catholic sense, as I blogged here. Many other British Catholics were similarly outraged at the programme. There have been a number of other occasions on which CV has taken a position that has dismayed some orthodox Catholics.
It is against this background which people judge current CV proclamations - and indeed members: they see CV as having ‘form’ - that is being compromised.
Finally, there are issues of competence. Recently Damian Thompson wrote a characteristically snide piece on his Telegraph blog, mainly attacking Opus Dei, but including the assertion that Catholic Voices has ‘Opus Dei's fingerprints all over it.’
Catholic Voices then tweeted: Opus Dei has no financial, spiritual, managerial, or indeed any other involvement in CV. Damian Thompson is spreading counterknowledge.
Yet we all know that one of the leading figures in Catholic Voices is Jack Valero. His Twitter profile says: 'Press Officer for Opus Dei in UK. In 2010 Press Officer for Newman's beatification. Coordinator for Catholic Voices.' He is not just a press officer as a hired hand, of course: that is not how Opus Dei works: he is a senior member of the organisation.
As PR experts, could CV not see that the tweet was not hugely convincing? When I suggested that CV had shot itself in the foot with this one, the reply was:
‘Two of the coordinators are members of a parish in Pimlico. Does that mean their parish is involved in CV? Of course not.'
This starts to look like casuistry. Is that really the image to cultivate?
The Pimlico parallel is so weak as to be ridiculous: if the PP at Pimlico were involved, the parallel would be closer - and the claim of ‘no involvement’ even weaker. And of course, we know that any numerary member of Opus Dei is bound by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. When Jack Valero is acting as Coordinator for Catholic Voices, he does not, presumably, leave his obedience to his Opus Dei superiors at the door. So the claim that he is acting in a purely private capacity is hard for anyone outside Opus Dei to understand, however self-evident it may be to those within Opus Dei...
But my point is not the propriety or otherwise of this, but that, given that context, the CV tweet saying Opus Dei has no financial, spiritual, managerial, or indeed any other involvement in CV was inept. There is so much else they could usefully have said that would not have made them look either stupid or deliberately misleading. And the tweet ended with an Ad hominem attack: a poor and unworthy strategy, I think. And that is just one, recent, example of what I see as a very poor record in managing PR.
My hopes are two:
One is that CV finds a way to re-invent itself, and does not fall into the trap which so many parts of the pro-Life movement have fallen into, of keeping people at the top who had a great idea but are not the best leaders for the long term...
The second is that those young Catholics who have joined CV with the sole intention of sticking up for the Church are not brow-beaten by those who, like me, have grown frustrated with the ineptitude and complicity of some at the top of CV. If people have a quarrel with Austen or Jack, don’t take it out on anyone else - and don't tar all CV members with the same brush.
Update: further musings here.
Update: further musings here.