It’s interesting that the Vatican has just hired former Fox News correspondent in Rome, Greg Burke, as a senior communications adviser. In terms of strategy, this is timely and wise. Amidst numerous scandals faced by the Catholic Church in recent years – from covering up of sexual abuse by priests around the world to protests by feminists and Catholic women to the most recent arrest of the pope’s butler in connections with the leaking of private documents - nobody needs more marketing and public relations support than the oldest and, at one time, the most powerful global institution.
Christianity might still be growing and becoming more powerful in the world, particularly in the global South like Africa and Brazil, but Catholicism is facing the biggest crisis of all times. According to Time magazine, Catholicism is gradually losing followers. The U.S. Catholic population is down by five per cent since 2000, to 59 million, according to the Glenmary Research Center in Nashville, while the share of Catholics in Ireland who attend Mass has plummeted from 82 per cent in 1981 to just 35 per cent today. Support among Generation X and Millennials is particularly weak. For the first time ever, fewer U.S. Catholic women than men are entering religious life.
In Canada, things are a little bit better as we’re a country of immigrants - many of whom are loyal to their Catholic faith. However, during the 50-year period spanning the 1940s to 1990s, regular weekly church attendance in Canada decreased from about 60 per cent to 25 per cent. In the case of Roman Catholics, the decline started in the 1960s, with attendance falling from around 80 per cent to 30 per cent by 1990. In Quebec, attendance was higher than in parishes elsewhere in the 1960s, but lower by the 1990s. More disturbingly, a growing number of Canadians have been moving away from active and even moderate involvement. Approximately 25 per cent say they "never" attend services, and close to one in five adults and one in three teenagers - now indicate that they have "no religion."
Like all other corporations and institutions in the world, reputation management is what the Vatican needs most at the moment. Its global ‘brand’ image has been tarnished and instead of constantly blaming the media and driving out dissenters, the Roman Catholic Church needs to be more transparent, accountable and more in touch with reality.
As a practising Roman Catholic myself, I’m concerned about our religion’s reputation. Marketing 101 is what the Church needs right now – to maintain existing followers among boomers and seniors; but also to acquire new followers including women and the younger generations. I don’t think drastic reforms will come very soon, but the priority is to manage the current crisis, develop key messages for the Vatican and ensuring all archbishops and cardinals around the world follow them in their communications with the media. The newly-appointed Vatican spokesperson was right when he said, “We have a train wreck coming here. I don’t have an answer for you on how I’d stop the train, but I’d try.”