This month marks the first state visit of a pope to Britain since the cleaving of Christendom during the reign of King Henry VIII. Benedict XVI’s trip to the sceptred isle is also the first visit from a pontiff since his predecessor’s 1982 visit. Obviously, it’s big news. On top of all that, Cardinal Newman is set to be canonized in Birmingham in a ceremony presided over by the Pope himself.
So, you can imagine that British Catholics are rather excited this month. Hundreds of thousands are said to be traveling to see Pope Benedict XVI on this rare visit, yes. While these folks are understandably excited, another segment of the population is agitated – and that includes a better part of the British media. Frankly, this is predictable. The absolute apoplexy which has accompanied the agitation, however, has been way over the top, indicative of the continued anti-religious fervor of a post-Christian society.
Announcement of the watershed trip earlier this year provoked a barrage of cranky reaction from the largely anti-Catholic media establishment. When they aren’t busy obsessing over planning minutiae – how much the government is spending for security measures, what spectators are banned from bringing to papal events, and who gets the honor of attending which functions – they are looking to secularist-celebrities to comment on Pope Benedict XVI. They know someone like Christopher Hitchens will oblige: Invariably, he’ll be controversial, forthright, and unabashedly bigoted against all things Catholic and all things papal. He’s a great anti-papal mouthpiece and he’s nearly always given an oversized megaphone.
Though suffering from an enormous malignant tumor, Hitchens somehow still found the time and energy to rage against the Pope, accusing him of “crimes against humanity” and even calling for his arrest once His Holiness set foot on British soil.
One might get the impression that the British media is obsessed with the various forms of opposition the papal trip generated. The papers are filled with similar articles day in and day out – from London to Edinburgh. Quotes from the likes of Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society; David Pollock, the president of the European Humanist Federation; infamous gay rights campaigner Peter Tatchell; and Jeremy Rodell, chairman of the South West London Humanist Group, have been commonly solicited voices of dissent – representatives of the English penchant to hate all things Catholic, and to do so in no less than hyperbolic style.
So, it is nice to see these Catholic naysayers challenged in print and in studio in recent months. Foreseeing the onslaught of distorted media coverage of the papal visit – all that ever seems to matter to them is homosexuality, condoms, celibacy, abortion, and sex abuse – a newly-formed group called Catholic Voices banded together to provide a speakers bureau of faithful Catholics who could articulate with accuracy and conviction the Church’s positions on these major contentious issues in the media. According to the organization’s website (www.catholicvoices.co.uk), a team of Catholics “drawn from a broad spectrum of the Church” prepared for Pope Benedict XVI’s September visit. Their primary purpose: to make themselves available to the media before and during that time. and comment on the papal visit in “clear, human language.” Catholic Voices is backed by Lord Brennan, president of the Catholic Union of Great Britain, and celebrity monk Abbot Christopher Jamison of Worth Abbey in England’s West Sussex. Its team of speakers includes a parliamentary researcher, several lawyers, an pro-life campaigner, a commodity buyer, a scientist, and a management consultant. Like sheep sent out among wolves, they have been charged with being as wise as serpents yet innocent as doves.
When an anti-Catholic group calling themselves the “Protest the Pope coalition” announced plans to block the Pope’s route to a school in London where Benedict is scheduled to address 3,000 Catholic school kids, Neil D’Aguiar, a member of Catholic Voices, was on hand to challenge the protestors. During a meeting of the coalition, D’Aguiar offered a well-reasoned rebuttal to the protestors’ objections regarding homosexuality, abortion, and women’s ordination – the hot-button issues that caused the coalition to pop blood vessels. According to the most excellent Catholic Herald (Aug 20), Aguiar was heckled at first, but by the time he finished his 15-minute rebuttal, he had put certain things into perspective for the opposition and gained the respect of the majority present.
Judging from the number of times members of Catholic Voices were quoted on significant Church topics in both radio and television interviews, from BBC News to Al Jazeera, the project has so far been a smashing success. The great thing about this tack is that it takes “completely ordinary” faithful Catholics from all walks of life – those who were not particularly familiar with the workings of media and who were not known by the media – and trained them for six months to take part effectively in studio and phone interviews and debates. Catholic Voices is working hard to connect this group of faithful Catholics with the media outlets who are most frequently running coverage of papal visit preparations, so that they can present Church teaching on subjects that the wider public “often find baffling or offensive.”
Another indication that the Catholic Voices project is successful is that it is getting organized opposition. Believe it or not, there are people out there who abhor the idea that faithful souls are communicating the authentic teachings of the Church on important issues of the day, and doing it effectively for those who may not share those beliefs.
A group calling itself “Catholic Voices for Reform” is now openly challenging Catholic Voices in media outlets. The reformers’ point of view: “We call for a wholesale transformation of the papacy and the Vatican!” has been their battle cry. According to their own promotional literature, the Reformers (after stealing the Catholic Voices name) organized to “offer the media a chance to hear the views of Catholics who are deeply concerned at the present state of the [C]hurch.” Not surprisingly, their agenda is grounded in the lobbying campaign for the ordination of women. Apparently these “reformers” have been fast asleep over the past four decades. The English media establishment has done nothing but trumpet the view of dissident Catholics who are “deeply concerned at the present state of the Church.” Theirs is already the dominant voice in the media. The true reformers – reformers of public perception, reformers of media bias – are Catholic Voices.
The members of Catholic Voices will no doubt be very busy this month as the Pope visits England and Scotland. Get set to read outrageous coverage in the British press; get ready to hear the anti-religious fervor reach fever pitch – but expect Catholic Voices to be on hand to provide a little balance to it all. Hats off to their excellent and much-needed media apostolate.