Political theology arose to help meet the pastoral and theological needs of history’s victims. Among the victims were persons in ostensibly Christian European countries who were targets of propaganda campaigns by governments, propaganda designed to whip up majorities to go to war and identify, marginalize, imprison and kill unwanted groups of persons deemed to be “inferior.”
“Propaganda,” as most readers of this blog know, is a Latin word coined originally to help describe the biological reproduction of plants and animals. In the 17th century, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the term to identify a new curial dicastery established to better coordinate the missionary activity of the Church against Protestants in Europe and the propagation of the faith in Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The growth of literacy, mass communication, and popular democracy throughout the 18th and 19th centuries motivated governments and political movements to develop and refine rhetorical techniques to influence opinion in ways not unfamiliar to the Greek and Roman philosophers who wrote the first philosophical works on rhetoric.
Unfortunately, “propaganda” acquired its near-universal ominous and sinister connotation in the twentieth century when nation-states rallied their populations to fight two world wars. The nefarious use of propaganda arguably reached an apogee with Nazi Germany. In 1933, that regime constructed an entire ministry, the Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, directed to the ends of lifting the spirits of the German people, absolving them of any moral responsibility for its role in the First World War, and convincing them of their being victims of both the allied powers abroad and subversives at home, and dehumanizing their supposed enemies so as to justify their domination or extermination through war and genocide. However, the Allied Powers were not immune to the abuses of the power of propaganda. The Soviet Union had a propaganda apparatus which was older than the Nazis’ and shared many of the same goals, though directed to different ideological and national ends. Parliamentary democracies, too, engaged in the abuse of propaganda, whether exercised by public or private media outlets, be they newspapers, radio or film. One example was the racial stereotyping practiced by the American film industry, especially against the Japanese overseas, which factored into the unjust and unconstitutional incarceration of Japanese-Americans here.
Therefore, it is disturbing to say the least, that the very same Catholic Church who coined the term “propaganda” as a means to spread the faith by means of skills first developed by classical rhetoricians, would employ public relations firms. These firms possess an understanding of propagating a message that, in many troublesome ways, imitate the techniques of modern state propaganda apparatuses which have helped drive people into wars, committing genocide, and the unjust incarceration of people. Those who work in public relations, or know people in the field, may likely take offense at me making such a comparison. The brevity of a blog post makes my prose more direct, and therefore harsher than this author means it to be. But, I do not apologize for this comparison. The people involved in public relations, I hope, endeavor to work their craft with the purpose of helping their clients communicate the truth well. However, public relations firms and governments using rhetoric to persuade people, when they do so disengaged from serving the good, the true, and the beautiful, are playing with a universal rhetorical acid that destroys human bonds of empathy, community, and civilization. It is no accident that John Courtney Murray wrote that a barbarian can appear dressed in a business suit.
One need look no further than the language these public relations firms use on their very own corporate websites to promote their services to potential clients. Study the websites of two of the firms employed by the Catholic Church. Hill and Knowlton was contracted by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to promote their pro-life work in 1990. Rasky Baerlein had the Archdiocese of Boston as a client handling their public relations during the sex-abuse scandal in that diocese.
Hill and Knowlton’s services include the following services and their descriptions. Corporate Communications is described by this company as having the primary goal of “the advancement or protection of an organization’s corporate goals, corporate brand or reputation.” Here, “public skepticism” of corporations is the problem this company offers to help its clients overcome. Public Relations itself is described as a service designed to both “enable mass movements” and create “relationships that win support one by one” all to identify supporters, mobilize employees and customers, and persuade skeptics. Media Relations offers clients the ability to capture and hold the attention of members of the fourth estate. And, Analyst and Influencer Relations assists clients on shaping the decisions and perceptions of experts who advise government and the private sector.
Rasky Baerlein describes its service as addressing “complex communications challenges with a commitment to serve our clients’ interests first. We provide hands-on senior-level attention to each client…in the development of strategy, messages, and tactics.” Their public relations services have as their goal to “tell our clients’ stories…to navigate today’s fast-paced and rapidly changing news cycle to ensure their messages are heard.” Perhaps of greater concern is how the company describes their services handling communications for a client facing a crisis or litigation. This company states that “a smart, strategic communications plan – developed in close coordination with the legal team and executed with care – helps confront misinformation, advance positive messages, and condition the environment for a favorable result.
Truth and falsehood are never explicitly mentioned in how Rasky Baerlein determines which client “stories” they choose to tell. How would they define a well-conditioned environment? What constitutes a favorable result within that environment? The closest language to truth claims employed on Hill’s site concern “corporate character” and how that company treats its stakeholders for the sake of its external reputation. The language is all utilitarian, concerned with the end of how clients are perceived by government, the private sector, and society. There is no language concerning a well-formed conscience, the morality of motives and means as well as ends, and nothing about a corporate culture formed by the habitual practice of virtue, undergirded by those few but strategic moral absolutes essential to any moral theory that aspires to be durable, effective, and true. There is something of the mercenary in the language of these companies’ websites. Potentially, one of these firms could have the Catholic Church as a client to promote its work and teachings while also retaining the Church’s opponents as clients, too.
A defender of these firms may argue that their work fits the classical understanding of rhetoric. Quintilian defines rhetoric as “the art of speaking well,” therefore “its object and ultimate end must be to speak well.” Indeed, many classical sources tend to view rhetoric primarily, if not solely, as the art of persuasion. However, looking past Quintilian’s basic definition of rhetoric, he assents to Plato’s argument in Gorgias that good rhetoric, or oratory, could be attained only by the just and good man. In the Phaedrus, the art of oratory cannot be fully acquired without knowledge of justice, which is something to be discovered through reasoned argument and not manufactured as one goes. To fall short of that standard, rhetoric is reduced to the art of what is probable, distinguished from what is true. For Quintilian and Plato, such persons were not proper teachers of the art of rhetoric. Public relations firms practice an institutionalized form of what Plato understood to be Sophism; substituting the craft of teaching people using persuasive oratory to seek truth and to practice virtuous habits to attain the good life, with the knack of mere oratorical flourishes designed to persuade people through the proper presentation of any idea or vision, regardless of its whether it is true or not.
The Roman Catholic Church risks abdicating its teaching authority to a professional gaggle of sophists-for-hire, orators who according to Quintilian (quoting Cornelius Celsus), have as their goal achieving “the victory of his client” which serves as sufficient “reward of the pleader.” Why should the Catholic Church employ and spend its finite resources on public relations firms when it has its own rich tradition of rhetoric? Generations of Catholics were taught the craft of teaching others to assent to truth and goodness persuasively. Why can’t it critically retrieve this craft for this epoch, and employ it?
Ramón Luzárraga is Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine University – Mesa in Mesa, Arizona, where he is also Chair of the Department of Theology. His interests include political theology, and Hispanic and Caribbean theology.