Choosing the Correct Word: Catastrophe

Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, called the recent revelations of priest abuse and cover-up in six dioceses in Pennsylvania a “moral catastrophe.” He could not have used a more powerful or appropriate word.

Everyone understands a catastrophe. A deadly hurricane. Mass murder. The killing of a president. Acts of war, human trafficking and other human atrocities. A catastrophe suggests widespread destruction with untold consequences that will require heroic efforts to restore and make whole, and holy, again.

Catastrophe. Why did the Executive Committee of the Bishop’s Conference use this particular word?

Words can cut to the heart of the truth. Cardinal Di Nardo clearly understands that this is not the time for crisis communications strategies or legal briefs. While important clarifications might be in order for particular dioceses, now is not the time for half measures. It is time for the simple truth that everyone understands.

Near the conclusion of his groundbreaking work, The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic, Matthew Kelly takes a definitive stand on the perception of the Catholic Church in the United States: “The world has changed dramatically . . . The image of Catholicism has suffered massively. The Catholic brand is deteriorating. I appreciate that some may be offended by my reference to a Catholic brand, but whether we choose to accept it or not, we do have a brand and it is in trouble” (Kelly, Four Signs, 205).

As dioceses consider their communications plans for the near future, three important considerations come to mind in light of the scandal.

  1. Be courageous. Acknowledge the catastrophe for what it is.
  2. Be bold. Find new and transformative ways of communicating.
  3. Keep it simple. Rely on content that points directly toward the simplicity

and clarity of Jesus’ messages about sin, humility, repentance and redemption.

The Church is at a point of reckoning. Rebuilding confidence and trust in a bishop’s role as a strong and selfless shepherd will take more than time. Our memories of catastrophes are deep and long.