Fostering religious literacy is among church’s top communications challenges

| September 29, 2011 | 0 Comments

John Allen Jr. is a senior correspondent with National Catholic Reporter and an author who is frequently seen on CNN addressing Catholic issues. He will be a member of a panel at Archdiocesan Communications Day Oct. 13 addressing challenges the church faces in the area of communications. The Catholic Spirit recently asked him a few questions on the topic.

From your viewpoint, what’s the biggest challenge facing church communicators today?

Allen

Allen

The single greatest challenge is probably religious illiteracy because we live in world in which many people lack even a basic background in religious matters. Ordinary folk and shapers of opinion alike often carry around a bundle of myths, misconceptions and false assumptions about what various religious groups teach and do. When a question about the Catholic Church comes up, therefore, it’s not enough merely to answer it. You’ve got to anticipate how that answer might be understood, based upon what this person or outfit already thinks about the Catholic Church, and then supply whatever context is needed so the answer can be appropriately understood.

What is one way the church and its communicators should address that challenge?

What church communicators need to realize is that their problem is rarely text, but rather context. That is, most information about the church is fairly easy to identify and communicate. The problem is that simply presenting that information often doesn’t get the job done because first you have to work through the popular filters which shape how that bit of data is likely to be understood.

Let’s take an example: Suppose someone asks you how many people work at the Vatican, and you’re not in a wise-guy mood, so you don’t go with John XXIII’s famous response: “About half!” The correct answer is that roughly 2,800 people work for the Roman Curia, which is the central government of the church, and another 1,900 work for the Vatican City-State.

Leave it at that, and people might think it’s a massive infrastructure — which coheres with the images people imbibe from sources like “The Da Vinci Code.” With the right context, however, the picture changes dramatically. Consider: There are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world, so if you applied the same ratio of citizens-to-bureaucrats to the federal government in the United States as we see in the Catholic Church, there would be only 500 people on the federal payroll, rather than the 2 million who currently hold federal jobs. In context, in other words, the answer doesn’t point to a huge multi-national conglomerate, but a very small central administration that wouldn’t have the tools to micro-manage the church even if it wanted to.

Why should people attend this Communications Day event?

Catholics are supposed to be evangelizers of culture; Pope Benedict XVI has called the entire church to a “New Evangelization.” In the world in which we live, the media and social communications have a profound effect on shaping culture. This event can help people become more effective communicators and, therefore, more effective evangelizers

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Category: This Catholic Life