Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Flacking for Jesus

Reuters reports that the U.S. Catholic bishops are planning a public relations campaign to counter all the negative press they've received lately. It's a tricky business, discussing religion on a blog like this, but I've done it before, so here goes: Certainly, to the extent that the Catholic Church's views are misunderstood, and their actions misinterpreted or misreported, a transparent communications strategy is a sound idea. But the source of conflict between the Church and many of its critics is not that the Church's doctrines are misunderstood or inaccurately portrayed; it is the beliefs themsevles. For example:

Outreach efforts also include a Spanish-language video, now in production, that will take the form of a tasteful soap opera, tracing one family's interactions over generations. The drama aims to promote traditional marriage and combat rhetoric that frames gay marriage as an issue of equality, civil rights or justice, said Bishop Salvatore Cordileone of Oakland.

OK, so the Catholic Church does not believe that gay people should be allowed to marry as a matter of equality -- but that is precisely why so many people vehemently disagree with its position. Yes, some people are ambivalent and might be less willing to support gay marriage if they are convinced it is not a matter of basic social justice. The Church is well within its rights to take up this debate. But no one misunderstands the bishops' stance. They understand all too well.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating the Church changes its views. As a non-Catholic, that's not my place, though I am certainly free to disagree with the bishops and exercise my own rights in trying to counter the Church's attempt to craft public policy. But what is most important about an organization is not what it says, but what it does, and it is what the Church does, what it stands for, that rankles its critics.

A shadow still hangs over the Church when it takes up any issue related to sexual morality because of its role in systematically covering up decades of child sexual abuse. But as grave as that scandal was, and as many people as it brutalized, at least the Church could claim it was an aberation, a violation of its most basic teachings about love, compassion, and sexual decency. The Church could correct its behavior, make amends to whatever extent was possible, and reform itself to ensure nothing of the sort could happen again.

But when it comes to contraception, and abortion, and gay marriage, the Church will inevitably clash with those whose views are different no matter how clearly it communicates its positions. A good PR strategy might fortify the faithful -- which is no small thing -- but it won't win converts, so to speak, unless it compromises on those positions. And if the Church does that, as the bishops themselves might say, what's the point of religion at all?

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