WASHINGTON, D.C. — In the 1950s, Archbishop Fulton Sheen was able to captivate the nation with his television program “Life Is Worth Living,” where his theological discussions in front of a chalkboard were often able to rival the likes of Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra during the prime-time slot.
Catholics nowadays have no such media muscle, but one priest seeks to change that.
Father Peter Stravinskas, of the Priestly Society of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, is starting a new retreat that he hopes will teach journalists, nonfiction writers, novelists and poets alike to be strong voices for Catholicism in an increasingly secular media world.
Simply dubbed the “Catholic Writers Retreat,” it will take place June 7-9 at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey. A variety of topics will be covered, including what Catholic editors look for when choosing stories to publish and how to cover the Vatican.
In an April 10 phone interview with Catholic News Service, however, Stravinskas also emphasized how the workshop will push writers to produce material from a “Catholic perspective” without delving into explicitly religious territory.
“A Catholic writer has a unique worldview” even on topics that aren’t overtly religious, the priest said. “There is a Catholic take on ethics … even secular values.”
He lifted up G.K. Chesterton as a man who exemplified this because he brought a Catholic perspective to academia even before he became a Catholic: “Chesterton embodies that. … His original writing was all for secular journals … none of it was overtly religious.”
The main problem Stravinskas sees with modern journalism and media is that Catholics are in retreat from the public square and thus inaccuracies and misconceptions of the religion are becoming all too common.
“We have to be more proactive as Catholics,” Stravinskas maintained, pointing to coverage of the Philadelphia grand jury report on sex abuse by clergy and other church workers as an instance of shoddy reporting on Catholicism.
Many of the priests mentioned in the report were long dead, he stated, and though “we (finally) got professionals to analyze it … there should have been intelligent Catholics to analyze this thing” in media outlets from the very outset.
And while Catholics in the media should play stronger defense, Stravinskas noted, there are bright realities in the Church that the media simply turns a blind eye to.
“Our people ought to be writing good, edifying stories,” he said, “success stories … of either Catholic institutions … (or our) contributions to science, math or literature.”
He continued, claiming “(one) would never know that 60 percent of Catholic schools have a waiting list” if all one consumed was the mainstream media. “All we hear is that another one closed,” explained Stravinskas.
When asked if training Catholic writers to assess their own religion more fairly would actually have any effect in shifting the coverage the Church receives from big media, the priest suggested that apathy toward religion is what needs to be conquered.
“In 1985, I went to Nairobi, Kenya, … and I’m reading in the Nairobi Times … an article about eucharistic theology (and) ‘Who is the pope?'” he said in describing the coverage religion typically gets in that country. “We all know in the secular media … the guy who covers the religion beat … knows nothing about theology.”
“They can’t even use the proper terminology,” he added, underscoring that supplementing secular media with writers who at least care about Catholicism would help the current situation.
Stravinskas finished by expressing his admiration for the late Sheen, who was able to bring the Catholic perspective to the masses just by providing reasonable, moral takes on everyday issues.
“(He) was the first televangelist. … He broke the ice,” Stravinskas recounted, “and again so much of his material was not explicitly Catholic. … It was an ethical look at things.”
Stravinskas mentioned that household subjects, like child discipline, were among the topics Sheen would discuss.
“I can tell you that even in the bars on Tuesday nights … they would turn sports off and Fulton Sheen went on,” said Stravinskas. “When it’s done in an appealing, professional way, it works.”