How Not to Communicate With the Public

Way back in 2009, there was an Intelligence Squared debate in Britain that considered the statement, “The Catholic church is a force for good in the world.” Arguing in favor of the motion was Archbishop Onaiyekan of Abuja, Nigeria and Ann Widdecombe, a novelist and former politician with the Conservative Party. Arguing against was the late Christopher Hitchens and comedian Stephen Fry (this debate is avalible online in case you want to see/hear it in its entirety). For those of you who are unfamiliar with how Intelligence Squared works, a vote is taken before the debate begins to see where the audience stands on the issue. The two sides then lay out their positions in a series of opening speeches, followed by a question and answer portion and further debate between the individual speakers. Another vote is taken at the end of the program and the side that has swayed the greatest number of audience members to their side is declared the winner. At the beginning of the debate in question, the vote was For the motion: 678. Against: 1102. Don’t know: 346. After the debate, the vote was For: 268. Against: 1876. Don’t know: 34, meaning that 774 people changed their minds by the end. According to this Telegraph report, it was, “the most decisive swing against a motion that he could remember” (

While atheists would probably say that their side won because of Christopher Hitchens’ mad oratory skills, I think a better explanation is that the people arguing for the motion did a terrible job defending their position. The archbishop in particular acted like his position was self-explanatory and didn’t bother trying to respond to the criticisms that Hitchens and Fry were lobbying against the church. You can see the same dynamic at work when you see Catholic advocates of “traditional marriage” like Maggie Gallagher attempt to explain their position; they’re so irritated that the topic of same-sex marriage is even a topic of conversation, that they act like their position is obviously right and their opponents are too stupid to live. But this kind of presuppositionalism isn’t winning them any converts in the public.

The Catholic church obviously has difficulty with communicating to the public, at least in the West. I guess it shouldn’t be too surprising, given that the church is an absolutely monarchy and is used to announcing decrees from on high and having the lowly peons-laity following them without thought. The problem is that the days when the laity could be counted on to just follow orders are over, not just in the United States, but in many traditionally Catholic countries as well. Even Latin America, the so-called “heartland of Catholicism,” is becoming more pluralistic, as Protestant sects flourish and even atheism is finding eager adherents:

As I have mentioned before, the Catholic church is having difficulty functioning as one religious group among many and not the “One True Church.” While it is true that Catholicism is growing rapidly in Africa, so are many other Christian churches. This, combined with the incredible diversity in many African nations, where there are often hundreds of ethnic groups speaking as many languages within a single country, means that the kind of Catholic supra-majority states that are the Vatican’s preference will be impossible to establish. For example, Uganda’s population is 84 percent Christian, and the group with the largest number of adherents is the Catholic church (41.9 percent of Ugandan Christians are Catholic). Yet, Ugandan Catholics would be fools to think that they could just throw their weight around and create some sort of neo-Francoist regime or something like that. As is the case in the US, the Ugandan Catholic church is one religious group out of many, and it has to learn to “play nice” if it expects to get anything done. Besides, I think we can all agree that the last thing Africa needs is a a series of intra-Christian wars between Protestants and Catholics.

But the real problem for the Vatican is how to bring disaffected Western Catholics (and their money) back into the fold. The Pew Research Center estimates that ten percent of all Americans are ex-Catholics:

A couple of years ago, there was a “Catholics Come Home” campaign to get ex-Catholics back into the loving embrace of  “Holy Mother Church” that even involved some slick television commercials, but I haven’t heard anything about that in some time. Like Archbishop Onaiyekan, the commercials emphasized the church’s social service work, but failed to address the concerns that many ex-Catholics have about ingrained corruption, institutionalized pederasty, and misogyny. That the church even needs a “Catholics Come Home” campaign must be galling to many members of the hierarchy, since it indicates that the institution is operating from a place of weakness and practically has to beg its former members to come back.

As I have mentioned before, most of the Catholic church’s PR problems are of its own making, and much of that stems from a greater devotion to the institution of the church than members of the laity who may have been hurt by said institution. This is why you see conservotrads like George Weigel and Bill Donahue blaming victims of abuse for their own predicament and attempting to silence critics with charges of anti-Catholicism. Ever since the Reformation and especially the Enlightenment, the Catholic church has encouraged members to keep themselves in an informational bubble, lest they be exposed to ideas that may cause them to question their faith and the authority of the hierarchy. Not being exposed to outside ideas and learning how to effectively counter them is probably why Archbishop Onaiyekan and Ms. Widdecombe lost so badly in the Intelligence Squared debate. If you want to communicate effectively to the outside world, you have to speak in a language people understand, and not assume from the outset that you, as a possessor of “the Truth,” are doing the masses a favor by condescending to them.