Back when the Catholic voice and message influenced what Americans watched and read, the motion picture industry flourished and good literature was the norm rather than the exception. The 1950s was the high-water mark of Catholic culture in America. The National Office of Decent Literature and the Legion of Decency informed Catholics regarding what was edifying and set standards that non-Catholic creators knew they would have to meet to receive the patronage of Catholic readers and movie-goers. Movies watched by the entire Western World were judged by Catholic morality.
On the radio Fr. Patrick Peyton’s “Family Theater of the Air” (1947-1969) offered original dramas featuring Hollywood stars. Faith questions were answered by the “Radio Priests,” whose instruction survives in the still-relevant, three-volume book series, “Radio Replies”. Archbishop Fulton Sheen’s “Catholic Hour” (1928-1952) impacted millions and transferred its success to the fledgling medium of television as the “Life is Worth Living” program. Imagine a bishop beating Milton Berle, Lucille Ball, and Jimmy Durante to win the 1952 Emmy for Most Outstanding TV personality!
Between the 1940s and 1960s, Doubleday's “Image Books” published Graham Greene, Dorothy Day, Flannery O’Connor, Ronald Knox, Evelyn Waugh, Malcolm Muggeridge and J.R.R. Tolkien. The huge mainstream audiences for these quintessentially Catholic writers created bestseller after bestseller. There was Triumph, an influential and highly regarded magazine for Catholics. Even the Time/Life publishing empire was imbued with solid Catholic values due to the inspired leadership of Henry and Claire Booth Luce.
Then the turbulent 60's opened with a Catholic president assuring his fellow Americans that they would not notice any Catholic influence in his public performance. This new path to mainstream acceptance was soon adopted by other prominent Catholics, especially those with Hollywood ambitions. Emboldened, the media found Catholics to lionize: dissenters and rebels and Catholics to ignore: anyone who took the faith seriously. Thus marginalized, faithful Catholics retreated from influencing the culture, even as wholesale rebellion against Church teaching broke out in the wake of Vatican II and Humanae Vitae.
In 1968, Hollywood abandoned the Catholic Legion of Decency’s Production Code for today’s ratings system and by now we almost expect degrading fare from the movie and television industry. Although the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s (USCCB) Office of Film and Broadcasting produces (sometimes problematic) reviews of current movies and videos, few Catholics use these or even know they exist, and fewer still could be rallied to threaten Hollywood studios with a once-dreaded Catholic boycott. Today’s secular publishers are almost entirely anti-Catholic and inclined to fixate on the negative when reporting Catholic news.
It has become clear to many Catholics that we cannot rely upon the secular media either to entertain in an edifying manner or to inform fairly. Which is why the development of new Catholic media is such an encouraging sign.
Today, 206 Catholic newspapers reach 6.3 million, and 252 Catholic magazines in North America have a combined circulation of 14.8 million. Over the past 15 years, Catholic apologetics has undergone a remarkable resurgence; a stable of seasoned, popular speakers now exists in this country. Their books, articles, tapes and CDs provide instruction in the faith and in how to refute anti-Catholic arguments. These apologetic recordings form a veritable library of material available for radio broadcast.
Speaking of radio, we have to acknowledge recent failures of Catholic media initiatives – some lay and some coordinated by the USCCB. Consequently, things have been spoiled a bit on the financing side for those of us in the next wave. Since revenue is the fuel that powers the engine of evangelization, it is our job to adopt a model that won’t repeat past mistakes, and the financiers’ job to know what questions to ask. Withdrawing from the field is not an option. We did that in 1968 and the result was a cultural disaster.
Perhaps the brightest spot in modern media evangelization is the Internet. The World Wide Web is driving a resurgent apologetics and evangelization movement. People are turning to online resources for their faith formation as an antidote to the toxic alternatives. The wired universe is where people are and it is where the Church has to be too. Local radio is another area of feverish activity by the Catholic New Wave. The combined potential between the two could revive our long-comatose Catholic culture.
Our secular counterparts are wily, crafty, skilled, determined and “nepotistic”. We must be equally as dogged in restoring our voice, mastering our craft, countering our critics, advancing the careers of fellow Catholics, and training and mentoring young Catholics interested in media.
For the most part, the initiatives mentioned above have been pioneered by laymen. Greater cooperation between lay media apostolates and the dioceses is essential for advancing the movement and demonstrating that love of things Catholic is supported and even contagious. Exposure to knowledgeable, joyful Catholics leads others to identify more powerfully with their faith and elevate the priority they assign to spiritual things.
This is the alternative we must provide to the powerful allure of the secular culture until ours again becomes the mainstream and this tragedy is reversed.
Tom Allen is editor-in-chief and president of Catholic Exchange. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.