When is advertising acceptable? It can be a tough call. It’s not a problem here at This Rock, since we don’t take outside ads. But other publications can find themselves in awkward positions, running some ads that may raise readers’ ire and rejecting others that might do the same thing.
In recent months, for instance, several Catholic magazines have declined to run ads for The New Oxford Review, a fine monthly published out of Berkeley by Dale Vree, a convert. Among the "decliners" are Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (and all the other publications issued by Our Sunday Visitor, Inc.), The National Catholic Register (which is published by the Legionaries of Christ through their Circle Media affiliate), and America, the weekly Jesuit magazine. These journals turned down ads for The New Oxford Review mainly because of questions of tone—the ads were too cheeky for their taste and poked fun at archly stereotyped figures (such as "Bishop Bubbles" and "Father Flake").
Other Catholic publications have accepted or rejected ads touting books that explain or sensationalize (take your pick) the "millennium bug." Some such books predict the effective end of the world and try to work readers into a lather about conspiracies and the need to hunker down—preferably in a backyard bunker stocked with canned goods.
Does such sensationalism belong in a Catholic publication? Some editors say no, seeing their task as passing along to readers only ideas (and ads do convey ideas) that seem trustworthy; other editors say yes, arguing that such ads are like letters to the editor, where comments the editors disagree with may be printed.
Marvin Olasky is the editor of World, an Evangelical weekly newsmagazine. In a recent editorial he ruminated about the which-ads-to-run problem because he received flak for running an anti-Catholic ad. It promoted a conference on "Christianity and Roman Catholicism." "The very title of the conference is obnoxious to Roman Catholics," he correctly noted, "and some of the lecture titles are even more pointed." He said the "ad has left us uncomfortable for two reasons. First, we all know there is a difference between disagreeing with someone and baiting that party with ornery language. Second, frankly, since we’re looking for advertising dollars to hold down the subscription price, it particularly hurts when some ads actually lose money for us."
The conference was held in October in Tennessee. The advertised speakers were led by John W. Robbins, talking on "Bleating Wolves: The Meaning of ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’" and "The Economics and Politics of the Roman State-Church." Richard Bennett, an apostate priest, spoke about "The Structure of the Roman State-Church." Timothy Kaufman, who has written against the papacy and the Eucharist, titled his lecture "The Occult and Roman Superstitions." Robert M. Zins, who authored a book attacking Karl Keating’s Catholicism and Fundamentalism, spoke about "The Bible and the Roman Doctrine of Authority."
The lecture topics may have been tendentious, but they weren’t surprising, given the speakers. And it’s probably understandable that an Evangelical magazine such as World would run an ad for such a conference. After all, no doubt plenty of its readers already agreed with the essence, if not the tone, of what the conference speakers likely were to say. As Catholics, we naturally would prefer that such conferences receive no publicity at all. (Let underground movements stay underground, we say.) What would a Catholic publication have done with respect to a proposed ad by a Catholic group that was organizing a conference about Protestantism and used titling that seemed somewhat unfair (such as this for the conference title: "Christian or Protestant, Choose One of the Other!")? Such titling would lead one to think, probably rightly, that the talks themselves would be something less than objective—or even fair. Would a Catholic publication run such an ad, even if by running it the subscription price were kept a little lower than it otherwise might be? A few publications likely would run the ad, but then they are precisely those publications that might well organize such a conference. Probably editors of reputable Catholic publications would turn down such an ad.
Drawing lines isn’t easy. One might well argue that, for The New Oxford Review ads, the lines were drawn too tightly and for the ad in World too loosely. However that may be, the problem is sure to arise again, on both ends of the religious spectrum.
In November Charles Colson, head of Prison Fellowship Ministries, wrote about a modern example of religious persecution: "During a government crackdown on Egypt’s Coptic Christian community two weeks ago, a thousand Christians were manacled to doors, then beaten and tortured with electric shocks to their genitals. Teenage girls were raped. Even babies were not spared. Mothers were forced to lay their infants on the floor and watch helplessly when police struck them with sticks. And in a scene right out of ancient Rome, Christian men were nailed to crosses."
It was another example, said Colson, of the persecution of Christians by Muslim governments, including governments given U.S. funds. "Since the Camp David accords in 1979," he continued, "Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American aid. This fiscal year alone, Egypt is scheduled to receive approximately $2.5 billion from American taxpayers."
"For the past decade, Egypt’s Christian minority, the Copts, have been the target of brutal attacks by Muslim extremists. And in recent months they have even come under attack from government officials themselves. . . . In this case, police in the city of Al-Kosheh instigated a dragnet, detaining 1,200 Christians. They were rounded up after the death of a Muslim who other Muslims believed had been murdered by Christians, even though doctors put his death down to natural causes. And then the police tortured many of the detainees."
When Coptic bishop Anba Wissa went to Cairo to protest to the government, he was arrested and charged with "using religion for the purpose of inciting strife and damaging national unity," a charge that carries a possible death sentence.
Of course, Egypt isn’t the only place Christians are persecuted. The Sudan sets a particularly egregious example, as the Muslim north wars against (and tries to starve into submission) the Christian and animist south. Indonesia, another Muslim country, a few years ago invaded and took over neighboring East Timor, an independent Christian island-nation. In Saudi Arabia it is a crime to wear any Christian symbol or to attend Mass; conversion from Islam to Christianity is a capital offense. Even in neighboring Israel, Christians (most of them Palestinians) are discriminated against.
In all these areas, by the way, when you read "Christians" in the newspaper, almost always the reference is to Catholics or Eastern Orthodox, there being virtually no Protestants in any of the affected countries.
Thomas C. Reeves wrote The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity largely because he had come to see that his Episcopal Church was "suffering from the inevitable illness that debilitates Christianity when it is watered down and made to conform to the world." The book appeared in 1996. "Six months later my wife and I were preparing to leave the Episcopal Church." It was not an easy leave-taking. He and Kathie had been activists in the traditionalist wing of the church, but they came to see that their rearguard effort was a losing proposition.
"Opposing all of the Episcopal Church’s radical agenda and wanting nothing to do with a new sect, Kathie and I began to look elsewhere. The natural home of Anglo-Catholics was Rome. But we lived in an archdiocese which is known to be ultra-liberal. And almost all of the Catholics we knew personally were liberal academics, people who were hardly eager to welcome conservatives into the fold." Interviewed by a journalist, Reeves expressed frustration in finding a way into the Catholic Church. The story ended up in Our Sunday Visitor, and the result was "an avalanche of support that was remarkable to behold and that led directly to our entrance into the fullness of the faith."
He and Kathie received books by mail and at his office. Letters and e-mail messages poured in. Local clergy contacted him. "Scott Hahn and Thomas Howard telephoned. Catholic Answers and the Coming Home Network [from which this report is taken] provided invaluable assistance." Many others gave advice and offered suggestions. All the attention seemed to work: On July 31, 1997, Thomas and Kathie Reeves entered the Church.
That was a year and a half ago. We’re glad to know that Catholic Answers helped the two of them, as, we hope, many have been helped since. Let this story serve as a reminder that apologists and counselors at Catholic Answers are happy to speak with anyone considering the Catholic Church. The number to call is 1-619-541-1131.
Doug Murren, the former pastor of the Eastside Foursquare Church in Kirkland, Washington, decided that old-line religion wasn’t cutting it. He was annoyed that more money was spent on administration than on convert-making, and he noted that his church didn’t attract many young people. He decided that the problem was the mode of worship—too traditional and too liturgical. So he left Eastside and started what he called Track One, a new denomination that comes with its own termination clause. It is supposed to go out of business after twenty years.
Today there are about a hundred small congregations nationwide that ally themselves with the Track One movement. They don’t hold services in regular church buildings but in rented facilities or basements. During sermons the congregants are invited to interrupt and ask questions. Ritual and mystery have been set aside. "Society reinvents itself every three to five years," claims Murren. "The church doesn’t change, and people have quit going. The boomer generation and the Gen-Xers are virtually unchurched. This is a church for them."
Since the kind of Christianity espoused at Eastside didn’t appeal to young adults, Murren dropped the old ways of organization and worship, hoping that would prove attractive. And not only old ways were dropped. So, apparently, was some of the content. Track One churches proclaim belief in the Apostles’ Creed, but that’s the extent of their formal theologizing. More important to Murren than the what of Christianity is the how. Track One churches emphasize small groups and are modeled, consciously, on the "cells" instituted by John Wesley, the eighteenth-century founder of Methodism.
Murren may have identified an illness, but his prescription won’t cure it. His Foursquare church was not succeeding, and he blamed the failure on too much ritual and a theology that involved too much mystery—an odd conclusion, considering that his denomination had little ritual and was not known for any theological profundity. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the cure was just the opposite of the one he envisioned: more ritual and more substance to the beliefs—thus, more mystery.
Murren acknowledges that the people he is trying to attract will come and go; they will not stay with Track One for long. And why should they? "There is no there there." Lighthearted hymns and hand-clapping may invigorate for a while, but they don’t satisfy the deep hungers. The boomers and Gen-Xers will try Track One and then will move on, probably into nothing at all. Murren’s experiment will have proved a failure. That’s the prediction. We’ll check back in twenty years.
According to Jesuit Renato Poblete of the Centro Bellarmino, a research center in Santiago, Chile, while 85 percent of Latin Americans call themselves Catholic, only 15 percent practice their faith by attending Mass regularly. About 12 percent of Latin Americans are Evangelicals, and nearly all of them are active in their religion. This means that the number of active congregants is nearly the same for Catholics and Protestants. Latin America’s heritage may be Catholic, but its future may not be.
What’s to blame? Poblete, a social scientist whose report was excerpted in Origins, predictably referred to "the affirmation of the sister/brotherhood experience." What attracts people, especially the poor, to Evangelical churches—particularly Pentecostal ones—is the affective element, he says. This is where the Catholic Church can take a cue. But he says nothing about appealing to the minds of the people, who, in their new churches, study the Bible and end up more deeply catechized than they were when they were Catholics.
For thirty years Latin American countries have labored under the ill effects of liberation theology. Even where that ideology did not become socially influential, it came to color or control thinking within the bureaucracy of the Church. As an essentially political alternative to religion, it was fated to fail, and the failure has been counted, in part, in the number of people leaving their Catholic parishes because they received no sustenance from them. Even the poor get tired of political sloganeering.
Announced through television and radio commercials and through billboards and bus ads, the country’s first diocese-sanctioned "advice hotline" has been started by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Just dial 1-877-BLESS-ME to speak with one of 140 priests who have volunteered to answer the calls. "They can call us about anything," said Fr. Charles V. Devlin. "And believe me, they do. They find security in anonymity over the phone."
Of course, the hotline is not a substitute for sacramental confession, and the priests cannot give absolution over the phone. But hundreds of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have been dialing for advice and counsel.
In the old days of anti-Catholic bigotry, the economic argument was trotted out against the Church: Predominantly Catholic nations tend to be poor, while predominantly Protestant nations tend to be wealthy. Similarly, Catholic nations tend to labor under oppressive regimes, while Protestant nations enjoy the fruits of democracy. Implication: God smiles on Protestantism.
After a time, the argument fell into desuetude, but now it has been revised—by The Christian Science Monitor. David R. Francis, the paper’s senior economics correspondent, quoted Harvard University economist Florencio Lopez de Silanes as saying that "Nations with a high proportion of Protestants tend to have ‘good’ governments. Largely Roman Catholic and Muslim countries exhibit ‘inferior government performance.’" Francis also cited David Landes’s The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, a book that argues that "Catholic and Muslim countries long suffered from cultures of intolerance, xenophobia, and closed-mindedness that retarded [economic] development. Church and state cooperated by keeping out new ideas. Protestant countries, in general, allow a freer interpretation of ideas. Their churches are less hierarchical, and this influences the states."
Several problems here. No account seems to have been taken of geographical factors; Catholic countries tend to be in less temperate climates, and economic development is known to be tied largely to the thermometer. And what about Japan, the world’s second largest economic power? It’s neither Catholic nor Protestant. More importantly, consider where we are more likely to find, historically, great art: in Berlin or in Rome? Can we argue that Catholicism is conducive to beauty and Protestantism isn’t. And what about pornography? Amsterdam certainly beats Lima.