Forums for Dialogue: Teleconferencing and the American Catholic Church

by Frances Ford Plude

Frances Forde Plude, Ph.D., earned her doctorate at Harvard University and studied satellite communications at MIT. She taught at the S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Syracuse University, and is currently associate professor of communication at Notre Dame College, Cleveland, Ohio. She is co-author of Communication Ethics and Global Change (Longman Press), and has contributed chapters to numerous works. As part of a planning and research project, Dr. Frances FordePlude recently met with the communications ministersof all 13 European Community nations.

This article is from Media Development, World Association for Christian Communication, London, 1992.


The author examines one specific kind of technological forum — the teleconference — reflecting on its history and its future potential as a mode of “assembly” within the Catholic Church. These concepts have new meaning as use of the Internet and the World Wide Web explodes.

An essential component of human organization, from religious communities to constitutional democracies, public opinion depends on public expression and public assembly. Today we speak and assemble in ways unknown to past generations of theologians, political leaders, and social theorists. Our forums have changed: Some have disappeared; others have arisen. Our small Town Hall debates and even our faith communities have given way to TV and radio talk shows, world-wide news analysis, satellite and telephone hookups, and the Internet.

I offer the ideas proposed here -- about the value of form is for dialogue-with the hope that new, interactive, technological modes of speech and assembly will enrich public discourse. Such forums, I believe, increase in importance as churches, nations, and communities of all kinds, attempt to move beyond serious divisions toward collaborative solutions. We have seen, in Bosnia for example, the cost of such division.

Here I examine one specific kind of technological forum-the teleconference-reflecting on its history and its future potential as a mode of "assembly" within the Catholic Church. These concepts have new meaning as use of the Internet and the World Wide Web explodes.

For more than a decade we heard predictions of an imminent burst of growth in teleconferencing but it didn't happen. In spite of this track record, I begin here with a prediction that the boom is beginning to happen now and teleconferencing will see remarkable growth in this decade.

This chapter treats three aspects of teleconferencing: (1) its current status, along with examples; (2) the special fit with church goals and needs; and (3) the deeper contextual issues raised by such dialogue.

Essentials of the Technological Forum

The three main types of technical conferences differ according to their links: computer links, audio links, and audiovisual links, i.e., videoconferencing. Each one constitutes a forum --a technical bridge by satellite or telephone lines-which enables people in different places to "be" together. Teleconferences are meetings. Although people tend to think of videoconferences as TV programs, they are essentially meetings. The key factor differentiating teleconferencing from television is its interactive nature: People can "talk back."

In computer conferencing people interact with others through their computers. Much of the time this occurs not in "real" time but in a delayed manner. In other words, people can sign on to the conference whenever they like, retrieve existing messages or text, and then leave a response for the other conference participants to pick up at their convenience. Most electronic mail (e-mail) works like this. Of course, one can also link up to ongoing conversations.

Audio conferences "bridge" or connect people from varied sites so they can talk together. Such meetings have a feel about them that "the meter is ticking" so organizers plan them well ahead of time, with materials distributed in advance. This format requires a certain amount of courtesy and verbal name-tags throughout the meeting so people can identify correctly among themselves the individual speaking; this helps because one has only audio cues to sort out individual input.

In both of the above conferences, interaction obviously occurs. When we turn to videoconferences, we will similarly assume a forum with feedback. (A conference isn't really a conference without interaction.) Conferences differ from satellite-connected video programs hooking various sites together simply for information distribution, such as a corporate show to unveil a new product. Instead, here we speak only of video meetings with two-way interaction. Up to now feedback to the distribution site usually takes place from the field via telephone calls because of the expense of two-way video. However, one can now predict the long-expected growth in videoconferencing because prices have dropped dramatically due to technological breakthroughs. A recent invention allows people at computers to be seen at other sites, using a small video camera the size of a golf ball.

In the past all three conferencing modes utilized analog (electromagnetic wave form) message transmission but now digital (computer bit pattern) transmission has replaced much of it. Once this change occurred it became possible to speed up the transmissions through time-sharing, compression, and other techniques. A concomitant technological change, the switch from copper wires to optical fibers, has allowed "space" for more messages. More and more information travels over these fiber highways, with satellites helping to make global distances irrelevant.

Since the demand exists for so much information transfer, developed nations are racing to construct the global interconnected networks to carry the data load. The European Union (EU) nations have made this a key priority and predict that 12% of the gross national product of the EU will be in this telecom sector. Similarly, Congress has proposed the development of an "information highway" as part of the plan to update America's infrastructure. Even without government help, telephone and cable companies are major players in this growth. And in an unregulated market, major corporate and institutional groups have built their own local area networks (LANs), providing even more highways for messages.

Vidcoconferences will become more economical because of several specific changes:

* signals can now utilize public-switched telephone networks instead of dedicated lines

· technical standardization emerges as public and private networks and various long-distance carriers develop compatibilities for easier interface

· engineers have improved compression techniques so video no longer needs as much transmission space (bandwidth)

· the manufacture of desktop video communication systems simplifies interaction which has required large TV studio settings in the past

· the development of new video processor chips has meant cost savings and allows the insertion of computer graphics into video conferencing

This decade thus offers mobile (or desktop) videoconferencing units which can be wheeled from room to room, making video forums possible-an easy technical "freedom of assembly" at much less cost. These may become as common as fax machines for interaction.


Teleconferencing and Church Goals and Needs

Pioneers in Catholic Church teleconferencing

Much creative conferencing already occurs within the American Catholic Church. Historically, the San Francisco Archdiocese pioneered teleconferencing techniques for the entire nation, using a NASA satellite in their early experiments. For this overview, though, I have selected three types of current teleconferences as examples: one forming a university-family community (Notre Dame); one linking a prayerful community (Contemplative Outreach); and one building a pastoral community (the National Pastoral Life Center). All three types utilized the facilities of the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America (CTNA). For many years this satellite network provided the infrastructure for helpful forums within the American Catholic community.

When its planners first conceptualized CTNA, they saw it as a significant intra-institutional communications system; the satellite system could facilitate internal communications through lower-cost telephone transmission, fax transmission, and intra-messaging of all kinds-internal meetings/briefings and training conferences, for example.

About a decade ago, having recently completed doctoral studies at Harvard and MIT, I accepted a consultancy to travel to many Catholic universities throughout America and confer with them about how a satellite system could service their needs. Monsignor Michael J. Dempsey, a telecommunications pioneer, coordinated this research phase for CTNA. I remember arriving in South Bend to suggest that Notre Dame might find it helpful to interconnect with their Alumni Clubs through CTNA satellite facilities. I suggested to then President, Father Ted Hesburgh, that he could speak to Notre Dame graduates throughout America with a satellite hookup.

And Notre Dame had the vision to do both. When Father Hesburgh retired as President of Notre Dame he gave a farewell address to graduates throughout America on a satellite teleconference. Dr. Kathleen M. Sullivan, Director of Alumni Continuing Education at the university, told me recently that with 200 Alumni Clubs in this country, they have a university community just waiting to be linked.

After consulting their alumni, Notre Dame decided to focus their teleconferences on family life-a continuing challenge to their graduates and to the nation-at-large. One live-interactive teleconference, for example, helped parents (and grandparents!) understand preschooler needs. A panel of experts from Notre Dame and St. Mary's College offered ideas and answered questions.

One of the most significant decisions made by the university was to link up with diocesan family life offices throughout the country in the teleconference planning and marketing. Notre Dame also distributes special guidebooks for local facilitators and provides information packets for all audience participants. The packets contain promotional ideas and locales participating, materials well planned to aid local networking.

For example, a teleconference on elementary education had links to Catholic school personnel; through the use of area zip codes tags, the Catholic school principals in every locale with an alumni club received notification of the broadcast. This local networking is vital to interactive televised meetings.

Part of the on-going celebration of Notre Dame's Sesquicentennial year involved a satellite teleconference. Alumni clubs were urged to participate in community service outreach in their areas-giving back to society what the university gave to them. The celebratory satellite teleconference highlighted some of the local community service projects and allowed a forum for the university to share its past history and its future mission.

I don't believe any other university in America has the systematic educational outreach to its alumni that Notre Dame has. The fact that a significant part of this community-building and service occurs through satellite teleconference forums provides a rich model of dialogic enrichment for churches and other institutions in America.

The support offered to modern contemplatives by satellite interconnection exemplifies another valuable forum. Trappist monk Thomas Keating founded Contemplative Outreach, Ltd. as a national service organization to facilitate the growth of centering prayer. The many works of Basil Pennington, a member of the same religious order, have popularized this contemplative approach to prayer. Hundreds of prayer groups meet regularly throughout the country and many participants attend centering prayer retreats or conduct workshops in how to pray in a contemplative manner.

The organization linked these scattered groups through a teleconference with two goals: (1) to facilitate a sense of national support among the communities, and (2) to permit various local groups to hear a talk by Abbot Keating and enter a dialogue with him. Most locates either began or concluded the satellite meeting with a 20-minute period of centering prayer-thus providing a technologically-linked prayer group throughout the country. 'ne organization conducted an extensive evaluation process, with participants giving reactions; these suggestions were distributed widely so the organizers could make improvements in subsequent televised meetings. This studied evaluative procedure is a significant aspect of successful teleconferences.

In addition to interactive prayer gatherings, other pastoral practice benefits from special interactive training in televised meetings. The expert in this field is Father Phil Murnion, Director of the National Pastoral Life Center in New York City. When I asked him whether this forum represents a participatory church he said: "Absolutely! When I was first asked to do TV programs, I said no because that's not what we do. But when I was told it would be a forum, with dialogue, a meeting-on-the-air, then I said sure, we will do that."

These teleconferences have focused on a range of topics: the drug crisis; the Church as seen through media; teaching sexual morality; what's really working in adult religious education; the Church and rural communities; dwindling priests and church finances; and many other topics. Some people may say this panders to the trendy. However, Murnion senses from his feedback in the field that the topics are "timely."

Assembling a live audience in many locales represents a major challenge for these meetings. Father Murnion and his staff distribute press releases and fliers to local affiliates and specific constituencies for each teleconference topic. The sessionis were videotaped and many requested taped copies; for example the teleconference discussion on the parish council continues to be requested. The number of telephone calls received by the teleconference can sometimes act as a barometer of how many people are out there. Sometimes no calls come in.

The fact that many folks prefer to view programs later (on tape) indicates that we still tend to think of these conferences as video programs instead of meetings. Teleconferencing best occurs as an extension of the telephone, however, rather than a form of television show; it is a dialogic forum.

The Church in the modern (telecommunications) world

During the Second Vatican Council the Church re-cycled its view of interaction with the world. In the Church in the Modern World document we see the recognition of the value of dialogue with the world (while retaining the obligation to critique it in terms of higher-gospel-values).

If the theology of Church now endorses dialogue (with other churches, with laity, with women, with modern society), then systematic forums to facilitate this dialogue will aid the work of the Spirit in a postmodern world. We use automobiles in this work; we use modern medical science in this work; we can also use communication technologies in this same work. One of the first things required is that we stop thinking of all media as programs. Many media are simply tools, connecting links-just like letters, like telephone calls, like mediated meetings.

Many factors should assure a comfortable fit between teleconferencing and the Church. In fact, an institutional infrastructure in the American Catholic Church already, exists in its system of schools, diocesan structures, parish communities-all awaiting linkages or networking that communication systems provide.

The American Catholic Church first developed a communications network in connection with its system of schools. The Catholic Television Network consists of more than a dozen dioceses with closed circuit microwave broadcast systems to service their schools. This network still exists, and many affiliates now lease some channel space, thus earning income to support their work. In one of these dioceses, San Francisco, they have recently celebrated the 20th anniversary of the establishment of their closed circuit system. Here the earliest satellite teleconferencing experiments began, under the direction of the man who is now Bishop of the San Jose (Silicon Valley) diocese: Bishop Pierre DuMaine.

In their educational television studios located in St. Patrick's Seminary in Menlo Park, a user-controlled teleconference studio was constructed before 1980. Marika Ruumet, the creative woman who directed that studio operation, later convinced the heads of the Hewlett Packard Corporation to develop one of the corporate world's most innovative satellite teleconferencing operations.

Another early staff member in this teleconferencing history was a Sister of Notre Dame, Jeanette Braun. Jeanette later organized many international teleconferences for corporate clients.

Jeanette served a staff role in an historic early satellite project in San Francisco called "Project Interchange." This teleconference permitted teachers in public and private schools in northern and southern California to" regularly to discuss their individualized instruction curricular work.

The project utilized the Canadian/American Communications Technology Satellite (CTS), under the direction of NASA engineers.

Over 20 years ago, Bishop Pierre DuMaine wrote in an unpublished document entitled "Notes on an Electronic Information/Communications System to Support Individualized Instruction":

The "economy" of computer - supported information systems depends, of course, upon a sufficiently large number of users to optimize the capacity of the computer and to achieve economy of scale necessary .... This is possible if remote users can be linked to the information source by telephone line, cable, or communications system. (1972, p. 1)


Conceptual Communications Issues

As I struggle to delineate the larger contextual issues emerging in a tele-connected Church (and world), many, many things come to mind. In these remaining paragraphs I can only point readers and practitioners toward some of the basic questions and hint at ways to seek answers to these questions. I will reflect here on (a) broad context questions, (b) selected concepts in relation to the Church, and (c) emerging needs.

As background, we should reflect upon certain facts. For one thing, we regularly see, even hear, teleconferencing in our evening news. Satellite linkages regularly interconnect various geographic sites into a program like the evening network news or Ted Koppel's Nightline. So, in a sense, our news/analysis TV programs are already forums. The MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on PBS developed into one of the most substantive and in-depth news forums in America. This is a model for the dialogic approach to problem solving; sometimes it works better than others.

Another background factor for our reflection is that infrastructures in America (the "information superhighway") require planning and development if we are to keep pace with telecommunications growth in Japan and Europe. A $2.9 billion High-Performance Computing Act, passed in Congress, will provide funding for systems to link government, university, and library computers in a National Research and Education Network (NREN). Such networks will provide the infrastructure supplied by roads, railroads, and canals of previous eras. Moreover, the news media document almost daily that Internet use is spreading to citizens everywhere; it is no longer just for researchers.

Broad context questions

We have already become aware that interactive communications technologies have altered the process of decision-making. In Computer Message Systems, Jacques Vallee states, "In conferencing, the messages themselves are not as important as the group process which they support" (1984, p. 70). Vallee adds that interactive message systems have many benefits in strategic planning, in group dynamics for better tactical decisions, and in the faster resolution of routine issues. We have consultants like Peter Drucker warning us that the intra-group interactive tools will drive structural changes within organizations. Major effects include decentralization and a flattening out of hierarchical structures, with fewer mid-management staff.

In an essay entitled "The Churchification of Christianity," German theologian Hermann J. Pottmeyer examines the Church in the light of modern societal change and reflects on the "structural differentiation" of society identified by the theorist Talcott Parsons.

[This] consists of the disintegration of the old multifunctional forms of life in[tol "social partial systems" which then take on functional specialization and tend toward autonomy. Examples of such partial systems are the economy, transportation systems, politics, the state, the nuclear family, and the Church. (1990)

I would add the partial system of telecommunicationss to this list. Pottmeyer cites the difficulty:

The tendency of these partial systems toward autonomy creates many problems. Since each individual is seen only as a participant in the operation of those partial systems, it becomes more difficult for the individual to find his own identity .... The connecting horizon of a consensus of values which links all members of the society continues to disappear. (1990)

This sociological phenomenon contributes to our discord; it calls for new modes of linking and overlapping partial systems if we are to dialogue and collaborate effectively on today's (and tomorrow's) challenging issues. Interactive forums will serve such challenges if we thoughtfully create the forums in our strategic planning and include telecom-infrastructure planning and use.

Two final broad dynamics: technologies are converging while communities are dispersing. Communication and computer technologies have become so integrated that one cannot see boundaries any longer. Telephones are computers; and computers communicate with each other. However, as these technologies integrate, communal groups disintegrate. Individuals seek hookups with each other through phones, computers, electronic churches, and want ad personals. We must conceptualize and implement new forms of forums for a postmodern world where traditional borders have disappeared.

Selected concepts in relation to the Church

Obviously churches have an interest in communal groups. Christian churches are supposed to be communities of faith linked to one other. Today we see examples of walls coming down throughout the world-between nations, occasionally between religious groups, sometimes among ethnic enclaves. Dialogic tools and forums can facilitate these unions if we learn how

to use them; they require new kinds of interactive communication habits with a lot of listening to one another. When we are used to thinking that we have the right answers, it requires communication re-learning to listen more and to work through legitimate differences.

The Church, along with the rest of society, faces enormous training and retraining needs. According to Via Satellite magazine (November, 1991, p. 32), business teleconferencing to reach and train members was a $195 million business by 1990. The training task is a major focus of teleconferencing in American corporations. The American Catholic Church already uses teleconferencing for training, but needs to plan and coordinate much, much more in this area. Part of the goal, ultimately, is to provide means for people to have on-demand access to the information they need to develop themselves.

The question of access is another major church-related issue. As communication/information technologies become the coin of commerce in the decades ahead, those who do not have access to the tools and the content (software) will find themselves closed out. Access has clearly become a justice policy issue for today's Church. The accompanying training question learning to use modern communication technologies connects to the access question. This involves encouraging local initiative, creating incentives, and fostering other human development strategies.

Distribution of resources will also continue to play a vital role in modern society. As emergency-aid needs arise throughout the world, people see that systems of distribution often hold the key to getting help through to the right people quickly. Communication systems will help to meet this need more and more. And within the institutional Church, the allocation of resources (people, funds, etc.) will continue to be a challenge. We need to become expert in using technologies to achieve economies.

For the American Catholic Church, the focus for most families remains the local parish community. Our infrastructures should serve and support this local community, not dislodge it. One of the most interesting new communication tools in this arena-the parish video library (PVL)-benefitled from research by the Center for Religious Telecommunications at the University of Dayton. The Center also studies models of collaborative planning among church organizations, so such collaborative models can be duplicated elsewhere.

Emerging needs

No one doubts that modern telecommunications present challenges to churches. We have long realized the need for media literacy. We know, without being told by experts, that our communication habits are changing us. Similarly, we are learning more about the impact of mass media. We are now aware that people identify with the stories they see on TV-fictional stories, news stories, and human interest (witness) stories, as well as advertising stories. This bonding with oral and visual narrative creates a whole new hearth for humanity to gather around and to evaluate.

Now we need to focus more on the intra-group communication mechanisms and the role of telecommunications tools in these interactive forums.

We need a long-term and systematic strategy over this decade so we can approach the millennium with confidence. I propose a two-lane highway approach.

On the one hand we need to bring theologians and communication scholars together for continue] "think-tank" interaction-doing tile communications research and development work for the Church. Existing professional organizations should have structures (special sections) to accommodate this thinking-together at their organizational conventions. The Catholic Theological Society of America (CTSA) does this annually in a forum on communication theology. The national offices in Washington (for schools, the bishops' conference) should all facilitate such forums.. Many, many week-long conferences need to be scheduled over the decade, so these thinkers can spend time together sharing ideas, stimulating the development of new conceptual models. Universities should link their theology and communication faculty in systematic planning forums.

Alongside of this work, however, in the second lane, should be much, much collaborative strategic planning among practitioners, the communications personnel in tile trenches, who meet the daily, continual challenges (and crises) where Church and society interface and "reach out and touch" each other. This on-going practical planning needs to utilize teleconferencing arid other tools to get the day-by-day jobs done. There needs to be much interconnection and collaboration. And both groups -- the think tank types and the daily practitioners -- need to sustain and enrich each other as the decade progresses.

It is right there on the horizon. Karl Rahner called it our "global epoch."