What the Abbot should have said

As a former press secretary in the Catholic Church, it was a source of constant amazement to me how the media loved any story that involved monks and modernity – while being entirely uninterested in a carefully-crafted intervention in the public square by a cardinal.

The sort of story that is now running in the UK – about how a community of 15 monks on a Welsh island have switched from dial-up to broadband internet.

Advertisement

I wish I could give you some more detail that would explain how this gets to be a story at all.

A conflict in the community over the issue, for example – which could be used to illustrate the dilemmas faced by communities wishing to preserve a particular way of life. Or a paradox, such as the monks wanting faster internet and local islanders opposing it. Or an uplifting story of community organization, where the monks carry out protests against a telecommunications company on behalf of the island to persuade them to upgrade, even though it’s not profitable.  

But no. There’s nothing at all. The story is simply that monks have upgraded their internet connection. Yet that doesn’t stop it being run at length by the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and countless others.

There are two reasons why they are running it, and neither leaves the media in a good light.

The first is that it is taken off a press release by the telecommunications company involved, which is using it to get free advertising. The same inane corporate quote -- "We are absolutely delighted to have been able to provide the community at Caldey Abbey with state-of-the-art wireless broadband access" – appears in all the reports.

This is a classic example of “churnalism” – rehashing corporate press releases – identified by Nick Davies’ brilliant indictment of modern British journalism, Flat-Earth News.  Journalists no longer leave the office, but rewrite copy at fantastic speeds – with barely time to check or follow up facts. The media have become simply an outlet for corporate PR.

The second clue comes in the headlines: ‘Monks get broadband upgrade’ – ‘Monks join 21st century with broadband upgrade’, ‘Monks’ prayers answered by wireless’ etc. You get the idea. People imagine monks as being medieval, old-fashioned, anti-modern and stuck in the past. So they think it’s cute to find them grappling with choices about broadband connections.

But the assumption behind this is absurd. Monks live, as they always have, in the contemporary world, and avail themselves of anything that makes their lives easier or their time more efficient – as long as it doesn’t distract them from the contemplative life.  

Rather than try to correct the misconception, the media simply pander to it, renouncing their responsibility to educate and inform.

I’m sorry that the Abbot of Caldey has allowed himself to join in this charade, supplying a cute quote -- "Patience is one of the characteristics of monastic life, but even the patience of the brothers was being tested by our slow, dial-up internet service" – which will raise a patronising smile.

What he should have said was: “It is condescending to assume that because we’re monks we would somehow be happy with second-best. Like everyone else in modern Britain, we want the fastest internet connection available. The assumption that we wouldn’t betrays a deep misconception of what people who consecrate their lives to God are about.”

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
10 years 2 months ago
You said: ''I wish I could give you some more detail that would explain how this gets to be a story at all.'' If you took some time to investigate the problems with broadband service availability (or lack of it) in rural west Wales you might understand a little better. There was no conflict in the community and no opposition from local islanders (who, incidentally, are also likely to be connected to the same service soon). The only issue was a need for faster online services on the island, which the UK's biggest telecommnications infrastructure business (BT) could not supply - so it fell upon a local wireless business to fix it up instead. The combination of an apparently 'minimalist' existence with high speed internet is a good recipe for the media. I'm inclined to agree about the media's lack of genuine interest in the contemporary monastic lifetyle - but simply complaining about this is unlikely to fix the problem. The community at Caldey relies on tourism and patronage to survive - the story has given them huge publicity - both locally and nationally - at the height of the UK holiday season. At least be happy about that..?

Advertisement

The latest from america

 10.17.2018 Pope Francis greets Cardinal Blase J. Cupich of Chicago before a session of the Synod of Bishops on young people, the faith and vocational discernment at the Vatican Oct. 16. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)
“We take people where they are, walking with them, moving forward,” Cardinal Blase Cupich said.
Michael J. O’LoughlinOctober 20, 2018
Catherine Pakaluk, who currently teaches at the Catholic University of America and holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Harvard University, describes her tweet to Mr. Macron as “spirited” and “playful.”
Emma Winters October 19, 2018
A new proposal from the Department of Homeland Security could make it much more difficult for legal immigrants to get green cards in the United States. But even before its implementation, the proposal has led immigrants to avoid receiving public benefits.
J.D. Long-GarcíaOctober 19, 2018
 Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, then nuncio to the United States, and then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, are seen in a combination photo during the beatification Mass of Blessed Miriam Teresa Demjanovich at the Cathedral Basilica of the Sacred Heart in Newark, N.J., Oct. 4, 2014. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)
In this third letter Archbishop Viganò no longer insists, as he did so forcefully in his first letter, that the restrictions that he claimed Benedict XVI had imposed on Archbishop McCarrick—one he alleges that Pope Francis later lifted—can be understood as “sanctions.”
Gerard O’ConnellOctober 19, 2018