The demise of the Universe, a Catholic paper with 160 years of history, is both sad in itself and telling about the condition of the Catholic media in Britain. The challenges faced by the Catholic press are several. The most practical is to do with Covid. Historically, religious papers relied on people buying copies from the back of churches, usually after Sunday Mass. This model is still important, notwithstanding the growth of digital subscriptions, which have been particularly useful – ours have risen by over 250 per cent in America in the last year. Indeed,
the new media environment has resulted in new opportunities for Catholic podcasts and webinars to supplement print periodicals.
However, at present, fewer British churches stock the religious press (US churches don’t sell titles); and where they are available, parishioners, used to using smart technology for other transactions, are often baffled by having to find sufficient loose change to buy their magazine in church.
The Bishops Conference is correct, therefore, to embrace new technology. Parishes (at least those with wi-fi) are currently being provided with electronic card readers, called Dona, in churches to allow churchgoers to make contactless “collection” payments. We now need a simple adaptation to that system to allow parishioners to pay for their copy of the Catholic Herald or the Tablet – ideally both. This can help save Catholic journalism.
But there remain fundamental problems. In the heyday of 20th-century religious journalism, when the Herald had a weekly circulation of 100,000 – the Church had a more prominent role in public debate. There were a number of Catholic intellectuals, such as Hilaire Belloc, or priests like Ronnie Knox, who were also household names outside the Church; they were public intellectuals. Father Frederick Copleston SJ used to debate on the BBC’s Brains Trust about the existence of God with Oxford atheist philosopher Freddie Ayer. Alas, since the 1990s we have had few Catholic priests to debate with the likes of Richard Dawkins.
Secular media coverage of religion is dispiritingly limited. The BBC does still have a religious affairs correspondent – recently the now-disgraced Martin Bashir – but there are almost no specialist religious affairs correspondents in the national press, and religious discussion in the broadcast media is dismally narrow, ironically, obsessed with gender and sexuality. Since the mainstream press and broadcast media are so narrow in their religious coverage, those who seek news and debate on issues to do with the Church and moral subjects generally are more reliant than ever on the religious press.
In the absence of “public” priests and laypeople, the responsibility for holding our leaders – both lay and ecclesiastical – to account, as well as celebrating the cultural and liturgical riches of Catholicism, now falls on the editors of the Tablet and the Herald. They are very different, but it is imperative that discussion and debate in the Church is genuinely plural. A healthy Catholic press, independent of the bishops, debating the key moral, political and religious issues of the day, is a crucial part of the ecology of the Church. There is space for conservatives and liberals.
There has perhaps never been a time – particularly for the younger generation of Catholics who increasingly get their moral guidance online – when it has been so important for issues of utmost seriousness within the Church to be properly covered. This is especially the case in America where the battle within the Bishops Conference over the question of whether a pro-abortion Catholic president should receive public Communion reflects far wider divisons within the Catholic community.
For 133 years, the Herald has always stood up for Catholic values and teaching. We believe now it is ever more important to be a bold and independent voice, not beholden to any faction of the Church. Many religious magazines do not have this ability to be independent as they are either funded by donation models as “think tanks” with a particular agenda, or they are owned by well-funded religious houses, such as America magazine, founded in 1909, which is an influential media voice for its owners, the American Jesuits.
Whilst the Tablet, founded in 1840 and turned into a charitable trust in 1976, is characterised by its progressive views (at least in recent years), the Herald provides a platform for an alternative and more conservative view of the Catholic life, supportive of Catholic theology, doctrine and traditions. Since 1888, we have published many of the world’s leading Catholic writers, from GK Chesterton to Evelyn Waugh. We will continue to be an independent voice in the Church and the wider community. One historic Catholic journal has perished; we shall, please God, carry on thanks to our flagship magazine and digital opportunities. But Cardinal Nichols and his bishops must support the electronic church sales of the last two remaining Catholic titles standing.