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Jesuit Father Myron J. Pereira, based in Mumbai, has spent more than five decades as an academic, journalist, editor and writer of fiction. He contributes regularly to UCA News on religious and socio-cultural topics.
The evolving role of the Catholic press
The press is a structured presence of community in public communication, challenging its readers to see, judge, and act
Published:
February 20, 2024 10:33 AM GMT

Updated:
February 20, 2024 11:59 AM GMT

For many decades, February used to be kept as “Catholic press month.” Thus, it is a good occasion to reflect a little on the role of the Catholic press in India.

The history of the Catholic press in this country has been an unflattering one. Is this so unsurprising after all?  Every newspaper mirrors the community it serves, and the Catholic community has been small, defensive, sectarian and largely dominated by its clergy.

Catholic periodicals are accordingly limited in circulation, usually ignored by the secular press — and by educated Catholics too, unfortunately — narrow and limited in perspective, and mostly under the firm thumb of a local bishop.

With a literacy rate of nearly 60 percent, the Catholic community is one of the best educated in the country. How is it that its impact on the national scene is so negligible?

Almost every bishop is the proud owner of a printing press and a diocesan paper, how is it that their outreach has never extended to creating a strong press in the local language?

One of the ironies of our time is that our network of schools has enabled Catholics to read and write and enter professions with confidence. Yet no publishing network exists on a large enough scale to be influential.

In brief, skills for reading and writing have been taught, but literature and a journalistic tradition have not been created.

Why the failures?

Why is this so? What has been lacking?

The reasons are indeed complex.

Among these, I would mention the fact that wide distribution is related to the readership, and most Indian Christian communities have poor traditions of literacy. For these, communication is more a matter of seeing, hearing, and speaking, and not of reading and writing.

Therefore, radio and film/television are far more significant than newspapers and periodicals. 

Diocesan audio-visual pastoral centers have tapped into this need very successfully.

Then successful publishing needs managerial skills more than literary assets, which means that it is easier to find good editors within the community than it is to find competent publishers.

Frequently too, the priest-editors who man the various newspapers and periodicals are overworked, understaffed, financially unskilled, and bullied by their bishops.

Most of all, they lack political conviction.

To write a book usually needs little political conviction. To edit or publish a paper regularly almost requires little else.

Why political conviction?

The Catholic community exists as a “public institution” in Indian society, and as such, whatever it says or does, has an impact on the communities (or “public”) around.

Much of this impact is unstructured and amorphous, such as in the day-to-day dealing of Catholics with their neighbors. Still, a significant part of the community’s impact is structured and organized, as in her educational and welfare work, and as such receives much greater publicity, and often of the negative kind.

In the same way, a Catholic newspaper — or a TV channel or a public relations office — is a structured presence of the community in the field of public communication.

More specifically, the press is an outreach of the Church, not just to its members within, but to the various “publics” without, those various opinion-making bodies — political parties, universities, trade unions, media houses, religious groups — in an attempt to speak to them (“proclamation”) and to listen to what they have to say (“dialogue”).

This function of a Catholic newspaper I call the task of interpretation — to “make sense of the Church” to the world, and vice versa. It calls for a political vision and conviction of the highest degree.

The tasks of interpretation

But alas, it’s not something that comes easily to either churchmen or laity.

Most bishops and priests are astonishingly naïve in the area of public opinion and are irritated and defensive whenever the Church’s “image” figures in public.

Perhaps the reasons for this are historical.

Having always dominated public life on her terms in the Catholic countries of Europe, and having been allotted a “special enclave” elsewhere, the Church finds it hard to compete as just one group among many in a pluralist society. She has always held a position of privilege.

Today her credibility is often suspect (as when ‘dialogue’ is seen as just a more devious form of proselytization), or regarded as irrelevant (as in matters of family planning).

A changing community

In every part of the country, but especially in the cities, the Catholic community is in the throes of change, hectic change. Does the Catholic press reflect this?

Among the various issues which impinge upon the community are: the unavailability of affordable, urban housing, and the dishonest practices it has given rise to; the care of the aged, especially the terminally ill; the mass media culture and its impact upon youth; migration and its problems; drug addiction and alcoholism; the difficulties faced by working wives and single women; the fanaticism of revivalist groups against minorities…the list is virtually endless.

As will be noticed, the above issues aren’t particularly “churchy.” They are vital and existential. They call for debate, deliberation, and decision in the public forum, particularly in the pages of the Catholic press.

Of course, for this one needs a different kind of paper than one sees advertised in a parish bookstall.

Will we have a more “professional” paper than the one we’re used to? — where professionalism in journalism is both the skill and method to make the format attractive, and vision and objectivity to give that content depth?

Time alone will tell

Today people assume the right to know, like it or not. Still, the demand for information need not be seen as a hindrance. It is an important part of the democratic process, where a people better informed can take better control of their lives.

In the Catholic community this ushers in a change from a clerical Church to a community of all the faithful.

And it is this that the evolving role of the Catholic press may bring about, even in our lifetime.

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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