Press Watch: Loyalty and Catholic Journalism

Today there is a growing number of Catholic periodicals which share the general objectives of Catholicism in Crisis, but still and all it is not a crowded field. Thus it might seem a luxury for our columnist Tom Bethell to make a case against the editorial strategy of the National Catholic Register, a paper that has long been leading where others now follow. Bethell’s criticism and Fran Maier’s response to it provide the reader with a sense of the difficult choice of strategy and emphasis facing Catholic journalists who are loyal to the Magisterium.

It’s hard to deny that there is a strong breakaway tendency in the Catholic Church today. Many bishops and priests, especially advisers in key staff positions in the U.S. Catholic Conference, would like to see the church become the American Catholic Church; with all the prestige and influence of the Roman one, of course, but no longer subservient to the Vatican. The new church would be an autonomous entity, “authentic,” “indigenous,” with local and regional variations, women priests, and everyone doing his or her own thing according to the dictates of what is often called “conscience.”

The Roman Church is a voluntary organization, and if you join it you do accept the idea of authority, hierarchy and obedience. In the same way, if you join a club you accept its bylaws. You don’t expect to be able to enjoy membership according to your own rules. If you do attempt this, the membership committee will probably ask you to leave. So, in the church, you do accept your own subordinate position, and if a priest or a bishop tells you that such-and-such is the case, there is or, should be a strong disposition to accept his word. If you disagree, you are always free to leave the church. The priest is subordinate to the bishop and the bishop is subordinate to the Pope. The Pope in turn is in the line of apostolic succession, deriving his authority from Jesus Christ.

Yes, but what if the priest ignores his bishop, who in turn ignores the Pope? And there you are sitting in the pew, subordinate to the priest. Then what do you do?

And what do you do if you are in the news media — say the editor of a Catholic newspaper? Do you draw attention to the errancy of your superiors? Or would that be disrespectful — the kind of thing calculated to give both Catholicism and Catholic journalism a bad name?

I decided to ask Francis X. Maier, (Notre Dame, ’70), the editor of the National Catholic Register, a weekly newspaper published in Los Angeles. The Register is completely orthodox in outlook, as is Maier himself. He went to work for the Register in 1978 and was appointed its editor a few months later, putting out his first issue in April, 1979. I have been reading the Register for about three years, and have written a few articles for it myself. It has become increasingly clear to me, and I should imagine to most readers, that Maier is really not interested in criticizing the U.S. hierarchy, or indeed in drawing attention to discrepancies between what the Pope wants and what some members of the U.S. hierarchy actually do.

One would have thought that such disregard of the papal will would not only be distressing to someone as orthodox as Maier (and I am sure it is), but that such behavior would lend itself to journalistic riposte. This after all is how the media operate, especially such investigative bastions as the Washington Post and the New York Times. They draw attention to political appointees’ non-compliance with the myriad conflict-of-interest rules on the book. In almost every case, of course, such appointees (or elected officials) are dedicated to a political agenda that the media disapprove of.

Just as the mass of new good-government regulations enable the contemporary liberal journalist to dress up his advocacy as watch-doggery, so, one would think, the existence of church doctrine and papal pronouncement would enable orthodox Catholic journalists to blow the whistle on dissenting, unorthodox or outright disloyal clerics, thereby alerting Rome and minimizing the likelihood that the shepherds will stray from their flocks.

We are beginning to see some of this in Jim McFadden’s feisty new publication, Catholic Eye. But not in the Register — although they have published some good articles drawing attention to some of the more outre antics of American nuns.

“Just as a rule of thumb we don’t criticize bishops,” Fran Maier told me when I phoned. “It doesn’t pay, for one thing. If you are a paper based on respect for authority, you don’t go around kicking authority in the chops. And the paper is based on obedience and respect for authority, because of the apostolic succession. Even stupid bishops are validly ordained and well intentioned, and it is inappropriate for a paper that’s loyalist to take shots at them. It produced the same effect to criticize the people who provide the bishops with the incorrect information. That produces the same result in the long run.”

That last comment I thought particularly interesting — the reference to “people who provide the bishops with the incorrect information.” These would be unorthodox theologians, and Maier’s comment would explain why the Register increasingly resembles a theology debate in weekly installments. A few months ago, for example, it seemed as though there were seven or eight articles on a heterodox figure called Schillebeeckx. He is, Fran Maier told me, “the key theological challenge to the postconciliar church. Not Kung. Schillebeeckx.”

Well, I wouldn’t presume to quarrel with that judgment. All I know is that theology articles presented in newspaper format are not very interesting to read. They are not the kind of thing that make you want to pick up the paper in the church porch. But further, it seems to me that Maier is misguided if he believes that heretical clerics believe whatever it is that they do believe because they have been exposed to incorrect theological arguments, or “incorrect information,” as Maier put it; as though they can be restored to the path of truth with a little orthodox exegesis and a touch of de Lubac to redress the errors of Schillebeeckx. It is in vain that one imagines some heretical cleric pouring over his latest Register, and clapping his hand to his forehead as he figures out, at last, that his erratic thoughts had all along been based on faulty premises.

The truth is that this is not the way people’s minds work at all. Theology is merely the rationale for ideology, not the cause of it: It betrays a touching faith in education to believe that apostasy is a product of one set of arguments and can be eliminated by another set of arguments. It is true that the minds of small children can be molded in this way — by instruction. But today’s errant clerics have (in almost every instance, I would bet) been exposed to perfectly orthodox theology all the way from grade school to seminary. It is something else that has turned them against the arguments and institutions they grew up with. Perhaps it is simply a surrender to temptation: the work of the devil. But whatever else is true, they have surely not been deprived of orthodox theology. In the same way, it is not that socialist economists have not heard of Hayek or Adam Smith; they find them instead “irrelevant.”

But there is something else that bothers me about this policy. I can understand the general reluctance to expose one’s ecclesiastical superiors to criticism by exposing their unorthodoxy. But why should one maintain loyalty to the disloyal? A recruit may join the Navy and agree to obey his superiors. But what if his captain joins the enemy fleet? Does he say, “I promised to obey orders and so I will continue to obey them?” Or does he try to alert the Commander in Chief? Obviously, a mutinous captain is a rare event in the history of navies. Equally obviously, the situation in the American Catholic Church today is unusual, to say the least, and seems to cry out for a more aggressive response from the orthodox. Especially orthodox journalists. Maier says that his approach will produce good results “in the long run.” But journalism is about the short run. The long run sounds rather more bookish to me.

If a prominent member of the hierarchy threatens to bring disrespect upon the Catholic Church as a whole, then surely it is not disrespectful to criticize him. The danger of unorthodox theology proclaimed from the pulpit is not so much that it will be believed by the congregation as that the congregation will stop believing those in the pulpit. When Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, for example, proclaimed that pro-life support should be a “seamless web” — one’s opposition to abortion made contingent upon one’s opposition to “nuclear war” (as though anyone supported it) — he puts at perit not so much unborn life as the layman’s good opinion of his ecclesiastical superiors generally. (Maier, incidentally, feels that Bernardin has been “misrepresented in the way that he views these things” — but not presumably by the New York Times, which published most of Bernardin’s Fordham speech.)

Maier agreed that there was a danger that flaky bishops could undermine respect for all bishops. “And there are two ways of responding to that,” he said. “One is to encourage the right people and the other is to nail the people that are wrong. If you wanted to do an op-ed article on Archbishop Hunthausen, I am not going to say ‘no.’ But I am not going to incorporate that into a strategy of reporting. Because that is more than likely going to open up wounds that we don’t want to open. First of all it wouldn’t prove anything. They had an investigation of Hunthausen and they gave him a clean bill of health. Now that may have been Rome’s way of saying ‘don’t expect to get the red hat anymore,’ that’s quite possible. But you’ll never get anyone to say that. We tried.”


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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