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Communications failures are ours says Archbishop

Archbishop Stephen Brislin gave his address as the leader of the Southern African bishops at their usual August plenary in KwaZulu Natal. This plenary will provide a space for the bishops to discuss economic transformation and land reform. It is expected that they will make a statement on this important matter facing South Africa. However, as Ricardo da Silva SJ notes, a seemingly peripheral issue on the agenda, on how the bishops communicate to the outside world, formed the focus of the President's address to the convened bishops.

The Bishops of Southern Africa are in Mariannhill, KwaZulu Natal, for the second annual plenary session. The plenary meetings are intended to bring the bishops of the region together to discuss important matters pertaining to the Church and society. The bishops usually meet in January and then in August. It is an opportunity for the episcopal body of the Church in the region to reflect on what is important in the life of the Church. They often have professionals who address them on specific topics. It is also a time in which the bishops can spend time together, praying, sharing experiences and socialising.

The principal theme which they have chosen to address at their current plenary is that of economic transformation and land reform. This is unsurprising given the present national debate in South Africa. Earlier this week, just before the plenary began, we heard a formal declaration of commitment by Cyril Ramaphosa, the ANC president, after the organisation's biannual “lekgotla”, to follow through and amend the constitution to legally and unequivocally sanction the uncompensated expropriation of land.

At the outset of the August 2018 plenary, Archbishop Stephen Brislin, the outgoing President of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, addressed those present. The full address can be read here.

The SACBC President said little of the main theme for the plenary in his address, other than to recognise the urgency with which the discussion needed to take place among the bishops, given the national angst to which this issue has given rise.

He also pointed to the growing discourse around racism in the country and made special mention of the Jesuit Institute’s Winter Living Theology 2018 series addressing the Christian’s role in the struggle against racism that was so ably led by US priest-academic Fr Bryan Massingale.

The archbishop said that the country has “entered a period of relative stability with the election of the President, Mr Cyril Ramaphosa.” He defended the president's approach – which has been critiqued for being a “softly, softly” one. He said that there was, at this time, probably “no realistic alternative approach.”  He then went on to list a number of growing concerns in the country which, surely, impact on its stability: “the increasing violence… gangsterism, cash heists, crime, family and gender violence, taxi violence, political killings, almost daily violent protests.”

Brislin, towards the end of his address, made mention of the mental and material wellbeing of clergy: “Recent tragic events have brought to the fore the need to give support to priests and religious”. He said that the bishops need to take this seriously. “Many priests face discouragement and a breakdown of morale because of the tensions of our times but also because of issues such as the ongoing sex abuse revelations.”

However, the focus of Brislin’s address was on how the Church in the region communicates. This is an important topic and one that many Catholic media outlets, including, see as paramount to the Church's mission in the region. Many feel that the Church has not, for many years, given this the attention that it needs and deserves.

The archbishop keenly noted that the matter of the bishops' communications had been raised time and time again and continues to be the fruit of much present discussion in local Catholic media.

Just this week, the SA Catholic newspaper, The Southern Cross, published a letter to the editor on this matter from our own editor. In his letter, Fr Russell Pollitt SJ stresses the need to take collective responsibility, as bishops, priests and faithful, in order to redress the perceived crisis in Catholic Communications and of the Church's profile, especially in the secular media. This was in response to a letter and, a few weeks ago, an editorial in the newspaper.

The issue of communications in the Church is a burning and neuralgic one to which we constantly return. The fact that most of Brislin’s address was concentrated on this matter suggests the growing urgency of this for the Church. In summary, Brislin confirmed that the SACBC’s response has been inadequate and that they had not dedicated sufficient material resources or collective headspace to address this satisfactorily.

The lack of material resources is undeniable. He called for the bishops to look seriously at the grossly understaffed arrangement of the Conference’s Communications department. Calling for a greater staff complement, “consisting of two or more bishops, an employed professional journalist, and experts to form a think tank”. He also called for greater investment in expert opinions and research on matters upon which they decide to communicate.

Not shying away from the economic challenge of investing in a communications team, he said that the bishops themselves are to blame for the failures in their communications. He placed a firm slap on the wrists of the bishops gathered saying that they lacked a concerted strategic vision. “[T]he problem is that we – as bishops – have not defined and clarified what we expect of the communications office and we have formulated no policies in that regard. We have given a few general and vague ideas that we have thrown around”.

Having called the bishops' attention to the lack in their strategic direction he went on, ahead of their discussions on the subject, to say what direction he thought the SACBC communications should take. Curiously, he did not mention that last year, at the same August plenary, the bishops had had a session on Church communications. A number of proposals were made by a professional Catholic journalist working in secular media – together with other Catholic media personnel – but there continues to be little follow through.

Brislin went on to say, after acknowledging that there is a problem, that the bishops in the region cannot merely pander to every whim for news as modern communications might have brought us to expect with its rapid-fire reactionary response to everything. Instead, he said that the bishops needed to be discerning about what they communicate, as “the Church is not a political or social commentator, and we must resist the temptation to slip into that role.” This was clearly Brislin’s greatest concern, as he repeats this again later and more forcefully in his address. “We should not be distracted by temptations to become renowned for social commentary or being in the vanguard of popular opinion. Our basis is always the Gospel.”

While we can agree with the archbishop that the Church cannot and indeed should not pronounce itself on all matters, we should be careful that the Church is not seen to be apart from the world, unable to say anything about the burning issues of a land bearing old fears of mixing church and politics. Pope Francis, through the Vatican's own media machine, has not been shy to speak out and offer social commentary on important issues.

To say that the Church cannot be seen as a social commentator could also be seen, as indeed it is already seen by many, to be the Church’s way of saying that it cannot interfere in the state or to say things that leave the state uncomfortable with the Church. For, as the archbishop is careful and right to note, “our basis is always the Gospel”, and Jesus certainly saw himself and indeed his role as one of voicing opinion, often very critical and denouncing injustices, on the issues of his time.

The Church today most certainly cannot abdicate itself of the responsibility that it has of being a social commentator because after all, as the archbishop calls for in his address, “the Church should be taking the lead on issues of “faith and morals”, broadly defined, and attempting to influence thinking and public opinion for the common good.”

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* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.