Catholic Voices was born in 2010, in the run-up to Pope emeritus Benedict XVI’s trip to the United Kingdom. That outing was projected to be one of the most difficult any pontiff had ever faced, in part because of a secularized and sometimes openly anti-Catholic culture in the UK, in part because of the clerical sexual abuse scandals washing across Europe at the time, and in part because of the Darth Vader-esque caricature that often defined (and, of course, badly distorted) Benedict’s public image.
Two smart and entrepreneurial Catholics in the UK, Jack Valero of Opus Dei and Austen Ivereigh, a former editor for the Tablet, saw the train wreck coming and decided to do something about it. They formed a cadre of 24 smart, articulate lay Catholics and one priest, and gave them a six-month crash course in both media literacy and the hot-button issues expected to set the agenda for media coverage of Benedict’s visit.
The project was independent of officialdom, though it’s never been hostile to the Church’s official leadership. For the most part, actually, those leaders have embraced it heartily.
After that basic Catholic “boot camp,” Ivereigh and Valero turned their charges loose, making them available more or less around the clock to any and all media outlets that needed commentary on the visit. The results were electric: Catholic Voices members became the soundtrack of the trip, shaping a narrative through more than 100 media appearances that was compelling, honest, and incredibly human.
In so doing, the group almost single-handedly debunked a whole series of myths and prejudices about people of faith in the UK’s popular culture.
After Benedict was safely back in Rome, Valero and Ivereigh realized they’d set something special in motion. If they hadn’t gotten the point on their own, the scores of bishops, clergy, lay experts, media professionals, and people from several other circles begging them to keep Catholic Voices going would have brought it home.
Today, there are more than 20 Catholic Voices groups in Europe, North and South America and Australia. The group’s philosophy, and its secret to success, can be simply stated: In the face of incomprehension and even hostility from the media, don’t get angry, reframe the conversation. The idea is to avoid defensiveness, and to identify with the values underlying the hostility (which often, even in distorted form, ultimately stem from Christianity.)