When people find out that I work for the Catholic Church often they ask me questions about the faith, especially if they are Catholic. Almost as often they have a misunderstanding of what the church teaches on certain things. When I ask where they are getting their information, they frequently reply, “I read it in (insert name of favorite local newspaper or magazine here),” or “I heard it on (insert name of popular cable news channel or local news broadcast here).”
While not surprising, this reality is cause for worry. In today’s fast-paced, media-consumed world, many Catholics are getting their theology from the headlines or sound bites.
There are many problems with this. Secular outlets often do not provide all of the information related to a story or issue because no journalist has all of the space or time to cover an issue as well as they would like. Deeply held theological beliefs such as ordination of men only to the priesthood or the church’s opposition to euthanasia cannot be summed up in a few sentences or a few minutes.
Also, journalists often have limited understandings of the church and simply get the information wrong. We Catholics have a rich vocabulary that can make for its own foreign language. There are words like saints and sacraments, novenas and scapulars, transubstantiation and kerygma, to name a few.
Of course, there can also be media bias that is antagonistic to organized religion, and the Catholic Church specifically, that can color a story and make it a dangerous place to get our theology.
Media is by no means bad or to be avoided. It should, however, be consumed with caution.
Pope Benedict XVI touched on this matter in his latest encyclical “Charity in Truth.” “Given the media’s fundamental importance in engineering changes in attitude towards reality and the human person, we must reflect carefully on their influence, especially in regard to the ethical-cultural dimensions of globalization and the development of peoples in solidarity.”
God’s ways aren’t our ways so in many cases, any coverage of church teaching will be inadequate. However, Catholics can arm themselves against headline theology. For a start, Catholics should own a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church or the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults so they can look up answers to their questions about what their church teaches. Subscribing to religious publications like the Catholic New World can also help. Most of all, the next time we find ourselves trusting what the secular media says the church teaches, we should stop and ask ourselves if they have the whole story.