Does God Need a Press Secretary?

It’s the day before Memorial Day weekend, and I’ve got something on my mind (besides making the spinach salad we’re taking to the Ward’s barbeque). Does God need a Press Secretary?

For the past three or four years, the Catholic Church has been under siege by the Boston media. The media first broke the clergy sex abuse scandal, which has remained front page news, along with local church closings, and a recent high-profile firing for sexual misconduct by the CEO of the Church’s flagship hospital system.

To aid in the healing of the clergy sex abuse scandal, Archbishop Sean O’Malley has organized a series of ten Masses in which he asks forgiveness for the sins of the Catholic Church. These special Masses for forgiveness include priests prostrating themselves in front of parishoners on the floor of the church:

Priests prostrated themselves on the altar of the Cathedral of the Holy Cross last night, as a cantor and choir sang a litany of repentance.

It is clear to me that the media exposure of widespread sexual abuse and the concomitant accountability and restitution was vital in preventing more abuse and in supporting those who suffer.

However, in this second example, it’s not so clear that the media’s influence produced a satisfactory result. On Holy Thursday, the day celebrating the Last Supper and Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, Archbishop O’Malley broke with the tradition of his predecessor and refused to wash the feet of a woman along with men. The Archbishop also included feminism in a list of societal ills in a homily he gave during a Holy Week Mass.

As you can expect, the media pounced on these stories, and the resulting uproar from the public pressured the Archbishop to publicly apologize for his remarks on feminism, and for his refusal to include a woman in the ritual of the Washing of the Feet. Regardless of my personal feelings on the matter, it makes me uncomfortable that public relations concerns regarding the sensitivities of a fickle media seem enough to counter (and deny?) difficult and unpopular religious doctrine.

Similarly, the Mormon church released a statement about The DaVinci Code, but has declined to officially respond to other events. So, what do you think about the media and its effect on religion and religious practices, given these examples? And how are God’s Press Secretaries doing?


  1. If Jesus had employed a PR man during his mortal tenure, he may have managed to avoid the cross.

  2. Elisabeth says:

    DKL, that’s one of the most sensible (and relevant) comments you’ve made. Thanks. :)

  3. Wow, Elisabeth. Either you should read more of my comments or I should write fewer (or both).

  4. Steve Evans says:

    Elisabeth, you’re treading on difficult ground here; these are very public organizations where functionally speaking there needs to be something like a press secretary. And yet we don’t want to confuse that public voice with the REAL public voice, the ecclesiastical leadership. So when the Church issues a press release, we need to be careful in assessing what spiritual or doctrinal weight to apply. I have no answer to these issues, but it’s an interesting mess nonetheless. What’s your take?

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Steve – clearly, church organizations need to employ spokespeople to explain to the public events such as the firing of the hospital CEO for sexual harassment. (but The DaVinci Code? not so sure).

    However, I’m more interested in the effects of media scrutiny along the lines of the second example – where the media’s attention to unpopular doctrine led to the retraction of statements consistent with that doctrine. It’s a tricky balance, and I’m not sure how much deference church organizations should give to the media (and the public at large?) in explaining/justifying difficult religious doctrine.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Way to dodge an answer!! :P

  7. Elisabeth says:

    Steve, unfortunately, I was not blessed with a moral certainty to cover the exigencies of all the permutations of media interaction with religious organizations.

  8. Mark IV says:

    I foresee a bright future for Elizabeth as director of PR for the church.

  9. I think the underlying question in all of this is how does the media influence policies, etc. of the Church and is this a good or a bad thing? If bad, is there any way to curb this influence? Should the Church hire specially trained “communications advisors” and engage in Karl Rove style media management strategies?

    I remember as a missionary attending a conference where Elder Ballard was speaking (or maybe it was a video of him speaking–can’t exactly remember) about the Church’s efforts to produce videos and television commercials. In the Boston/New England area there was a strong push to use television and (I think) radio to generate referrals for the missionaries and at the least help people understand a bit about the Mormons (family values, etc.). I remember Elder Ballard making a statement something like this: “Satan has had control of the mass media for long enough, now it’s time for us to fight back.”

    I understand that in today’s world, public scrutiny through the mass media is just a fact of life. I guess I worry that the more the Church plays the game on the media’s terms, the more danger there is for accomodation, for influence over the Church’s doctrine and policies, etc.

    Thinking back to the Boston example, I applaud Arbishop O’Malley’s efforts to reconcile with those who have been harmed in the clergy abuse tragedy. But it makes me uncomfortable to see so much of this reconciliation process happen through the media. Given the amazing ability of news media to gain access, this may be inevitable. I just feel like it can’t be good for the true spiritual healing that needs to go on.

  10. jjohnsen says:

    I didn’t really pay attention to the coverage. Did something purely symbolic, like prostrating before the congregation, appease anyone?

  11. Elisabeth says:

    Travis – thanks for your comment. What you say is exactly what I meant to get across with my post (not surprisingly, since we talked about it this morning :)) I’m with Amri – Karl Rove scares me.

    jjohnson – the article I linked to explains that some people didn’t much appreciate these public acts of supplication.

    Mark IV – the day I become involved with PR is the day you should start packing for a trip to Missouri.

  12. I don’t think it’s entirely a bad thing when PR concerns cause a church to adjust policy or action. If you believe the Light of Christ dwells with many good hearted people, and the Holy Ghost broods over matters of importance, public response can be a voice of the Body of Christ.

    Not that I think church should be conducted by vote or poll. The response of the Body is another way the Lord calls a leader’s attention to things.

  13. Steve makes an interesting point regarding the “public voices” of a church. In the LDS and Catholic cases we are presented with something of a dilemma in as much as the ecclesiastical leaders are supposedly spokesmen of God. Hence, it may seem counterintuitive that these men would in turn need there own spokesman/spokeswoman.

    But hey…Moses had Aaron, so why shouldn’t Pope Benedict XVI or President Hinckley have their respective media teams?

  14. Mark IV says:

    Mark IV – the day I become involved with PR is the day you should start packing for a trip to Missouri.


    LOL, and uh oh! I think it is you who needs to start packing, for 47 East North Temple, SLC.

    Greetings from the center stake of Zion, on the frontier side of the Show Me state. Years ago, my wife and I decided that we are not the kind of people who would ever be invited or actually called to come here, so we did it on our own. Actually, IBM did it for us, but the fact remains, we are already here. When all of you johnny-come-latelies come over the hill at Adam-Ondi-Ahman with your handcarts, you’ll find that I already have the prime spots staked out. However. I will share with friends.

    I think your business card should say:
    Executive Director and Supreme Commander of the total combined PR and media forces of the LDS church.

  15. Elisabeth says:

    That’s great, Mark! Save me a spot, will ya?! :)

  16. With regard to the Elisabeth-DKL snit at the beginning, I refer to a statement by the inestimable Alan Shore: “I make sense all the time; you only listen intermittently.”

  17. Elisabeth says:

    I’m not sure if God authorized his press secretary to release this.

  18. Given that your site or in fact your Authors refuse to address or deal with comments raised by both LDS or non LDS that challenge the LDS or ask legitimate questions about its operations and doctrines that may not necessarily be pallatable or popular to deal with (including deleting such comments)on this site, it may be more useful to your debate and growth as individuals if you spend more time critically analysing your own rituals, doctrines and FAILURE to account for past wrongs to individuals and communities then discussing those that you really dont know that much about. I can think of plenty of examples from the LDS that could have been used by an intelligent person in this situation. However, if ones ulterior motive is to put down other religions that have existed for centuries producing good christians but of course also having to deal with the real issue of human fallibilty, then I guess this was the best example to use.

%d bloggers like this: