Where are the 'talking heads' on global affairs in religious life?

Over the weekend I was in Baltimore, where a prominent men’s religious order brought together a few people to talk about how they can be more effective communicators. This was an off-the-record brainstorming session, but I can pass along one point I made, which is something I’ve long wondered about and something broadly applicable to religious congregations both of women and men.

Here’s the question I posed: When a crisis erupts in some obscure corner of the world, why isn’t a man or woman religious automatically in the mix along with the ex-general, the retired diplomat and the aid worker on “Good Morning America” and “The News Hour” explaining what’s going on? Why aren’t religious writing opinion pieces in the New York Times and Foreign Policy magazine outlining what the issues look like from the perspective of people who actually live there? In other words, why isn’t the press culture in America in the habit of tapping religious in the same way we pursue talking heads from other walks of life presumed to have some kind of global expertise?

Underlying these questions is a conviction, born of my experience of travelling the world as an American journalist and needing to learn a lot about places in a hurry. Invariably, the best read on local realities in a given spot I’ve ever received has come a member of a religious order who’s served there at length, and who still has wide contacts there on the ground. I’m not talking about insights just on the Catholic church, though religious can certainly offer that too, but a working knowledge of basic political, social and cultural forces – the kind of stuff that the American media typically ignores until something big breaks, and then scrambles to buy up.

Whether it’s Nigeria, or the Middle East, or the Peruvian Andes, the best “intelligence briefings” I’ve ever had in advance of those trips have been offered by members of religious orders, and they have also always served up the best set of local contacts once I actually got there.

The difference between talking to an American diplomat in a given place, for example, and a member of a religious order, is that the diplomat can give you the perspective from the big city and among the social elites; the man or woman religious, however, knows what the realities are on the street and in the bush. There’s really no other institution in the world that collects and fosters that kind of understanding quite like religious orders in the Catholic church, and yet my impression – one echoed by others this weekend in Baltimore – is that religious orders often don’t realize quite what an asset they’ve built up, simply by being themselves.

No doubt the explanations for this situation are complicated, and there’s plenty of “blame,” if that’s the right word, to go around. On the side of the press, it’s just not part of the culture of the mainstream secular press to take religion especially seriously, so reporters often don’t work at establishing relationships with leaders in religious life the way we do with politicians and diplomats and financial experts. To tell the truth, many reporters at major American newspapers and TV networks may not even know what a religious order is, let alone what they do. The idea that a Catholic priest or nun in America, therefore, might have some special insight on Burundi, or Bolivia, or wherever, may seem counter-intuitive to network producers and op/ed page editors.

On the side of the religious, of course, there’s a whole cluster of reasons why they’re not more aggressive about marketing their global expertise, some of them spiritual, some cultural and practical. Certainly one element, however, is that – hard as it may be to believe in this age of shameless self-promotion – many religious simply don’t quite “get it” that they’re sitting on top of a vast reservoir of global knowledge with real cash value.

Naturally, commenting on the aftermath of the Haitian earthquake, or explaining what the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda is all about, for the sake of secular news outlets in the West, isn’t quite the same thing as making disciples and building the Kingdom of God. It can, however, serve as a foot in the door for those higher-order pursuits, and sometimes I fear that religious men and women spend an awful lot of time looking for such a foot in the door without fully realizing what a powerful one (and, to repeat, what a “bankable” one) their communities already possess.

From the point of view of a religious order, the benefits of becoming a more regular part of the media mix seem reasonably obvious. Not only could a veteran missionary probably offer a more accurate and balanced impression of what’s going on around the world – in itself, a real service – but millions of people might be introduced for the first time to the Missionaries of Africa, or the Capuchins, or the Sisters of Mercy. That might not only entice a lot of folks to want to learn more, but a few might find themselves thinking, “That’s the kind of man or woman I want to be.”

That, of course, is how vocations are born.

To religious orders pondering communications strategy, therefore, I offer this simple bit of input: You don’t necessarily have to build new delivery systems, or develop new content. In reality, the world’s biggest networks and print outlets would actually be thrilled to offer you vehicles for the particular expertise you already have – if only they knew you have it, in the moment when it’s at a premium.

Figuring out how to let the rest of the world in on this “secret” about religious life, therefore, seems like something worth thinking about.

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