It's an environment where some of the best evangelists, apologists and pastoral support comes from laypeople, often working through the new media.
Where no one has a monopoly on the dissemination of information.
And where the deep divide between the ageing Vatican II generation and the new youth dominated conservatism creates endless tensions.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the current struggle to come to grips with the challenges posed by new media.
The bishops promote, Cath News oppose?
Over at the Australian Bishops Conference media blog they are heavily promoting the opportunity to learn about how to use the New Media effectively in the context of the upcoming Catholic Media Congress. It features a number of prominent speakers, including one from the Vatican.
Over at another extended arm of the ACBC, Cath News, however, publisher Christine Hogan (also a speaker at the Congress) had a post up yesterday attacking the new media and assuring readers that she plans to stick with the old.
Ms Hogan tells Cath News readers:
"Here is what I want for you – well-written, well-researched, intelligent pieces from journalists employed by major media organisations who know the difference between editorial and editorialising."
The problem of paywalls
The context for Ms Hogan's potshots at bloggers and others is the problem of reader frustration when the articles linked to are behind paywalls, such as Greg Sheridan's writeup in the Australian of the Pell vs Dawkins debate.
It's a problem I've struggled with myself. And because I don't purport to cover everything going in the media, I've mostly stopped linking to or commenting on anything behind a paywall beyond the odd throwaway line.
In the case of Cath News however her ultimate conclusion on this is, given that Cath News is an aggregation service, better to alert the reader to its existence than to simply ignore it. Fair enough.
Options for paywalls
But I do think it reveals a certain lack of imagination in Cath News' approach.
Odds are more and more important stories will be behind paywalls, and a brief summary linking to a one line headline is probably not going to do the job of alerting readers to a story they need to be aware of in many cases.
So what are the alternatives?
One could, for example, whenever linking to a paywall story, provide a link to The Australian's (or whatever organisation it is) free access policy, which will, for example, allow a reader free access to a very limited number of items each day via google.
Or perhaps could negotiate with the Australian and others a special access deal for its subscribers.
Alternatively Cath News could provide a slightly expanded summary of the content and line taken in such stories.
On blogs, editorials and editorialising
There is one more obvious option though, and that's doing a little editorializing or contextualising of it - adding some value to it in other words - in order to ensure that the use of the content falls within the 'fair dealing' provisions of the Copyright Act (which allows use of a work for purposes such as review and criticism, or news reporting).
The fair dealing provisions (not quite the same as the more liberal US fair use provisions) are one of the reasons why most bloggers, myself included, typically 'editorialise' when we use material from elsewhere rather than simply reproduce it.
Ms Hogan though, one gathers would rather scorn this option, preferring the traditional tactics of headlines, omissions, distortions and commission with which to editorialize. She says:
"At the same time as the publishers were seeing their circulations plueitmmet [SIC] and internet usage rise, two other phenomena was gathering speed – the citizen journalist and the ubiquitous blogger. Sometimes untrained, always opinionated, their ascent was an echo of the inflation of another source of ‘news’... the extremist commentator (sometimes known as a “bloviator” in US tabloid parlance)."
These extreme commentators – mostly from the Right – have affected news and how we consume it – as former Prime Ministerial flack [SIC] Lachlan Harris pointed out. The news cycle was out, the opinion cycle was in – something which was manifestly wrong could lead talk back every morning until by 9 am it was proven to be a furphy and abandoned".
Is the new media really that bad?!
Others, of course, including the Vatican and the US bishops for example, have had rather more positive things to say about the new media and it usefulness.
Personally I think the explosion of opinion pages in newspapers, and online dailies like Crikey, The Punch, New Matilda, the ABC's the Drum and the like (most of which by the way, are very far from being right wing in their orientation) actually reflect an increased degree of sophistication in our consumption of the media.
In former times many people were perhaps more willing to accept the more or less subtle biases of the media. These days, more people want those starting assumptions made explicit.
In earlier times, we didn't have to cope with quite so much volume of news. And so because there is so much more to digest, we tend to look for the perspectives of a few trusted commentators to tell us what is important, and give us the quick view.
In former times we didn't have a choice when the mainstream media deliberately let certain stories fall through the cracks. Now we do.
Cath News might want to contemplate the implications of that for their business!
Cath News bias
It is perhaps though unsurprising that Ms Hogan should have such a negative view of the new media world.
Responding to this new environment effectively would, after all, require Cath News to do a bit of substantial rethinking about its approach.
Instead it seems intent on continuing its current curiously selective approach to which media sources it links to, reflecting its determined pursuit of a liberal editorial line.
Quite my favourite example of this was to feature last week the website of the notoriously liberal Brisbane Liturgical Commission. But perhaps that was just about alerting Archbishop Coleridge of where his priorities for reform should be...
More substantively, they don't appear to scan places like the Vatican News site, for example, or they would have picked up yesterday's story about the reform of the peak body for religious women in the US. Yet I'm betting that either today or early next week we'll get a link to an opinion piece from the 'progressive' US National Catholic Reporter or some similar take on the decision...
Similarly, despite the fact that radio, video and print are increasingly integrated, delivered from the same platforms online, with occasional tokenistic exceptions, Cath News largely ignores anything on radio or video form (don't expect to to see a link to Michael Voris' The Vortex appearing for example, despite the fact that he is currently touring Australia!).
There is lots of stuff from Eureka Street but rarely a link to the often excellent pieces at the ABC's Religion and Ethics site.
And they continue to marginalise the product of blogs through the weekly 'blogwatcher' piece despite the fact that elsewhere sites are making no differentiation between paid and unpaid contributors, or the fact that blogs such as Fr Z's attract thousands of hits a day (and even relatively small ones like mine get a goodly number and occasionally break stories not covered elsewhere).
But really the most curious aspect of Ms Hogan's piece was the claim that the new media is all about editorializing while the old is all about well-researched, well-written stories.
You have to wonder if she has noticed the systematic anti-Catholic, anti-religion, pro-Green bias of the Fairfax media and the ABC that allowed, for example, a major speech by the then leader of the Greens, starting 'Fellow Earthians', to go virtually unreported?!
You have to wonder whether she has actually read Robert Manne's devastating critique of the Murdoch media in this country?
Or noted the continuing stories about just how those 'well-researched' stories are often produced (think Andrew Bolt and the google affair; phonetapping and bribery in the UK, and more)!
To suggest that the old media is unbiased, neutral and high quality while the new is all about opinionated amateurs is surely a denial of reality or naivity taken to an extreme!
And on the subject of journalistic standards...
And on the subject of journalistic standards, perhaps Cath News might take a hard look at itself.
Apart from the typos in Ms Hogan's own blog piece (see above), Cath Blog continues to distort, misrepresent or simply ignore (though from a purely personal perspective, that's my preferred option!) the work of bloggers whose views it doesn't like.
Take, for example, the recent blog watcher piece that attributed to me words that actually belong to one of our bishops. Mr Michael Mullins reported a few weeks back that:
"With the title “Having a stoush for Christ!”, Australia Incognita comments [For the record, I am not 'Australia Incognita' - I just post there! My posts are clearly labelled as by Kate, and my full name is in the sidebar] on Bishop Geoffrey Jarrett’s Lenten Pastoral Letter to the Archdiocese of Brisbane.
She stresses his mention of the “stirring and striking military terms” from the Ash Wednesday Mass prayer. These include “campaign”, “battle”, and “weapons”, and they drive home the point that “the ashes invite us to conquer evil”. Incognita says:[Well no, I didn't say this, I simply reported what Bishop Jarrett said, namely that)
"Part of our problem in society as well as within the Church is that we’ve put aside, perhaps as a bit of an embarrassment, that military metaphor of the Christian fight, the fight against the supernatural enemies...
Time was when we Catholics in Australia were never afraid of a stoush for the cause of Christ and His Church, in our local community or in a wider arena. But for the most part, with outstanding exceptions, can we say that we have become blighted with timidity, afraid to be different from the secularist influences around us, even sometimes within our own institutions, or even to differ from Christian brothers and sisters of other persuasions".
So just who is it that doesn't know the difference reporting and editorial comment?! There is surely a big difference between a blogger saying something by way of commentary, and a bishop saying something by way of authoritative teaching in a Pastoral Letter. But of course, pretending that it is a mere blogger saying it makes it ok to attack with one of those oh so neutral-headlines Cath News specialises in....
For the record, I asked for a correction. Instead an edited version of my comment was published on the blog page. And that in turn attracted a personal attack on me from David Timbs for daring to complain about the misattribution of text (and for disagreeing with his Spirit of Vatican II view of the world). I, in turn, pointed out that his diatribe didn't seem to comply with Cath News' guidelines, which state that:
"While critical comment on stories and issues is welcomed, postings that descend to personal attacks on or impugn the integrity of other commentators will be blocked."
I wasn't surprised to be ignored!
On the plus side, I have, I think stumbled on the perfect way of avoiding Mr Mr Mullins' jaundiced 'reporting'.
On Monday this week he highlighted a piece by David Timbs published the day before on his blog lamenting the alleged undermining of the concept of the 'People of God'. By a coincidence I wrote a piece also that day dealing with very similar issues, drawing attention to Pope Benedict's warnings against the very error Mr Timbs made, of ignoring the complementary concept of the Church as the body of Christ.
But perhaps because my post criticized a Cath Blog post, it mysteriously didn't crack a mention....
New Evangelization or propping up the progressive agenda?
All of which goes to a fundamental question. Just what is Cath News, an organisation supported and supposedly supervised by our bishops, supposed to be trying to achieve?
If it is to alert readers about major stories impacting on the Church in this country, then it surely doesn't matter where they appear, whether in blogs, mainstream or the catholic newspapers or wherever. Just whether or not they are of interest to the target group.
But of course if its purpose is to prop up the mindset of those ageing liberals then I guess the head in the sand approach works just fine!
Personally I don't want to see Cath News abolished, I want to see it reformed (my management consultancy services are available!). But maybe it really is beyond redemption....