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Careless words can cost us dearly

Unlimited communication limits what we can get away with saying in public or private

  • Father William Grimm MM, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • January 18, 2012
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When Catholic missionary efforts in Asia began in earnest in the 16th century, messages from Europe to China, India or Japan could take two or three years to be delivered if they arrived at all. Responses sent back to Europe faced the same difficulties.

In the meantime, one or even both correspondents might die.

As a result, much of the work of the Church in Asia was decided by those “on the ground.” Disastrous exceptions like the “Oriental rites” decision in Rome forbidding cultural adaptations in liturgy and Christian life were due in part to misinformation or ignorance because of poor communications.

Starting in the 19th century with such developments as the telegraph, railroads, steamships and an international postal system, communication became faster and more dependable. One result was increased centralization in the Church as Roman curial offices could monitor and direct far-flung Churches. As in any centralized organization, communication tended to consist of information flowing to the center and administrative directives flowing out from there. Communication generally involved a limited number of participants and, often, secrecy.

The 19th century change in communications led to a change not only in communications in the Catholic Church, but a change in style as well as more and more decision-making power becoming centered in Rome. We continue to live with that legacy.

Now, the world is experiencing a revolution in communications that will inevitably change not only the way the Church communicates, but even the way it lives in the 21st century. The change is to totally open communication. The idea that communication can be kept private has become quaint. Now, anything someone says or does might be broadcast throughout the world in an instant, and reactions and responses come from throughout the world.

A recent example of how this new reality will have to be taken into account by Church leaders comes from Spain.

The Spanish newspaper El Pais reported that during a December 26 sermon Bishop Demetrio Fernandez of Cordoba claimed that a Vatican cardinal had alerted him to a conspiracy by the United Nations.

“The Minister for Family of the Papal Government, Cardinal Antonelli, told me a few days ago in Zaragoza that UNESCO has a program for the next 20 years to make half the world population homosexual.”

Since the UN is an association of nations rather than a government, it cannot impose programs on nations that do not want them. In addition, it is increasingly clear that people are not "made" into homosexuals, but discover that their sexual orientation is part of who they are.

Furthermore, since the latest statistics show that probably 95 percent of humanity is heterosexual, “making” half the world’s people into homosexuals will be a big challenge to an organization that is having enough trouble getting half the world to receive basic education.

Hierarchs who issue panic-stricken warnings based upon ignorance or prejudice have always been with us. What is different now, however, is that comments made in one sermon in Spain are broadcast to the world, electronically immortalized. I was alerted to the comments of Bishop Fernandez and Cardinal Antonelli by a young man in Australia who ran across them on the Internet. From now on and forever, anything the bishop or cardinal does or says will be seen in light of that sermon, provoking either catcalls or (less likely) cheers.

This new age of communications poses a challenge to institutions and individuals who are not yet used to the idea that what they say and do have the potential to be known, evaluated and commented upon by the entire world.

New tools require new sensitivity and a new awareness of the foolishness of communicating carelessly or ignorantly. That is true in the Church especially, since what and how Church leaders communicate will, as always, shape the way people respond to our offer of the Gospel. The one who alerted me to the account of Bishop Fernandez’s sermon has been considering Catholicism as a way to live his spiritual life. His search will certainly be influenced by that sermon in Spain.

As we become more familiar with the opportunities and pitfalls of universal communication, it is inevitable that the way the Church’s leadership structures function will change or be changed. The Church of the 19th and 20th centuries was not the Church of the 16th and 17th centuries. Hints of why the Church of the 21st century will have to change are already appearing.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of Katorikku Shimbun, Japan’s Catholic weekly.
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