In December 2009, two friends sat in a pub and sighed about the difficulty of defending the Church. Austen Ivereigh and Jack Valero had just watched a public debate in which Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens (full disclosure: he was my uncle) had won resounding applause by attacking the Church.
From that night sprang Catholic Voices (CV), a media group which trained speakers for radio and television. If Radio 4 wanted someone to explain why the Church opposed the redefinition of marriage, if Sky News wanted to interview someone who supported Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain, they could turn to CV. (Full disclosure: I worked part-time for CV in 2014-15.)
CV made an immediate impact: the speakers were articulate and sensible, and prepared to say that they actually believed this stuff. The bishops encouraged the project, and it expanded. “We thought it would last a few months,” Valero tells me. “We’re now getting to our 10th anniversary.”
But CV has also had its first major turning point: Valero and Ivereigh will be stepping down from the leadership and from the board. Valero will be focusing instead on nurturing CV’s dozen or so satellite groups around the world; Ivereigh, on writing a forthcoming book about Pope Francis.
The new CEO is 28-year-old Brenden Thompson, an experienced lay leader who has helped to develop CV’s work in parishes, schools and chaplaincies.
The new appointment signals a change of emphasis. The media work has died down – “Generally, we have had far fewer requests in the last three years,” Valero says – while the parish work – giving talks in parishes and holding discussions about how to defend the faith – has expanded. “There is huge demand from parishes and schools,” says Chris Morgan, chairman of the board. Priests say that CV events bring in parishioners who rarely turn up to parish events.
These talks directly address questions such as assisted suicide and women’s role in the Church. A CV speaker will explain the Church’s view, suggest some helpful ways to talk about it, and open the floor for discussion. Often, these subjects are passed over in embarrassment: CV events allow people to work through them. The idea is that they leave with more confidence to tackle that subject when a friend or colleague says, “How can you Catholics believe…”
The new focus makes sense in an era when news organisations don’t look for a “Catholic perspective” so often. “There are a lot of controversies now – a lot,” Valero observes. “But they are more intra-Church and they don’t always make the national news.”
I asked Morgan whether, in an age of Catholic division, it’s harder for CV to put a “Catholic view”. “We’re not theologians,” he remarks. “I don’t think we should be taking sides, so to speak.”
CV’s focus will not be on intra-Church debates, but on reaching those who may almost never have heard a good argument for Church teaching on, say, contraception.
Thompson has grassroots experience: he works in youth ministry in Brentwood diocese, and founded an apostolate which does parish missions. As for his own background, he says has been “fed by everything from the Traditional Latin Mass to the Catholic Charismatic Renewal”. Thompson’s Masters thesis was on Blessed John Henry Newman, and every CV talk he gives includes Newman’s quotation about hoping for “a laity, not arrogant, not rash in speech, not disputatious, but men who know their religion, who enter into it, who know just where they stand, who know what they hold, and what they do not, who know their creed so well, that they can give an account of it, who know so much of history that they can defend it.” If Newman is canonised next year, as now seems possible, it will be the perfect signpost for CV’s future direction.