Creating Your Own Credibility Problems
Whenever Congress is on recess, I always wonder what will catch the media’s eye in Washington, D.C. When there is no drama to cover, sometimes either something lands in their laps or they take something, create the drama, and help blow it out of proportion. The Washington, D.C. media and bobble-head chattering class on the cable shows received two such gifts in the past week allowing them to inflict further pain on two institutions some in the media take joy in beating like a piñata.
The first story was the total lack of judgment used by a Republican National Committee (RNC) staffer to organize (informally or not) a field trip to a Hollywood sex club. This was followed by a second lack of judgment by the RNC for approving the expense report. It must have been a rough week at the RNC because the story would just not go away. Donors are upset. Values Voters who traditionally align themselves with Republicans are upset. Voters are now questioning the values they thought the RNC stood for with another example of Washington, D.C. hypocrisy in a year with a vulnerable Democratic party.
The initial response from the RNC focused on the staffer being fired and promises of better stewardship of money. I am sure the leadership of the RNC is embarrassed by this episode. However, they missed the point that it highlights a larger, more serious cultural problem facing ascending generations – the “if it feels good do it, and if there are consequences blame someone else” philosophy.
The second “story of the week” was another round of sexual abuse news giving the media another opportunity to attack the Church. I was troubled to see the extensive coverage given to the members of SNAP on the local Washington, D.C. affiliate in the news. If your eyes were closed, the lead-in by the local reporter describing a protest held outside St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C. made it sound like hundreds gathered. But, the visual of four angry and hurt individuals told a different story. It was even more troubling to hear the “man on the street” interviews after Easter Vigil Masses where faithful were stating their faith had been shaken. (I am guessing those were the comments chosen to be aired versus those who stood in solidarity with our priests.)
The over-attention the media is paying to the latest chapter in the sex abuse scandal is affecting their already biased credibility, but like sharks in chummed water they smell the blood of the wounded, and the responses have not helped the situation. Leaders in Rome protecting the institution of the Church, instead of recognizing the effect this is having on the faithful, miscommunicate that the Church is not taking these situations seriously.
Families are suffering in their wallets and also from having their values attacked each day. They are looking to institutions to help change these situations, not worsen them. Some are hoping to turn to elected officials; some are hoping to turn to ecclesiastical guidance by appealing to a higher power.
Both of these stories would not have been able to gain so much traction if there were not already credibility issues present. Institutions people have traditionally been able to rally behind have become contributors to a culture lacking self-accountability.
How can these two institutions rebuild credibility?
People are tired of excuses and deflection. They are sophisticated and see through it. People want an acknowledgment of the problem and an attempt at some form of contrition, even if the leadership of an institution is not responsible for the grievance.
RNC chairman Michael Steele, a Catholic, needs to stand up and point out that these activities were inappropriate, highlight them as an indication of greater problems in our society, and say so with contrition to begin rebuilding credibility with supporters.
Likewise, the Church needs to stop focusing its attention on a biased media that will never back off their attacks on the Holy Father. The Church needs to hear the advice from public relations professionals, and take back control of the story. They have an opportunity to make the distinction that things have changed by acknowledging there is still work to be done cleaning up the past, denouncing the unforgivable, and articulating all the Church is doing around the globe to prevent future abuse from occurring.
What can you do?
In regards to the Church…I remember being in an airport during the height of the Boston sexual abuse cases. A young gentleman sat down next to me at the gate, and I noticed his reading material. I asked him if he was a seminarian because he was in street clothing. He answered that he was a recently ordained priest returning to his parish from visiting his family. On his way to see his family, wearing his collar, he was attacked in the airport and thus made the move to street clothes. I was saddened to hear his account of the attack. We spent the next hour discussing his feelings of isolation. There are priests out there who have engaged in reprehensible behavior. On the other hand, the overwhelming majority of our priests work hard every day ministering to those in need. During this Year for the Priest and these latest revelations, we need to do more to let faithful priests know their vocation is appreciated and they are supported. We need to speak in their defense and not let those who want to attack what the Church truly stands for be the only public voice.
In regards to political parties…some Democrats are disenfranchised because of their party’s stance on abortion and same-sex marriage. Republicans are upset with their party’s spending and values hypocrisy. The modern day political parties are supposed to be an organizing entity to turn out the vote. To those that are disenfranchised, I encourage you to find your own voice or some organizations who you agree with to speak for you in Washington. There is no substitute for you being able to join in the debate and let your voice be heard.
When people begin to realize that their own efficacy is the true genesis to change, our Church, our country, and our culture will begin to reflect our values.
By Matt Smith, Catholic Advocate Vice President