In an interview published today in Trouw, Cardinal Eijk says that he doesn’t think bishops should appear on television very much. Although he doesn’t shy away from personal contacts with people, he prefers that these contacts remain private and do not run via the media. The chief reason for this, the cardinal says, is that restraint is needed on the part of the bishops in the wake of the many reports of sexual abuse by clergy in past decades.
While I think the cardinal is right that this crisis does merit restraint, and while I also think that the bishops are not media personalities or spokesmen for the Church per se, I don’t believe that it is now a good time to stay completely out of the public eye, or even the Catholic eye for that matter.
It is good that the bishops do not go on the defensive in the abuse crisis. They accept the responsibilities they have inherited from their predecessors, and do their best to act accordingly. Mistakes are still made in that process, certainly, as it is a learning process, but I do not have the impression that the bishops of the Netherlands are simply looking out for their own best interests.
But a media blackout can also have adverse effects. The bishops take responsibility, which is a good thing, but they also remain shepherds of the faithful in this country. And some of those faithful, priests and laity alike, appear on television and in other media to explain or defend the Church on whatever topic has caught the public eye. Cardinal Eijk is fully behind that. About one of these ‘media Catholics’, Father Antoine Bodar, he says: “I think that many people do know what Bodar’s role is. He speaks about the contents, and not about policy. That is the bishops’ responsibility.”
Very true, but policy is not the only thing that bishops concern themselves with. The reason behind the policy, the content of the faith, is also very much their responsibility. By being more visible in the media and the public eye, I think that the bishops can much more effectively perform their role of shepherds and teachers, not least in support of those Catholic faithful who go out to explain and defend the faith and the Church they are part of and love.
It’s a balance between reflecting the responsibility they assume for the abuse crisis, and continuing to do their other duties as bishops. A precarious balancing act at times, to be sure. But I want to know my bishop behind me, and I want him to explain, teach and shepherd, both for me and those I encounter.
The Church in the Netherlands needs an openness towards the world, and the media is an important part of that. It is, after all, the channel through which most people relate to the wider world.
So, bishops, do continue to interact with your faithful in the parishes as you do, but do not forget the work done by those Catholics in the media, or the many people who try to understand the world through that same media. Communication is more than just being on tv a lot, more than saying a lot of words, but we do need it. We need you to help us.