By Gordon Nary
Gordon: To help introduce you to our readers, here is a link to your article Public opinion in the Church.
When were you appointed Full Professor of Public Opinion in the Communications Department of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross and what are your primary responsibilities?
Norberto: After having worked for fifteen years at the Departments of Communication at the Universities of Navarra (Spain) and La Laguna (Spain), teaching Ethics in Communication and Public Opinion, I moved to Rome to help starting the School of Church Communications of the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in 1996, which has proven a fascinating adventure. I’ve been teaching since both subjects, and served also as Dean of the School (1999-2007) and later on as University Vice President for Communications (2008-2012). Now I am fully engaged in teaching, researching and leading research on international media coverage of the Catholic Church and on family and media issues. From 2001 to 2016 I served as Consultant of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications. In 2016, with other colleagues of the School, helped to promote the Church, Communication and Culture journal, whose editorial board I belong to. To sum it up, most of my scholar trajectory had been dealing with Church communications.
Gordon: According to Russell Shaw, formerly responsible for media relations of the Bishops Conference of the US, your book “Public Opinion and the Catholic Church provides an analysis, including extended case studies, that deserves to be studied closely by people in leadership positions in the Church as well as Church communications. What motivated you to write it.
Norberto: The necessity to understand how and why public opinion behaves toward the Church the way it does. The book focuses on the secular media of news, information, and opinion. It reflects what we know about how the Church is judged by the court of published opinion through a number of studies conducted by the Communication Department of the Holy Cross University.
Gordon: What do you mean by published opinion? Is not the same that public opinion?
Norberto: I have explained elsewhere that public opinion is not necessary or has to be automatically identified with a published opinion, that is, using the Lippman’s image, with the media representation of the world outside. This does not mean that they are unrelated to one another. They mutually influence each other in ways that the theory – the theories – of social communication is making ever clearer. Recent failures in polls previsions and the ever-widening gap between the world as represented by the media elite and the world in the social media are witnessing this plain fact.
Gordon: Why are some of the media so interested in the Catholic Church? Is there a greater attention to the Church (the Pope, for example) by the international or the local media than to any other religious body?
Norberto: The Catholic Church, compared to other religions, is a simple and easy journalistic topic, relatively speaking, of course. In spite of the fact that it represents more than a billion faithful, and is present in very diverse cultures and political contexts, with extremely complex historical traditions, the Catholic Church has unity of doctrine – also unity of morality, at least recognizably – a central authority and institutional organizations that speak in its name and are recognizable before public opinion. This converts it ipso facto into the religious subject with the greatest number of mentions in the press. To this, we can add other factors such as the undeniable moral prestige of some of its outstanding faithful – Mother Theresa of Calcutta, to cite someone known to most people in the world – the service that many Catholic institutions provide to the needy – for example the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and its service to the poor; its historical continuity of 2000 years as an institution; its leaders who, from Pius XI and Pius XII, through John XXIII and John Paul II, to Pope Francis, are figures of unprecedented socially recognized moral authority, regardless of whether or not their theological identity (Vicar of Christ on earth) is accepted.
Gordon: Unfortunately, there is often negative media coverage on the Church Are there some Catholics that consider media reporters hostile towards the Church?
Norberto: Yes. And the reasons for that are various. We cannot explore all of them here. Let me point out one quite important: for one institution preaching such a high standard of morality –some of them ever difficult to accept by the dominant culture- the striking contrast between sublime doctrine and conduct of some Catholics (whether laymen or pastors, especially pastors) is a matter of news. Think of a sex abuse scandal by some priests. Painful coverage is not always negative coverage. At the same time, of course, it is true that many secular journalists really are hostile to the Church—hostile to religion as a whole, in fact—because, finding its message at once incomprehensible and offensive, they wish to "domesticate" it according to their own secular standards. But many journalists also are honest professionals who simply wish to tell the story as it is.
Gordon: What recommendations would you give to journalists addressing public opinion issues in the Catholic Church?
Norberto: To be honest and well documented.
Gordon: What impact does social media have on public opinion regarding religious issues?
Norberto: It is still early to make sound assessments based on meaningful and evaluated long-standing research. The general impression is that they have the very same effect, which is being attributed to the political discourse: polarization, echo chambers and emotional discussion. At the same time, those better equipped with good education and critical thinking look for and find out newer sources to be better informed.
Gordon: What are the most relevant principles and challenges of media ethics in general?
Norberto: As I have stated in the chapter dedicated to Communications and Social Media of the Handbook of Catholic Social Teaching, to begin with, it must be said that the community of persons and the human person are the end and the measure of communication. Ethical principles and norms relevant in other fields also apply to social communication:
“Principles of social ethics like solidarity, subsidiarity, justice, and equity, and accountability in the use of public resources and the performance of roles of public trust are always applicable. Communication must always be truthful since truth is essential to individual liberty and to authentic community among persons” (Ethics in Communication 20).
Truth further demands the dissemination of responsible information—media content should not promote xenophobia, discrimination, or nationalism disguised as patriotism. In situations of conflict, the media should be on the side of the weak—of the victims, not of the powerful: “the decision makers have a serious moral duty to recognize the needs and interests of those who are particularly vulnerable—the poor, the elderly and unborn, children and youth, the oppressed and marginalized, women and minorities, the sick and disabled—as well as families and religious groups” (Ethics in Communication 22). At the same time, this must be done without exploiting the vulnerable for ideological purposes.