Sunday, 15 January 2012

What’s the problem with Catholic Voices?

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.


Patricius said...

It seems to me, as an outsider, that when the Catholic Voices project was inaugurated one or two individuals who had been given to understand that they were to be involved in it were tactlessly dropped without notice. This was naturally hurtful to them and they appear to have been unable to view anything proceeding from CVs other than negatively and have been loud in their criticisms ever since. While this subsequent behaviour suggests that it was indeed wise to exclude people who lacked the necessary maturity and self-discipline it also seems to indicate some ineptitude on the part of those who set it up. No one is perfect. Perhaps the Catholic Voices will not always get things right- these are early days yet- but that there are individuals willing to put themselves out there in the media defending the Church as an alternative to the ghastly dissenting Catholics we have suffered for so long is something for which I am grateful.

Anonymous said...

A very welcome post. Thank you. Though I think Bishops must also, sometimes, point possible ways forward if there is to be any real progress, even if sometimes they prove controversial.

Frederick Oakeley said...

Doesn't help to distinguish between bishops commenting on faith and morals and their words on Fair Trade. Exploitation of the vulnerable and our responsibility for that IS a matter of faith and morals as much as is our commitment to the unborn child. Attacking our bishops on this ground takes away from the general argument and opens up the riposte that reminds you, Ben Trovato, that the Holy Father has had some pretty trenchant things to say on subjects like capitalist greed and the threat of climate change. Is he to be criticised too?

Ben Trovato said...


Yes, I know what you mean - see my next...


Thanks for your kind words: and I fully agree: more and better leadership from the bishops would be a huge improvement!

Ben Trovato said...


Perhaps I didn't make my point clearly enough.

Fairtrade is one attempt at a solution to a problem clearly identified by Catholic teaching; but whether it is the best, right, only, or just solution is a matter of legitimate debate. The enforced collectivisation of those who wish to benefit from Fairade status does raise some questions, and (and this is my point) there is more room for a nuanced view of this, than there is, say, for the legitimacy of homosexual actions and the promotion of 'gay marriage'...

The Holy Father's prudential judgements are also not absolutely above criticism. He would be the first to make the distinction between infallible teaching of his office and his views and opinions as an individual theologian.

Clearly we lend a lot of weight to his views, both in the light of his office and his own distinguished academic and spiritual record, and my default position is that he's far more likely to be right than wrong.

But we are required to bring our intellects to our Faith, not simply to swallow something without thinking, simply because Father, His Lordship, His Grace, or even His Holiness says it.

That was also, of course, my default position about our bishops for many years; but time after time, I have found that despite that default, I was ending up disagreeing with some of the pronouncements emanating from them and their people, particularly when they seemed at odds with both Catholic tradition and the Holy See. That default has, alas, been so eroded by experience (see for example, my recent post on why I am so bitter and twisted...) that it barely functions now in respect of them.

That may be a fault in me, of course, but it is a sorry state of affairs when many Catholics struggling to live their Faith in difficult times, find themselves in such a position - and it seems that many do.

Anonymous said...

Even in the Ordinary magisterium ( non infallible )teaching of the Holy Father, we are bound to a submission of mind and will

Ben Trovato said...


Thank you: you are quite right of course, and I should have been more precise in my distinction. WIth regard to his teaching office, we are bound as you describe. But that does not, of course, extend to his personal opinions.

Nicolas Bellord said...

It is a difficult problem and I hesitate to comment. However possibly the members of CV need to be more disciplined. If you become a member then I think you have to realise that you will inevitably be seen, rightly or wrongly, as speaking on behalf of CV however much you assert that it is just a personal view. It is rather like becoming a member of the Cabinet - you do not express contrary views outside the Cabinet. I cannot help feeling that members of CV should not have their personal blogs - I have found the attacks on John Smeaton on one such blog particularly unfortunate. To make up for this, CV itself should run a website where it would be possible to have a properly monitored and constructive discussion of issues
that CV have spoken or written about - such as the recent issue of civil partnerships.

Stuart James said...

If you become a member then I think you have to realise that you will inevitably be seen, rightly or wrongly, as speaking on behalf of CV however much you assert that it is just a personal view.

Absolutely spot on. This is exactly what I've been trying to say....

Ben Trovato said...

Nicolas, Stuart,

I think I disagree here. I am a member of various bodies, most of which would hasten to distance themselves from much of what I write. That is one of the reasons for the pseudonym, of course.

But it would strike me as a high price to pay, as a volunteer seeking to serve the Church as a CV member, to find that my own freedom to express individual opinions was completely curtailed. Being a member of CV is different, I would say, from being a cabinet member (or even a member of OD, come to that).

I think it should be acceptable - and accepted - for individuals who sometimes volunteer to speak as a CV also to blog and speak in their own right. It may be helpful if they clearly label in which capacity they are contributing, but I would hope we could accept that in good faith.

Nicolas Bellord said...

Ben Trovato: I said my comment was hesitant! Perhaps I was going too far in saying they should not have a personal blog. I think it depends upon what goes on the personal blog. If you are a spokesman for an organisation then anything you write on your personal blog which relates to the aims or views of that organisation is almost certainly, rightly or wrongly, going to be seen as speaking for that organisation or possibly reflecting the views of the management of that organisation. I just think they need to be more careful.

John Smeaton has been accused of making "outrageous statements" by one CV member who complains that he does not allow comments on his blog. But nor does CV! Maybe both SPUC and CV would find monitoring comments too onerous and I can understand that. The CV member goes on to say that if there was a comments facility and she was attacked then she could reply with a comment in her defence. My concern would be that she would not be able to force the blogger to publish her defence. It might be preferable for CV to have a carefully monitored comments section which did not allow ad hominem attacks and certainly allowed people to defend themselves when attacked.

Stuart James said...

I've never taken issue with you Ben and one of the reasons for that is that you are one of the few folk I actually learn from.

But in this rare instance, I must agree with Nicolas.

Helen London said...

Ben, you say: "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..."

I love your blog and look forward to reading it, but I just want to check – you do know that there are no vows in Opus Dei, don’t you? As a numerary member of Opus Dei, I am ‘bound by the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience’ in just the same way as you or any other Catholic lay-person, because that is what I am, and so are all other OD members. Yes, I’ve made a commitment to do my best to practise all the Christian virtues, but, as I say, Opus Dei members don’t take vows. The point is that my ‘obedience to my Opus Dei superiors’ extends to my spiritual life and apostolate, and specifically, necessarily, EXCLUDES the work I do as an employee – in my case, of a university. To say that Jack Valero ‘leaves his obedience to his Opus Dei superiors at the door’ of his work in Catholic Voices’ is, therefore, actually true. His ‘Opus Dei superiors’ do not tell him what to do or how to do it with regard to CV, and if they did, he would (very politely I feel sure) tell them to mind their own business, exactly as you would yourself, if the priest to whom you go to confession started telling you how to act in your professional sphere. So it’s a fact that Opus Dei as such REALLY is not involved in Catholic Voices in any way. If you’d like to check you can phone the person in charge of Opus Dei in the UK, Mgr. Nicholas Morrish.

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for your comment and kind words about my blog.

You are clearly better placed than I am to know how obedience plays out in this situation (though I would point out I made no mention of vows).

However, my substantive point, that Jack Valero's tweet was not the height of PR skill, remains intact, I think.