Consider the following two questions: What are Catholics known for in the world? What do we want to be known for?
If you look at your answers, you’re probably noticing that there’s a discrepancy between these two sets of responses. Why is there such a gap between how we are viewed and how we want to be viewed?
Sin is a good blanket answer, but that’s existed for longer than the Church. While the public image of the Church has fluctuated since its conception, it has undoubtedly taken a fall in recent times. Its easy to place blame on problems external to our own personal bubble (the clergy crisis, falling attendance at Mass, and so on), but the answer may also lie amongst the faithful.
Archbishop Timothy Dolan recently published a thoughtful piece on external markers of our faith. I highly encourage you to go read it. In it, he makes the case for how many religious groups have outer signs that compliment their inner devotion. But, as Catholics, we have discarded many of these, and in the process, seem to have lost our public identity in the world. Meatless Fridays? Nope. Universal use of Latin? Non intellego. Regular confession? Um…yeah. It used to be that the culture catered to these external signs of faith because they were so embedded in a large portion of the population. With a decline in these practices, it is hard to even tell Catholics from others in most everyday situations. In turn, it makes it easy to think that Catholics are practically non-existent anymore. For example, the idea of Friday fish fries are still popular in some areas, although they’re dying out. Why bother accommodating a segment of the population that barely exists anymore?
But is our external devotion enough? In the journalistic and online world, Catholicism takes more than its fair share of heat, often with inadequate or incorrect information. Sometimes people don’t understand, while others don’t care that they don’t understand. For an extreme example, did you know that Catholics believe the Pope is a divine figure? Yeah, me neither. Although we can control ourselves, what are we to do about the media?
Cue the following article from the Washington Post: Mormons Using the Web to Control Their Own Image. This piece highlights how Mormons have been using PR strategies for years to redefine people’s thoughts and associations with what it means to be a Mormon. They offer tech savvy guides to young Mormons who wish to blog, enabling the LDS Church to get many of the coveted top spots on Google for common Christian search terms. Of course, their battle started differently than ours, and thus they have different perceptions to change: ostracized for their fringe practices, they migrated further and further west in the US to rebuild their community, and have long since been viewed with suspicion by mainline Christian groups. But even before the internet, Mormons were looking to improve their portrayal:
The Mormon public relations machine goes back more than a century, to the period after the church renounced polygamy and Utah was allowed to become a state. In the decades that followed, Mormons experienced harsh prejudice. As late as the 1970s, church pollsters found that some of the top words Americans associated with the faith were “polygamists” and “racists.” That’s when the church hired the best producers to shoot public-service announcements for television. Ten years later, the best-known word was “family,” Allen said.
I think every Mormon I knew in high school now blogs. Most of them aren’t anything revolutionary – commentary on dating, marriage (yes, they are all married, and all under 25), and raising their kids (yes, they all have one, or one on the way). They only have a handful of followers, and mostly run in small cliques, but have a powerful witness to living out their faith. Imagine if every Catholic wrote publicly about the ways God has blessed their lives – we would certainly be taking up a lot of room on the internet!
Given the dwindling number of faithful Catholics, it is likely that the majority of people will get their perceptions of Catholicism from the media and the internet. It is up to us to impart the Truth through these avenues, and do so in a way that engages the culture where they are. But our individual testimony is important too, not to mention the larger sense of community that comes from external signs of our faith. Both of these options ultimately gives rise to a larger sense of camaraderie amongst Catholics, letting others know that there is a large population of us who have found a home, and that they are welcome too. Regardless of how you impart your faith to others, keep in mind the two questions from the beginning of this post: they will help you to charitably correct misconceptions, as well as guide you to share the best our faith has to offer.
Image courtesy of St. Paul the Apostle Parish.