There Are Many Voices

Michael O’Brien was founding editor of Nazareth Journal , and was its editor for seven years. The following is a sample editorial from the Lent, 1994, issue of the magazine


    O Lord, who shall dwell on Thy holy mountain?
    He who walks blamelessly and does what is right,
    And speaks the Truth from his heart. Psalm 15


    “What is Truth?” Pontius Pilate

I may be exceptionally naïve, but I began to understand the unreliability of the communications media only when I reached my late twenties. One day, my wife and I and our first-born son were on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, among a crowd of 12,000 pro-life demonstrators, listening to a speech by the British journalist and convert, Malcolm Muggeridge. His words were nothing short of brilliant and prophetic. At the far edge of the crowd a group of about twenty pro-abortion protesters campaigned for attention, chanting slogans and marching in a circle. That night I was astounded to see the event grossly distorted on the television news networks. There was not a single excerpt from the pro-life speeches, no view of the crowd, no mention of its size, only brief close-up snippets of individual pro-life demonstrators—and the networks seemed to have an eye only for tongue-tied people in funny looking hats. Yet, there were extensive interviews with the pro-abortionists and archive shots of old pro-abortion rallies throughout the country. Technically speaking, no lie was told. But powerful false impressions were broadcast, asserting that a dominant abortion rights movement was overwhelming a backward little group of pro-lifers.

Over the years I saw again and again the news media using the technique of creating false impressions. In 1984 I listened to Pope John Paul II speak in Vancouver. His words were gentle and merciful, and he had no difficulty whatsoever making the distinction between the sin and the sinner. But he was also firm and clear: at one point in his talk he raised his voice in an impassioned plea that the government and the people of our nation defeat the rising tide of abortion. Suddenly, his voice thundered in a fierce, fatherly cry of anguish, and he literally roared, “The unspeakable crime of abortion must stop!” How refreshing that roar was. How wonderful to hear the cry of a father-prophet. How much courage it gave us! Yet on the evening newscasts all three networks in this country edited out that short passage, although they kept the mild sections that immediately led up to it and followed it.

Similar examples abound. Recently, a crowd of hundreds of thousands of pro-life, pro-family demonstrators, including five Roman Catholic cardinals, held a public rally in Washington, D.C., to voice objection to the American government’s anti-life policies. The event was noted only by a few lines on a back page in The Washington Post, that flagship of American journalism. Yet a small pro-homosexual rights demonstration received several pages of exposure. Other major American newspapers and networks handled the event in much the same way.

During the past fifteen years I have seen many good people become victims of this kind of indoctrination. Most, even Catholics of strong faith, invest enormous trust in the media. They believe that journalists are always concerned with finding the truth. They assume that somewhere along the line media people are accountable. But accountable to whom? Will they be called to render accounts to a people they have largely swayed? Do they consider themselves accountable to a God in whom most of them no longer believe? No, the media has become, by and large, a freewheeling power that feeds us bread and circuses, and implants in us the ideas which it deems we should think. As a result many unsuspecting souls have gradually come to accept as facts those opinions with which they have been fed for so long. Television is especially powerful in this regard, for it can implant startling, moving imagery and sophisticated commentary that create a conviction in the viewer’s mind before he has a chance to defend himself.

If you are raising a family in this broth of voices, you will try, as I do, to tune a good deal of it out. The mind can only take so much stimuli before it starts to build defenses. Like a person walking down a busy city sidewalk—no matter how sociable you may be by temperament, you cannot have an intimate relationship with all those strangers. The mind automatically translates their faces into abstractions. It registers the data that they are indeed people, but it is impossible to continuously think about them, one by one, as unique persons, each an icon of Christ. It’s a matter of self-defense, of course. But self-defense taken to an extreme, or self-defense that becomes a way of life, can have adverse effects. Take, for instance, the crowds of New Yorkers who a few years ago walked by a psychopath as he murdered a woman under their very eyes. Many of them gazed upon the scene with some interest, as if they were watching a television drama. No one tried to stop him. No one was able to look at the scene and truly see it, to connect it to their personal reality. None were able to say in their hearts, “That woman is me!” Or, “That is my daughter, my mother, my child, my friend.” The victim was for them an abstraction. By saying to themselves, in effect, that she was less human than they were, they also dehumanized themselves. Self-defense had become self-destruction. A protective barrier had created a mortal illness of the soul.

If my generation struggled with a despiritualized culture, our children must now struggle with a dehumanized one, one which John Paul II has repeatedly called “a culture of death.” We were raised in a society that was still functioning on Christian assumptions about the very nature of reality. It was a flawed world but one in which we knew that the destruction of a child in the womb is an abominable crime, that homosexual attractions are intrinsically disordered, that cheating on your income tax is theft from your fellow citizens, and sexual relations before marriage are a grave sin. Our families coasted on a social support-system which at every turn reinforced moral absolutes. But that has largely disappeared, and in its place is noise and sensory overload.

In a babel of voices how shall we hear the word of truth? If we do not have silence, how shall we even begin to recognize the voice of truth when we hear it? Our teachers and prophets are speaking. The universal Church under Peter has just given us the magnificent Catechism of the Catholic Church which will be an anchor in an increasingly unstable universe. The Church is the one voice in this world that speaks the whole truth about man, and does so in a spirit of love. The Catechism is a rich resource, intended for families, parishes and dioceses. It will strengthen us in our understanding of genuine absolutes, the unqualified truths that are independent of the ebb and flow of opinions, fashions, myths and prejudices.

God has given us a remarkable Pope who speaks the truth from the heart at precisely the moment in history when man has begun to falter in a kind of global fear. John Paul II has written an extraordinary encyclical, The Splendour of Truth, which calls us to grow in humility and reverence for the Truth. He says that we are in the midst of a grave crisis, yet he calls us to total confidence in the saving power of Jesus Christ. He teaches that our freedom is vitally connected to knowing what is true, and building our lives upon this sure foundation if we desire life for our families. Again and again he reminds us that Jesus stands ever ready, at every moment, no matter how loud our noise, or our confusion, or our discouragement, to restore us and our families to Himself.

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