Thursday, 9 September 2010

'La contre-offensive mediatique des laics anglais'

That's to say, "media counter-offensive by English lay people" -- the headline over a detailed profile of Catholic Voices by Celine Hoyeau in the French Catholic daily La Croix.  The article carries quotes from CVs Ella Leonard (photo) and Peter Williams, as well as CV coordinator Austen Ivereigh.

Translation by CV Kathleen Griffin:

Twenty British Catholics have been taking part in an intensive six month training programme, to prepare to respond to media questions before and during the Papal visit of Benedict the  XVI to the UK.

It’s a female contest, this morning, on the set of BBC Breakfast, the daily morning show of the famous British radio and television station. “Should the Catholic church ordain women?” the presenter asks.

Also present on the set are Therese Korturbash, international co-ordinator of the campaign for the ordination of women and Ella Leonard “ordinary Catholic” , commercial lawyer and mother. 

The first speaker argues in favour of the equality of the sexes, the second with the traditional arguments of the magisterium and she also adds her own witness as an engaged Catholic : “ I am perfectly at ease with this and don’t feel at all frustrated as a woman, I absolutely have my place in the Church, “ she says with conviction.

Clear, calm and modern, Ella Leonard seems to have been in television studios all her life. In fact she’s been part of an intensive six-month training in media skills with Catholic Voices, an initiative  started by lay people to stake a presence in the media and to deal with criticism surrounding the visit of Benedict XVI to the UK. 

For several months various associations, including humanist, secular and gay rights ones, have been using the recent paedophile scandals to step up their virulent public attacks against the Catholic Church and more generally against all religions in the UK.

“The project was born after a disaster” relates one of the founders,  Austen Ivereigh, 44 , a Catholic journalist who writes for the  Guardian and America magazine. “Last October the organisation Intelligence Squared had a debate on the value of Catholicism in society: they had invited the heavy hitters on the atheist side, but no one from the English bishops accepted the invitation. The two badly prepared Catholics who took part in the debate were massacred….We didn’t want the same thing to happen during the Papal visit.”

With Jack Valero, Opus Dei representative in the UK and Kathleen Griffin, a former BBC producer, Austen Ivereigh then had the idea of putting together a team of unofficial spokespeople for the Catholic Church who needed to be “ordinary” young lay people, at ease with their faith and the modern world, able to express themselves clearly and available for interview at a moment’s notice.
Notices were put in the newspapers. A hundred candidates were put through a rigorous selection procedure and chosen according to three criteria. ”Personality, attitude and catholicity” sums up Austen Ivereigh. The key question was “are you at ease with the teachings of the Catholic Church?” We turned down all those who thought the bishops were not left wing enough, or on the contrary to have made compromises with modernity. Mostly the media only interviews extremists.”

Lawyers, teachers, students, housewives…the team is currently made up of twenty or so members.

“We don’t represent the sociological diversity of the Catholic Church, but we have never sought to do so” says Ivereigh, emphasising that the initiative has the support of British bishops but remains independent.

Placed under the auspices of the Catholic Union, an organisation dedicated to the promotion of the Catholic Church in public debate, the project has cost 70 000 euros and been financed by two charities and some generous donations.

From March to July, twice a month, the candidates have received intensive training in London given by professionals from the BBC or Sky news. They have learnt how to answer in a concise and imaginative way, on ten neuralgic issues: paedophilia, Aids and condoms, homosexuality, contraception, science, the place of women in the Church, politics, etc…. “We are  recovering the ancient tradition of apologetics  and adapting it for age of CNN,” Ivereigh explains.

So now the “Catholic Voices” have been sent out into the media arena and it’s been a success.  Peter Williams, 26, has already been asked for three interviews in the coming weeks. A former atheist, this theology student is taking the preparation seriously.

“I’m listening to public opinion, I’m getting the facts straight, I’m reading up on the scientific papers.... The fact that I’m an ordinary young man gives credibility to what I say, for example, on condoms”. 

This tall, fair-haired, chatty young man explains: “I like to debate my convictions with my atheist friends at university. It’s a very stimulating challenge for me to prove the harmony between faith and reason.”

So are these Catholics a bit too good to be true? “On the contrary” retorts Austen Ivereigh,” the media don’t really care which Catholics they interview. What they need are people who are media friendly and studio ready. We’ve already had requests to help set up a similar initiative in other countries -- including Ireland.”