Pope Benedict XVI is in America and, like his predecessor, is about to be treated to curiously bipolar coverage at the hands of the American press. While in-country, John Paul the Great received almost universally positive treatment. But up to the point the papal wheels touched down, the media reports were consistently critical — some verging on the savage — and when it was wheels-up, the press immediately returned to their old ways.
The tone this time around will not be so much "news" as the recycled template that our journalistic elite imposes on every papal visit to America in the last 30 years. The usual surveys will be taken off the shelves, dusted and re-re-represented. Catholics are leaving the Church. Catholics who remain aren’t attending Mass. Vocations are dwindling.
And then comes the analysis from an institution that claims in its ranks only two percent who are practicing Catholics: "Hardliners" from Vatican City are out of touch with their enlightened American flock, from their practices (refusing to allow priests to marry, to ordain women) to their beliefs (abortion, birth control, homosexuality).
Catholic dissidents are regularly afforded the media megaphone to demand that the Holy Father become a Holy Panderer, crumbling rigid orthodoxy in favor of a church that follows instead of leads. They want a church in reverse, in which the appointed shepherds are supposed to be sheep, and the sheep become the shepherds. Yet one need only look at the effects on many mainline Protestant denominations that have traveled that road: Their churches are crumbling. So if the Pope were merely holding a marketing session in America, trying to figure out how to keep the most fannies in the pews, this message would not be helpful.
No one understands this better than Benedict XVI (and before him John Paul II). It is not that the Catholic Church is insufficiently enlightened, it is that it has become too liberal. The media are blind (and dissidents thoroughly uncomfortable) to what could be the most natural appeal to hold on to believers: challenge them to believe. Challenge them to live up to their faith, not down to the deviancy of our popular culture. Remind them of what God’s Word demands of them, and expect them to respond to it.
If the media truly were focused on solutions to what ails the American Catholic Church, rather than the advancement of the agenda of its dissidents, they would stop focusing on heretical anti-Catholic groups like Catholics for a Free Choice and instead look for organizations asking Catholics to return to fidelity with the church of their youth.
At which point they’d discover CatholicsComeHome.org.
Founded in 1998 by Tom Peterson, a former advertising executive with 30 years’ experience in that field, Catholics Come Home enjoys the support of many noted Catholic authors, bishops and Vatican officials. It has now launched a national multimedia campaign, with a special emphasis on TV ads, gently nudging lapsed Catholics back into the fold. The group cites a quote from the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen: "Love is a mutual self-giving which ends in self-recovery. You recover God, and He recovers you."
The message comes with the Christian virtues of faith, hope and love. It’s not an appeal to "narrow dogmatism," but it is unequivocally faithful to dogma. The group sees the church as a port in a storm, not a prison guarded by Rottweilers. "God loves you so much that He will not stop searching for you, reaching out to you, and seeking you, so He can bring you safely home to a big, warm, and loving Catholic family. But God is gentle … the choice is yours."
The media seemingly have no concept of what G.K. Chesterton called "the adventure of orthodoxy" against the prevailing winds of earthly opinion. "It is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s own," Chesterton wrote. "It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob." Moral relativism demands we roll with its flow, and be swept up in its secular dogmatism.
The hard part about religious belief in modern America is giving up the worship of self, the urge to put our selfish concerns first. "What would American Catholics wish to hear from the Pope when he arrives?" "What do you want him to say?" These are the dominant media questions posed to Catholic leaders before papal visits.
Even orthodox Catholics would be tempted to wax poetic. But when he was asked, Tom Peterson’s simple response was a monumental rebuttal to the very question. "I want the Holy Father to say whatever the Holy Father wishes to say." It is the faith behind that response that deserves attention from the American media if they are truly interested in answers, not agendas.