Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Reader's Digest For Folks Who Want Only One Kind Of Story: Catholic Digest

The Good: Hits its niche precisely
The Bad: Ridiculously simple diction, Monotonous, Surprisingly addy, Strangely pricey
The Basics: With unchallenging diction/message that is repeated ad nauseam, Catholic Digest is an unnecessary addition to the lives of Catholics who might do better by doing good works than reading this.

As one who is always happy to rail against schmaltz, it never would have occurred to me that there was a niche market that found Reader's Digest to be somehow edgy or not child-friendly in a way that they felt compelled to splinter off with their own publication. And yet, take Catholic Digest, a magazine that is almost identical to Reader's Digest in size, shape and target demographic, save that the senior citizens who read this magazine are intended to be exclusively Catholic. If that seems like a dig, then one has not read Catholic Digest, with its sections like "Grandkids Say The Darndest Things" and a whole slew of articles under the heading "We Love Our Grandkids." Yes, Catholic Digest appears to be intended for an audience of elders to pass down their ways to the youngest generation.

As a reader of virtually anything, Catholic Digest fails to engage - at least anyone who is not Catholic or geriatric - because virtually all of the writing in it is identical. It is one thing to be thematically unified, it is entirely another to be monotonous in the way a subject stays on point. When it is not busy selling Catholic memorabilia, Catholic Digest is remarkably focused on the topics of creating strong families (unmarred by divorce), procreating the next generation of Catholics to be brought up by those strong families in the Catholic Church, and turning one's life entirely over to god. The solution to every hardship in Catholic Digest is to pray and let god's will determine the outcome. For those who are not part of that culture, this is a remarkably unsatisfying magazine to read and it is nowhere near enough to sway the naysayers to the hierarchy of Catholicism.

For the purpose of my review, I read the February 2007 issue of Catholic Digest. I was surprised by the hefty cover price of $4.95 as this is a pamphlet-style magazine printed on a half page. The 128-page magazine is a glossy booklet that is published once a month and has a website by the same name. The reason I was so surprised by the cover price, other than its relation to such a small magazine, was that the magazine is surprisingly filled with advertisements. The issue I reviewed had twenty-two full pages of advertisements with at least three additional half-page ads. While this ratio, less than 20% advertisements, might not seem like much, there are a lot more plugs inserted into the articles and some of the quality of the merchandise being hawked on its pages is disturbing. Most of the advertisements are essentially further reading for those who enjoy Catholic Digest.

As the name suggests, Catholic Digest is compiled from various other books, magazines and interview sources to create a magazine that cuts to the chase for Catholic readers. Here, they may get all the stories of faith and the strength of god in the daily lives of other christians without risking boredom or any counter-message writings from other books. The issue I perused featured cover stories like "The Sign Of The Cross Changed My Life," a short story about meeting the man of one's dreams in church (no kidding!), and dealing with winter weather through faith. As well, the magazine has regular columns on how to pray, what it means to be Catholic, good catholics (nominated by readers), catholic book reviews and guides to watching television for Catholics who only want to watch Catholic programming.

After the usual table of contents (spread out over several pages and broken up with full page advertisements), there is a note from the editor. In this case, editor Daniel Connors commented on the bonds between grandparents and grandchildren and here my schmaltz alarm began to go off in full. Connors reminisces about time with his grandparents in the most predictable and droll ways using nothing surprising or enlightening as far as his diction or imagery goes. There is a moment in Once & Again where a student complains about a fellow student getting an "A" on a project for writing about her grandmother's death because it was obvious and pulls on all the same heartstrings every other such story does. Similarly, the editor's recollection of getting jelly doughnuts from his grandmother is stiflingly dull; wow, grandparents giving kids sweets! I've never heard of that! Of course, part of the purpose of Catholic Digest is to reinforce the traditional stereotypes and archetypes, so the inclusion of them from the outset makes some sense.

The editor's note is followed by letters to the editor. They are all praise and reinforce previously-published articles or sentiments. None of these challenged the magazine or its premises in any way and they were fairly bland to read.

This section was followed by news for Catholics. These include news on missions around the world as well as health reports indicating people of faith live longer and better than those without it. There was, strangely for a publication from 2007, no update on the current state of the Catholic Church or current cases against it. I suppose we need Heretics Digest for those. The point here is that, just as the Catholic Church is often in deep denial of its status and its place in the world, Catholic Digest ignores the diversity within its church and the real-world issues effecting the perceptions (and realities) of the Catholic Church. The head-in-the-sand approach to actual news on the Catholic Church only serves to alienate new potential Catholics who do not deny the flaws reported within the establishments of the Church.

A few regular columns follow, including musings from a prominent Catholic on Valentine's Day and a Ph.D writing about how to pray. While the first column reinforced the importance of family values, the second advocates turning one's life and decisions over to god. The column completely avoids how one is expected to hear the divine, instead indicating a series of steps that ought to allow one to pray and communicate with god (for the record, the breathing exercises recommended did not make god appear to me, though I did notice they bore a strange resemblance to yoga breathing techniques I learned back in college). Another regular column informs readers on exactly why the sign of the cross is important and if one wants a summary of the entire magazine in a single line it comes perfectly from this column. In the "Heritage" section, there is a display quote "Never leave your house without making the Sign of the Cross. It will be a staff, a weapon, an impregnable fortress" (30) and that defines the mentality and sense of action throughout the entire magazine. Catholics, the magazine posits, are in a cultural war with all non-Catholics and they need to be defended and ready to attack spiritually at any moment.

Catholic Digest then features a special recurring feature, in this case an expose on a shipwreck where the people of faith managed to survive! This is followed by a reader who is nominated to be the month's "Good Egg," which earns them a spot in the magazine with a little expose on the person and their faith. The section on grandparenting is an interesting one. Take, for example, the article on "The ABCs Of Grandparenting." Here, the magazine is written to guide grandparents into helping to raise the grandchildren as people of faith. Each letter of the alphabet is split into directions for grandparents and directions for parents. Interestingly, the notes to the grandparents tend to be designed to help guide grandchildren toward catholicism with occasional notes on respecting parental boundaries, with the notes toward the parents mostly reading as "let your parents help raise your kids Catholic, but you can lay down guidelines." This section is filled with simple stories of grandparents and grandchildren getting together and learning about catholic life.

Like the rest of the magazine, this section has big pictures, generally large typeface and diction and vocabulary that is remarkably simple. Catholic Digest can be read by anyone with a fourth grade vocabulary and there are no offensive words or concepts to make the magazine in any way problematic to those who are able to read it.

The problem, though, is after three articles, one has pretty much read the entire magazine. The magazine continues to pound home the exact same concepts and viewpoints and the constant reiteration makes it a lower overall value for the price. Readers will get the message within the first few paragraphs, having more examples of the execution of those messages do not make the arguments or ideas any stronger. Instead, the repetitive quality becomes tiresome.

Just for fun, I picked up another issue and I found the same thing to be true, which forces me to ask "what's the point?!" After all, if a good Catholic goes to church, they already have the message. In addition to a weekly reminder, do Catholics honestly need another monthly reminder? I say "no" and suggest that Catholics looking to protect god's green Earth would do just as well to forego this magazine and let a tree grow instead of cutting more down for this repetitive publication.

For other magazines reviewed by me, please check out my take on:
Consumer Reports
Star Wars Insider
Lost Magazine


For other magazine reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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