When Members of the Catholic Press Fail the Church

In a news story that received little media attention last year, LifesiteNews.com and Breitbart, reported that the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation awarded the National Catholic Reporter a $2.3 million grant to provide positive publicity for the work that is being done by Catholic women religious. It was a noble goal that emerged from Conrad Hilton’s experiences having been taught by faithful nuns during his childhood. Keeping with his wishes to provide for the nuns that helped to shape him, the Hilton Foundation has long supported women religious through its Conrad Hilton Fund for Sisters—a foundation that has been funded with nearly $200 million and has made almost 10,000 grants to various religious communities over the past 26 years.

But, Conrad Hilton could not have predicted that his foundation would one day be helping to fuel the animosities between the Magisterium and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR) by funding a newspaper which has had a long history of attacking individual bishops, and criticizing the teachings of the Church.  Recalling the faithful women religious of his youth who taught him to love and serve God, it is unlikely that Hilton would have wanted his money to support the kinds of attacks on the bishops—and the teachings of the Catholic Church itself—that the National Catholic Reporter is now engaged in. This new Hilton-funded initiative has effectively purchased positive publicity for the nuns—at the same time the bishops’ are attempting to bring the LCWR closer to the heart of the Church through the doctrinal assessment they have been conducting since 2009.

Defending against such a suggestion, Brad Myers, senior program officer, was quoted in the article published in LifeSiteNews as claiming that the Hilton Foundation “does not take a position on the controversy between the Vatican and the leadership conference.” Myers published a policy paper in February, 2013, indicating that the grant was not related to the current issues related to the doctrinal assessment of the LCWR.

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While that is true, an analysis of recent articles published by the National Catholic Reporter reveals a strong defense of the nuns—often at the expense of the bishops’ goals. Devoting an entire channel on the newspaper’s website to the sisters’ response to the bishops’ investigation, the National Catholic Reporter seems to have taken sides against the Magisterium.

For example, on August 26, the Hilton-Funded “Global Sisters’ Report” published an article lauding an 82-year old former Sister of Mercy, who was recently “ordained” as a “Roman Catholic Woman-Priest.”   Entitled “Women Priests Act on a Deep Call to a Different Ministry,” the article introduced another former Franciscan sister who was also “ordained.”

During the entire month of August, 2014, nearly every story posted on the National Catholic Reporter’s “Sisters’ Stories” site is a negative response to the bishops and their Vatican-directed investigation of the LCWR. Out of more than two dozen stories about the sisters on the Sisters’ Stories site, only five reported on issues like “Helping Haitians Find water and Self Sufficiency”; or the new renewable energy resolution that was passed by the LCWR. Nearly all of the stories on the site throughout the month focused on the struggles the nuns have experienced with the hierarchy. With daily articles and incendiary headlines like, “Sisters Ahead of Hierarchy in Living Vatican II Renewal”; “Outside Control of LCWR is Unacceptable”; “Cry Out, Sisters, Cry Out” by Joan Chittister; and Eugene Kennedy’s “The Real Reason for the Vatican’s Problem with LCWR,” the overarching theme of the Sisters’ Stories website is that the sisters are the victims of an oppressive patriarchy whose goal is to silence all women in the Church. To reinforce that view, David Gibson authored an article on September 2, entitled “Vatican’s Doctrinal Chief Renews Criticism of US Nuns, Says He’s No Misogynist.”

It is likely that the National Catholic Reporter will continue its campaign of promoting an alternative Magisterium—one that endorses women’s ordination, married priests, and a diminished hierarchy for the Church. Responding to this in January, 2013, the Most Reverend Robert W. Finn, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Kansas City St. Joseph—the diocese where the National Catholic Reporter is headquartered—authored a column in The Catholic Key, the online edition of the official diocesan newspaper criticizing the National Catholic Reporter for “undermining Catholic teachings.” Writing that the National Catholic Reporter has been “lionizing dissident theologies while rejecting established Magisterial teaching,” Bishop Finn has raised questions over whether the newspaper should call itself Catholic.

Since the publication of Bishop Finn’s column in the Catholic Key, the National Catholic Reporter has escalated its attack on the bishop personally—using its pages to publish an insolent “Open Letter to Pope Francis” demanding the removal of Robert W. Finn as bishop of the Kansas City-St. Joseph, MO diocese. Authored by Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, the “Open Letter” published on the pages of the National Catholic Reporter criticizes Bishop Finn’s handling of abuse cases in his diocese and advises the Pope to “require Finn to take a year off for study and meditation…. Then you could assign him to write his confessions and make them available to a church that is seeking to understand why so many bishops responded so badly to this abuse crisis.” Concluding his anti-Catholic rant by advising Pope Francis to “make him [Bishop Finn] a doorkeeper in the Sistine Chapel,” Tammeus wrote that it would be better for Bishop Finn to be a doorkeeper, as the psalmist suggested, rather than “live comfortably in the tents of the wicked.”

It is not “news” that the National Catholic Reporter seems to have taken sides against many of the bishops in the Catholic culture wars, and it is not “news” that the National Catholic Reporter continues to dredge up old cases of clerical abuse in order to try to diminish the authority of the bishops, but what is puzzling for faithful Catholics is why the Catholic Press Association (CPA) continues to reward the newspaper by honoring it with the Association’s most prestigious awards. In 2014, the CPA awarded the National Catholic Reporter first place for “Best News Writing Originating with the Paper—National Event”; as well as a first place award for “Best News Writing Originating with the Paper—International Event.” In addition to news writing, the CPA honored Michael Sean Winters yet again with a first place in the category of “Best Online Blog—Individual.” Lauding Winters’ writing as “impressive,” the press association has described him as “demonstrating consideration for a broad range of opinions.” It is likely that the CPA missed his latest hyperbolic headline: “Are the Bishops Committing Murder?

In 2014, the National Catholic Reporter was also honored with a First Place award in the category of “Best Investigative News Writing”; and individual writers for National Catholic Reporter won second and third place prizes in that same category. The Reporter also won a second place award for the “Best Analysis Background Round-up News Writing” (the Gerard E. Sherry Award), and third place in the “Best Editorial Page” category. In the “Best Personality Profile for a National Newspaper,” National Catholic Reporter was awarded second place—second only to Catholic Health World, the publication of Sr. Carol Keehan’s Catholic Health Association. Catholic Health World lobbied heavily in favor of passing President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act—replete with funding for abortion and mandates for providing insurance coverage for birth control and abortifacients. Catholic Health World is also a recipient of multiple awards from the Catholic Press Association. Orthodox Catholic books and newspapers—those that support the teachings of the Church—rarely win these awards.

An independent Catholic media is important—all Catholics benefit from faithful Catholic media outlets. In 2009, Cardinal Francis E. George, then president of the USCCB, warned that “if any institution, including the media, calls itself Catholic, it is the moral responsibility of the bishop to assure that it is Catholic…. That offers the bishops a chance to clarify the relationship and see if the entity in question is operating within the bounds of Catholic communion.”

In 2010, following a webinar on “Faithful Catholic Media: Continuing the Conversation,” jointly sponsored by the Catholic Press Association and the USCCB, Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles, then chair of the USCCB Committee on Communications, identified three aspects of Catholic media which make it unique. “One is that Catholic media can help Catholics understand what is happening in our world and in our Church from a Catholic perspective…. Another is that Catholic media are “civil and respectful” unlike what is seen in the secular media.” And, finally, the third unique aspect of Catholic media is “its ability to advise bishops on how best to engage with media organizations.”

In his recommendations for the future of the relationship between the bishops and the Catholic media, Bishop Zavala concluded that Catholic media should expect stronger collaboration with bishops: “good collaboration requires efforts on both sides…. Our diocesan offices should view your organizations as collaborators rather than as outsiders.” Perhaps it is time now—five years after Bishop Zavala recommended it—for the collaboration to begin.


  • Anne Hendershott

    Anne Hendershott is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. She is the author of The Politics of Envy (Crisis Publications, 2020).

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