“To the gallant journalists who work in Catholic media and to the Catholic journalists who work in secular media”

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A response to Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle’s keynote speech at the “Catholic Media in Challenging Times” forum in San Carlos Seminary, Makati City. Friday, January 19, 2018.

The responsible shepherd 

It is an honor to be here; I don’t know if taking part in today’s forum qualifies as a plenary indulgence, but this sinner certainly jumped at the chance when the invitation arrived.

I share Cardinal Chito’s misgivings about not having a female perspective on this panel; I hope we can help cure that in the Q&A. But I look at the panel and I realize—this is not only missing the female perspective, it’s missing other male perspectives too, because we are all graduates of the Ateneo. It’s the Jesuit mafia at work! But keeping our limits in mind is good. We are only offering our views from the limits of our own experience.

My experience is primarily that of a journalist.

Indeed, I am wearing black today because today the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines and other alliances and associations are marking #BlackFridayforPressFreedom, in support of our colleagues at Rappler, the staff at the 54 Catholic radio stations whose licenses to operate have been I think deliberately ignored, and other journalists on the receiving end of the government’s iron fist. 

The limits of my experience lead me to respond to the Cardinal’s comprehensive overview by focusing on his emphasis on responsibility. Heeding Vatican II, we hold that “truth must always be the norm,” that “truth must always be communicated in justice.” His warning about the dangers of speed as the measure of journalism is a challenge we must meet. And his cautionary remarks about the responsibility we all face in communicating the truth about moral evil—that is, that we should not do the devil’s work and make it attractive in itself—will ring in my ears for a long time to come, especially given the evil that has fallen upon our land.

But because this is a forum on Catholic media in challenging times, I’d like to zero in on the responsibility of Catholic media practitioners themselves. Surely what Pope Francis said, about shepherds who must smell of their sheep, must apply, to the gallant journalists who work in Catholic media and to the Catholic journalists who work in secular media.

Let me phrase it this way: As shepherds, who or what are we responsible for?

We are responsible for our sheep. We are responsible for the food our sheep eat. And we are responsible for the land our sheep graze on. I am of course speaking in metaphors; I do not have the gift for speaking in parables!

First, we are responsible for our sheep. We need to be where they are; our duty is to bear witness to them, to bring the light to them, yes, and to reflect the light they receive. When they are being slaughtered, we must use the resources at our disposal to stop this evil.

Second, we are responsible for the food our sheep eat: the grass and clover they consume seven or eight hours every day. I had not known that, before I did research for this forum. Seven or eight hours of eating or ingesting every day—doesn’t this remind us of our own social media habits? When our sheep eat this much, we must use the resources at our disposal to ensure that the information, the art, the content, they consume must allow or enable them, as “Inter Mirifica” encourages us, to participate even more fully in the pursuit of the common good. The CBCP’s pastoral guidelines issued last year warning against “fake news” and identifying several sources were the act of a true shepherd. In five days, Pope Francis will release his message for World Communication Day in May; it will be on “fake news and journalism for peace.” I, like many others, cannot wait.

Third, we are responsible for the land our sheep graze on, the verdant pasture the Psalmist sings of. To be where the people are, we need to speak their language. But language has been corrupted too. We are all witness to the coarsening of public discourse in the last couple of years. But there is something worse. Our own ideal space for dialogue, our pasture, is described as a market, the free market of ideas. I realize that some of the most stirring defenses of our own right to publish, our right to free speech, have used this image. But it is time to push back against the metaphor of the marketplace. When a family council is called, to discuss the details of a beloved parent’s funeral, can the discussion honestly and truthfully be likened to the transactions in a marketplace? When graduate students thresh out the implications of the latest research in a graduate seminar, can the exchange be fairly and accurately described as the free market of ideas?

I do not know what the alternative is, but I believe that one way for us to move forward, to become more responsible as media practitioners, is to evolve away from the ideal of the marketplace. Our sheep do not graze in the market.

Much more can be said, but let me leave it at that, with this portrait of the good Catholic journalist, the responsible shepherd.

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Filed under Readings in Media, Readings in Politics, Readings in Religion, Speeches & Workshops

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