THE BLOG
06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Catholic Church's Approach To Communications: Cloister

Cloister is defined as
1. A place, especially a monastery or convent, devoted to religious seclusion.
2. Life in a monastery or convent.
3. A secluded, quiet place.
tr.v. clois·tered, clois·ter·ing, clois·ters
1. To shut away from the world in or as if in a cloister; seclude.

The Catholic Church has chosen the comfortable approach to its communications during this ongoing sex abuse scandal: to cloister itself. Systematically, it has closed down any venue or platform for discussion. During the entire period of Lent and during the Holy Week activities, the Catholic Church and Vatican were either quiet or defiant. The most recent round of public responses is of course the most telling: lashing out at the media suggesting that it is persecuting the Catholic Church; suggesting parity with the persecution of the Jews; preaching the canceling of subscriptions to The New York Times and The Oregonian.

As a communications executive, I am amazed at the missteps the Catholic institution has made throughout the years in dealing with this scandal. It defies everything we as communications experts preach about how to handle crises (e.g., be transparent, act with urgency, etc.). Nevertheless, it says everything about the power of culture and tradition. The Catholic Church believes in the supremacy of the cloister, of seclusion to focus on faith, to protect and nurture one's faith. To seek public redemption as our society expects (note redemption poster-boy-of-the-moment, Tiger Woods) is so out of the scope for how Catholicism works.

This is why I found the marketing campaign Catholics Come Home, which started with television ads running in the weeks leading up to the Easter holy season urging Catholics to "return to the Catholic Church," to be unusual. The ads showed Catholicism as a warm family affair: candlelit masses and little tow-haired children bowed in prayer. The ads directed viewers to the website, www.catholicscomehome.org, which is set up to welcome Catholics or others interested in Catholicism into the faith, to direct them to parishes, and to answer questions. It is informative, easy to navigate, and transparent in its mission. It appears to be everything that the Catholic Church and the Vatican are not. Here is an essentially grassroots organization, founded by a faithful few, lead by a die-hard Catholic leader with the intent of marketing Catholicism. Doesn't sound like a retreat to the monastic, cloistered protectorate, does it?

But this organization also suffers from the same denialism that plagues the Church; on the entire site, there is only one reference to the sex abuse scandal. That reference cites a study on sexual abuse within churches conducted within the past seven years that finds that the Catholic Church "had the lowest incident of sexual abuse." It goes on to taunt, "Are you going to hear that from your local news media?" (Oddly, this reference comes at the very end of a list of "10 Reasons to Come Back" to Catholicism, which includes reasons like "because we want to forgive others," "because we made mistakes," and "because the Catholic Church has the fullness of grace and truth.") The long-held tradition of flogging the news media is alive and well within even the most progressive Catholic Church entities. When all else fails, kill the messenger. I can't see where forgiveness, acknowledgment of mistakes. and grace and truth fit in here.

Then again, within the Cloister there is a world unto itself. Gaining entrance, despite a kinder, gentler marketing campaign, becomes a greater challenge given that the Catholic Church has chosen to erect higher walls to protect its faith.