When Lord Patten takes up the chair of a Vatican committee to advise the Pope on media strategy, he may well be looking back home for models of excellence. One, some would argue, is Catholic Voices.
Set up ahead of the papal visit of Benedict XVI to the UK in 2010, Catholic Voices is the brainchild of Austen Ivereigh, former public affairs director to Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, and Jack Valero, press officer for the Catholic group Opus Dei. The seeds for Catholic Voices (CV) were sown in 2006, when Valero and Ivereigh put together the Da Vinci Code Response Group to respond to questions about the church arising from Dan Brown’s bestselling novel.
Backed by the Catholic Union and enjoying charitable status, CV set out to train up 24 lay Catholics and one priest to represent the Church in the public square. In the event, the Pope’s visit passed off without a media hitch, perhaps because no scandal emerged on such issues as the church and child abuse.
The trip could thus be trumpeted as a great success. Never slow to celebrate achievement, CV says: “Our
appearances on over 100 programmes at that time made a big impression on bishops and broadcasters alike and we were encouraged to continue.”
Since then, CV has grown, training up more lay people to speak on behalf of the church. The CV academy holds regular meetings, which can be briefings, talks and debates. Ivereigh has written a book - "How to defend the faith without raising your voice" - about the development of the CV model. The has been replicated around the world, with 12 CV groups now operating in Europe, the Americas and Australia.
However, Lord Patten may well have questions for the group over its process of due diligence and some of its political leanings, for CV seems to divide Catholics. “The media’s response to Catholic Voices is an archetype of religious illiteracy: hook line and sinker they have swallowed the hard right line proffered by this well-funded fringe group whose primary focus is to defend positions and behaviours that most UK Catholics have rejected…They would be better called ‘neo-conservative Catholic voices,” said Francis Davis, columnist for the Catholic Times.
This is a group that seems at times to align itself with parties such as Ukip. Leading the way in this respect has been Ivereigh himself, who tweeted last year: "For first & probably last time, I have voted @UKIP in protest at parties' cynical collusion in overthrow by
state of conjugal marriage."
CV ran a campaign for “conjugal marriage” (and thus against gay marriage), with the writer Caroline Farrow, a columnist in the bestselling Catholic weekly the Universe, attracting criticism from more liberal figures after she questioned a call from the gay action group Stonewall to eradicate homophobia from schools, churches and homes: “It's difficult to know what that means in practice and certainly impinges upon Catholic principles of the parents as primary educators. How may homophobia, which is so frequently applied to Catholic teaching, be eradicated from schools, churches and homes and who will enforce it?" Farrow has become a regular in the media, with her weekly column and appearances on programmes such as BBC’s Question Time, where she defended conjugal marriage.
Those with doubts about CV ask how it vets its speakers, particularly after one tweeted the hope that the IRA might bomb an abortion clinic in Belfast and retweeted another tweet calling for “all fags to be exterminated”.
Valero has explained the selection process: “We ask all applicants to fill in a questionnaire and submit it with their details. From these questionnaires we invite some to interview. The interviews are carried out by three or four people who ask about different areas: personality, articulacy, persuasiveness, awareness of
the news, their knowledge and experience of the church, and so on.
“We look at blogs and Twitter feeds for a general view, although it is not always possible to read everything they have written. From among those interviewed we choose the most appropriate, taking account also of trying to put together a balanced team in terms of range of ages, men and women, occupations, etc. During the actual training course we also have further tests for the trainees so that at the end we can decide whether to take them on. Nobody who does the training is automatically a Catholic Voice.”
Yet the hierarchy appears to have lined up behind the organisation. Cardinal George Pell, who will oversee Lord Patten in his new Vatican role, said: “Catholic Voices are really onto something that will grow and spread.”
Cardinal Vincent Nichols said: “CV is marked by a love of the church and a deeply rooted spirit…I think this effort to bring faith and reason together in the public forum is crucial for us.”
Interestingly though, the institutional church likes to keep its distance from CV, leaving it effectively in the deniability zone. CV are said not to speak for the church but to have “its blessing”. This enables the church to approve when CV proclaims in favour of -
say - conjugal marriage, but back away when there are more contentious outbursts.
This “deniability zone” may be narrowing, with Eileen Cole, the media co-ordinator at CV also working for the Catholic Communications Network, the official press operation of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales (BCEW). The BCEW is also a funder of CV.
Alexander des Forges, director of news at the BCEW and press secretary to Cardinal Nichols, tried to explain the relationship between the BCEW and CV. "While Catholic Voices is independent, it has the support and the blessing of the bishops. Experts from the Bishops’ Conference and bishops themselves have given briefings to Catholic Voices to explain the Catholic Church’s position across many areas of media interest; from schools to assisted suicide," said des Forges. "Catholic Voices have engaged with the media in an accessible way, communicating in ways that are normal and human. They are at the forefront of the move to encourage all Catholics to engage with the media and speak up about their faith."
Coming from the BBC, made up of competing media interests, Lord Patten will surely appreciate the dangers of a body like CV. The media will not always be prepared to play the deniability game, allowing the institutional church and its not so official spokespeople to waltz in and out of each others
company. The big test would be another child abuse scandal. If something happens that suggests the Catholic church has failed to meet its promise to put its house in order, then the media will want to know exactly who is speaking and on whose behalf.
* Published British Journalism Review - December 2014