By Desmond O’Grady
The motto the Vatican chose for the Social Communications Day in 2017 really said it all: ’The truth will set you free.’
Effective communications are essential for both democracy and the Church, because both require shared understanding of reality.
Some claim that the prevalence of distorted communications before the Brexit vote determined the result.
The Church’s unity is linked to a shared reading of salvation history.
What constitutes effective communications may seem obvious – send a clear message to those interested. But at a closer look, it is not so simple: for instance, it is one thing to convey facts and another to convey viewpoints which seek to convince.
Facts can be verified, viewpoints involve interpretations and feelings which are more complicated matters.
The most effective communications of all are transformative – it changes the recipient’s life. St Paul benefitted from such communication somewhere short of Damascus.
I believe that writers should at least attempt to convey truth.
One of my heroes is George Bernanos, the French Catholic novelist and monarchist who went to the Spanish civil war where the anarchist killed hundreds of clergy and nuns.
As expected he denounced these atrocities but then, unexpectedly, also those of the forces of General Franco, Bernanos was for those who suffered not for either ‘side’ in the civil war.
For journalists, truth often means simply accuracy which is a kind of workaday truth.
Even that often requires tenacity and luck.
Years ago, I wrote an article saying that some priests had profited from a racket involved in the arrival of many nuns from India to study in Rome or fill nearly empty Italian convents. Unfortunately, some of the Indians ended up badly in Italy.
Archbishop Mario Brini, Secretary of the relevant Vatican office, hotly contested the story both to me and publicly, saying I had inadequate evidence. Then I managed to find a nun who told me by phone that two nun witnesses had left to take a flight back to India. I jumped into my small Fiat 600 which was the first ever to pass Ferraris and Lamborghinis on the road to the airport. Their habits enabled me to identify the nuns who gave me clinching evidence.
My luck held because an American, Father Edward Heston, had just been put in charge of the Vatican Press Office and confirmed my story. It was said it was the first time that the Vatican had to acknowledge the truth of a critical article.
Effective communication is not confined to words.
“Always preach the Gospel, sometimes using words” is attributed to St Francis of Assisi.
Gestures can be eloquent and the Church has often resorted to them as when Catholic processions in Communist Poland enabled a statement to be made despite restrictions on free speech. Or when Pope Francis launched a wreath of flowers off the tiny Italian island Lampedusa into the sea where many refugees had drowned.
But words remain important. Words which are ambiguous, or just plain boring, can dim any message. And we have constant reminders that words can be venomous.
It is sobering that lies can be communicated as effectively as truth. In our ‘post-truth’ era, some consciously manipulate lies, often using a modicum of truth to make the lies more plausible. This is a crucial issue.
Ever since the Garden of Eden, there has been fake news, but social media has given it a new toxicity. Social media enables new voices to be heard, but also increases the volume and velocity of fake news which can trigger a veritable tsunami of hatred.
The Vatican, no slouch in social media itself (Pope Francis has 52 million Twitter followers), warned in its 2019 Social Communications Message that fully human networks are needed rather than superficial networks. It is an invitation to go beyond virtual contacts to contacts with people in the flesh.
The Message acknowledges that the internet can be a great resource but also warns against social media’s tendency to foster fighting tribes which increase polarisation, ruining community. It turns to that ardent communicator St Paul who recommended speaking truth, not falsehoods, ‘because we are members one of the other.’
It wants the web, a word which suggests a trap, to become a network, adding that the Church itself is a network based on the Eucharist and truth rather than on ‘likes.’
It is a good diagnosis but leaves it to us to find how to use the internet more responsibly. It foreshadows an internet ascetics.
Many social media messages effectively communicate hate together with over-simple response to complex issues. The Gospel Good News is the final antidote to fake news. But it could help to reduce, or break out altogether, from the use of internet and slavish following of the 24/7 news cycle. Try something else occasionally, including reading some history for a perspective on the present era which is too present.
From pages 6 to 7 of Issue 21: ‘The most Effective Communications is transformative’ of The Record Magazine