The Tightrope

Loyalty, Independence & the Catholic Press

In the Catholic media today, it is becoming harder all the time to keep a free space for public opinion inside the church. A fictional letter from a hierarch may help to illustrate the pressures. He is writing to the editor of an independent Catholic journal, with which he is not entirely pleased.

Dear Editor,

I was glad to have the chance of a full and frank exchange about the policies of your journal when you came to see me. Let me now write to follow up on our discussion.

Your journal is independent. The church does not pay for you and the church does not authorize you. Like the free media everywhere, therefore, you live by the marketplace. If people buy your journal, it prospers. If they don’t, you go out of business, unless you can find a patron to subsidize you. You pride yourself on this—you are free, you say, you are not controlled, you are not a puppet, you are not in the business of public relations, you can speak truth to the authorities without fear or favor.

I keep trying to explain this to Rome. Part of the trouble is that they think all Catholic media are owned by local bishops and are their mouthpieces. For the Roman curia, therefore, I am held to be at fault if you seem to step out of line. You must be reflecting my real views, they say to themselves. If not, why don’t I rein you in?

I tell them that in the Anglo-Saxon world we value free speech. We welcome a pluralism of voices. I argue that this pluralism is evidence of the rich variety, the tapestry, of Catholic thought. If I decide to wax theological, I add that the essence of the Catholic approach is by way of “both...and,” not as with our separated brothers and sisters in the Protestant churches, by way of “either... or.” Unlike them, I point out, we Catholics are pluralistic and inclusive. We have a big tent.

Sadly, this never goes down well. Pluralism? All that is really just relativism, they think in Rome.

My dear editor, I will always defend you. But, as that great general of the Jesuits Pedro Arrupe once said to his men, please make it easier for me to defend you. For in this independence of yours lies a temptation to which you sometimes succumb. In the secular world, the independent media, in the hunt for customers, specialize in scandal, scoops, sensationalism, gossip. But the Christian media cannot do the same without losing their justification. They have to observe a higher rule. They must avoid being contaminated by the world’s values. I was, I confess, somewhat disappointed when you told me that, as a journalist, of course you would want scoops.

There is always tension, of course, between faith and life. This tension in my opinion is at a very high level when the Christian in the world is a Christian editor or journalist running a Christian journal. Yet we Catholics have the benefit of the magisterium as our guide. Why did you seem to have reservations when I said that? Catholic truth is not reached, as the secular media think, through selection in the supermarket of ideas. It is presented to us by the magisterium for acceptance.

As you know, I have been greatly influenced by that great pope, surely a saint, John Paul II. I have been reading a new symposium about him. I was struck by something written by Fr. John McDade, the Jesuit principal of Heythrop College in the University of London. Quoting Hans Urs von Balthasar, said to be John Paul’s favorite theologian, McDade talks about Catholic obedience. I do commend his contribution to you. For authority to be exercised well, he writes, those under authority also have to behave well. Obeying has the same dignity as commanding.

Your response to my challenge was to quote Gaudium et spes. The council bishops there declared (forgive the exclusive language—I know you do not like it):

"An individual layman, by reason of the knowledge, competence, or outstanding ability which he may enjoy, is permitted and sometimes even obliged to express his opinion on things which concern the good of the church."

Indeed. And of course I agree. But I hope I was able to modify your opinion a little by adducing canon 227 of the Code of Canon Law. The canon extols the Christian freedom of the lay faithful such as yourself. But it warns:

"When using that same freedom, they [the lay faithful] are to take care that their actions are imbued with the spirit of the gospel and are to heed the doctrine set forth by the magisterium of the church. In matters of opinion, moreover, they are to avoid setting forth their own opinion as the doctrine of the church."

I hope I was able to represent to you the need to go more carefully. As that canon 227 of the church’s law enjoins, you must not be dogmatic in matters of opinion. In practical terms, I suggest, that means that you should always give bishops the benefit of the doubt before you criticize them for their behavior or practice.

With my affectionate blessing and prayers,

+Archbishop Ecclesiasticus

Some editors of independent Catholic media—the ones who are not always the flavor of the month in Rome—will hear echoes of their own experience in this fictional letter. Nor can Archbishop Ecclesiasticus’s arguments be easily dismissed.

My own journey as a Catholic journalist began as assistant editor on the London Tablet in 1967. A watershed for the paper came the following year, when Pope Paul VI issued his encyclical Humanae vitae reasserting the traditional ban on contraception. That encyclical was responsible for a parting of the ways between Tom Burns, the editor at the time, and his predecessor Douglas Woodruff. The Tablet was never the same again. At stake were crucial issues about conscience, about the magisterium, about public opinion within the church and how Catholic papers should reflect it.

Douglas Woodruff had taken over the helm of the Tablet in 1936 and held it for thirty-one years. He was a layman, a brilliant and witty historian, chosen as editor after the paper had been bought back by a group of Catholic laypeople from the archdiocese that had owned it for a very considerable period. Those years under archdiocesan control had not been the finest in the Tablet’s history. (One editor used to repair to Archbishop’s House every week to receive his instructions.) But now Woodruff rapidly built up the Tablet’s prestige. In the homes of the Catholic middle class in Britain, the Tablet’s reflection of church teaching made it regarded rather in the same way as the furniture—it was just there.

As the last of the Chesterbelloc line—G. K. Chesterton blended with Hilaire Belloc—Woodruff epitomized a certain kind of intellectual English Catholic. Belloc was his hero. Like Belloc, and like most English Catholics of the time, he believed that Europe was the faith and the faith was Europe—a belief that the Second Vatican Council was about to overturn.

When Woodruff stepped down in 1967, Tom Burns, whose career had been in publishing, took over. I worked for him as his assistant editor from 1967 to 1972, when I joined the BBC. Burns had a faith that was both modern and-to use his own words-two thousand years thick. The modern part, for him, found its expression and its confirmation in the Second Vatican Council. Whereas the council challenged Woodruff’s world, it confirmed Burns’s dreams.

Burns had set out his editorial policy in a confidential memorandum. The layman’s credo that I found in that memorandum was in line with the work of the council. Till now, Burns wrote, it had been commonly thought that “people make an act of faith in the church—for the solution of their problems.” Now it was to be the other way round. The church, he said, “now makes an act of faith in her own people—for the fulfilment of her mission.” Burns’s editorial beliefs were soon to be tested to the limit.

When Humanae vitae appeared, the Tablet’s editorial was headed “Crisis in the Church.” Burns began his comment with a reference to the same Vatican II document that Archbishop Ecclesiasticus referred to—the pastoral constitution on the church in the modern world, Gaudium et spes (“Joy and Hope”). This text, he wrote, “is more frequently cited than any other authoritative document in the pope’s encyclical on birth control.” Then came the punch line: “We must honestly confess [he liked that royal “we”] that neither joy nor hope can we derive from the encyclical itself.” Burns concluded: “We who are of the household and can think of no other have the right to question, complain, and protest, when conscience impels.”

This was the Tablet! What had happened? Some subscribers canceled their subscriptions. Burns wrote an open letter to one of them, a colonel, titled “On loyalty.” Unlike the colonel, he said, he saw in those who were speaking their minds no “spirit of revolt,” but “a rekindled love of the church: personal, candid, clear in conscience.”

Some in authority in the church thought differently. Discussions were held in high places as to whether Burns could be removed as editor. That was impossible, however, because the Tablet was independent; moreover, Burns was an established figure on the Catholic scene, and his love of the church was beyond question.

He held his course. “The matter is now before the bar of conscience,” he wrote, “where it is likely to remain for a long time.” His own conscience was clear. Though Humanae vitae was authentic papal teaching, Burns followed the traditional mainstream opinion in the church as set out shortly before by theologian, now pope, Joseph Ratzinger. “Above the pope as an expression of the binding claim of church authority,” Ratzinger wrote then, “stands one’s own conscience, which has to be obeyed first of all, if need be against the demands of church authority.”

The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, had a different take on the issue. As Msgr. Montini, the future pope and author of Humanae vitae, once observed in his earlier years, L’Osservatore did not relate simply what had happened but also what should or should not have happened. During the Humanae vitae crisis, day by day it published messages, letters, and telegrams of thanks for the encyclical and congratulations to the pope, and articles of positive appreciation. It reprinted, without asking permission, an article in the Tablet written by Dom David Knowles giving full backing to the encyclical. (The Tablet, while keeping a clear editorial line, believed in representing both sides of the argument.) Nothing else from the Tablet appeared in L’Osservatore.

L’Osservatore defended its editorial policy. Its purpose, it said, was to show how “vast and persuasive” agreement with the encyclical was, in order to provide comfort to the dissenters and recall them to the fold. Certainly the encyclical was controversial, it admitted. But that did not mean that the people of God were not giving it “almost universal obedience.” The paper’s “task of information,” it said, was to back up church teaching in a positive way so as “to orientate and not disorientate the faithful.”

Now, of course, the Vatican newspaper had to commend and promote authentic papal teaching—which Humanae vitae was. It could not have done anything else. The church could not do without L’Osservatore. And L’Osservatore could not do without the church, because the church owns it and subsidizes it. That is the question one must always ask about media, secular or religious: Who is the owner? Diocesan media tend to tread the same sort of path, because bishops own them.

But the church would surely be ill served if all its communication were like this. For the “task of information” not undertaken by L’Osservatore would have revealed that most bishops’ conferences around the world were assessing the contents of the encyclical in such a way as to give guidance and encouragement to the rights of conscience; that many priests were anguished; and that many laymen and laywomen were dismayed. If there had only been L’Osservatore, it would have been impossible to understand why Humanae vitae launched a crisis in the church that continues to this day.

L’Osservatore’s approach highlights a contrast of principles. Broadly speaking, there are two ways of running media, whatever their role—broadcasting, press, publishing, filmmaking. One way is to control them. Then their function is to add value to material that comes from and is approved by the authorities: such media act as transmission belts. To an extent, they are a public-relations effort. That is why they draw their particular sort of attention. In this respect L’Osservatore is what Pravda was—it gives the official line, and people need to know what that is.

The other way is to opt for independence, where the arbiter of success is the marketplace. The advantage of independent media, at least ideally, is the freedom to tell the truth without fear or favor. The downside, as Archbishop Ecclesiasticus pointed out, is the penchant for sensationalism, scoops, gossip, scandal, prejudice, trivialization, cruelty, invasion of privacy—whatever will sell the wares on offer.

Control versus freedom: here is a fundamental issue of principle. But that conflict tends to drop from view in church documents. By common agreement, the Second Vatican Council’s decree on the instruments of social communication (Vaticanspeak for “mass media”) was one of its slightest texts. The decree “reflects a hopelessly abstract view of the relationship of the church and modern culture,” three American journalists complained in a petition to the council. These critics were John Cogley of Commonweal, Robert Kaiser of Time, and Michael Novak, then correspondent for the Catholic Reporter of Kansas City (now the National Catholic Reporter) and the Boston Pilot. The decree, they thought, “deals with a press that exists only in textbooks and is unrecognizable to us.” Its approach was “moralistic” and “simplistic,” they said. And they accused it of attributing to the state “an authority over mass media which is dangerous to political liberty everywhere and which in some countries like the United States is proscribed by constitutional law.”

Subsequently, to improve on the council’s work, the Vatican’s pastoral council for social communications produced two long documents. But again these took a highly elevated view of their subject. The first to appear, in 1971, was the pastoral instruction Communio et progressio. “At its most profound level,” it said, communication “is the giving of self in love.” It continued in the same style. The mass media, it opined, “serve to build new relationships, and to fashion a new language which permits people to know themselves better and to understand one another more easily. By this, they are led to a mutual understanding and shared ambition, and this, in turn, inclines them to justice and peace, to goodwill and active charity, to mutual help, love, and, in the end, to communion.” Tell that to Rupert Murdoch.

The same phrase about the gift of the self in love was repeated in a second pastoral instruction, issued in 1992, and again in a separate survey of “ethics in communication” that appeared in 2000.

One could say, of course, that the church had a right and duty to try to make the media aim higher. And that aspiration has its secular parallels. The BBC every year puts on a series of lectures named after its founder, Lord Reith. The Reith lectures in 2002 were given by Onora O’Neill, then principal of Newnham College in the University of Cambridge. Her overall title was A Question of Trust, and her final lecture was on “Press Freedom in the Twentieth Century.” Her skeptical scrutiny of the modern media’s superficiality shows that Archbishop Ecclesiasticus’s concerns about the independent press are mirrored in some secular quarters.

A free press is not an unconditional good, she told her listeners. True, there can be “outstanding reporting and writing,” but it is mingled with “editing and reporting that smears, sneers, and jeers; names, shames, and blames” (she obviously enjoyed herself at this point). She deplored “dementing amounts of trivia.” Some reporting, she said, “misrepresents and denigrates, some teeters on the brink of defamation.” Hear, hear, says Archbishop Ecclesiasticus sotto voce in the background.

“We need to rethink the proper limits of press freedom,” O’Neill concluded. How to do that? We need “internal disciplines and standards.” How to get them? Onora O’Neill is a philosopher, a follower of Immanuel Kant. O’Neill proposed that we adapt Kant’s idea of autonomy, meaning that we act “on principles that can be principles for all.”

But is this how journalistic ethics are forged? All journalists in the free media do have an underlying philosophy. Their prime aim is to be objective. But what about when they are up against it, when it is not a matter of concepts but of the nitty gritty? In the religious as in the secular sphere, editors have to make judgments minute by minute, requiring an intuitive assessment of fairness, balance, coherence, and readability against immediately pressing deadlines.

No praise came from Onora O’Neill for the pluralism of the press in Britain, with its inherent checks and balances in search of truth. And despite one reference to “media conglomerates,” her Reith lecture wholly overlooked the threat to this media pluralism from the spread of monopoly power. Here is a central paradox of capitalism. The capitalist system that upholds choice and freedom defeated the Communist system that believed in control and centralization. Yet the apparently inexorable advance of capitalist monopolies threatens the very choice and freedom on which capitalism prides itself—and nowhere is the threat greater than in the media and publishing.

Beware those authorities who criticize the independent Catholic press on the ground that pluralism equals relativism. What they really favor is monopoly. They want a single joint blast on the trumpet, or an orchestra in full flow. What they do not like are the discordant notes.

As a Catholic practitioner of the journalistic trade, I felt at the Tablet that I was walking a tightrope. I had a double responsibility. Yes, I had a responsibility to the Catholic faith and its official interpreters, but also one to the claims of all the baptized, who are called on to take a lead in the secular world. I never met a colleague from any continent who did not walk that tightrope. What happens if public opinion in the church is unwelcome to the authorities? What should the independent Catholic media do then? To what extent can independent Catholic editors, like secular editors, invigilate power?

The answer is that their ability to function precisely as journalists has always to be fought for anew. Priests are in a particularly precarious position. A lay editor such as myself, or Peter and Peggy Steinfels or Paul Baumann at Commonweal, is less vulnerable. But a Jesuit like Tom Reese, former editor of America magazine, needs to look over his shoulder.

While at the Tablet, I was able to read that journal of the American Jesuits every week. Much of its revenue comes from subscribers, who look to it to apply Catholic tradition to the questions of the moment. Reese thought that the Catholic Church should be and could be self-questioning and he held that Catholic tradition could develop. America was launched in 1909 as the American counterpart of the Tablet, and I have always admired it.

But to fulfill such a function in the Catholic Church today is hazardous, and in the United States especially so, because of the deep split between conservative and progressive elite opinion that amounts almost to an internal schism. There was a steady muttering against Reese’s editorship (and his prominence as an author and media spokesman) among some American conservative bishops and laity, who passed complaints to Rome. The doctrinal congregation paid attention. As most Commonweal readers know, when the head of the congregation, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, emerged as John Paul’s successor, Reese’s Jesuit superiors concluded that the situation was “unwinnable.” After the papal election, Reese told his staff he intended to resign. They dissuaded him, but a message came from his superiors that he had been sacked anyway.

Some of Reese’s critics argued their case rather as a British lawyer might apply the Trade Descriptions Act. The editor of First Things, the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus, took the view that a Catholic periodical could be compared to a house organ attached to a business concern or something like the media outreach of the National Rifle Association. Such an organ would promote that concern’s goods and interests, he contended, not give space to its competitors’ rival claims. You would not expect the house magazine of the Shell oil company to extol the achievements of Esso.

The redoubtable Fr. Neuhaus attracted great attention and fame as an author and magazine editor. Here was the Catholic journalist lambasting errors with a cudgel, Chesterbelloc style. As far as Neuhaus was concerned, the journalistic concept that encouraged the presentation of a balance of views did not apply to religious media. On the contrary, the job of religious media was to promote the views of management—that is, of the church authorities. “It is hardly the case,” Neuhaus wrote in criticizing America for publishing articles that discussed and debated the church’s teaching on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and embryonic stem-cell research, “that readers need America in order to be aware of alternative and opposing viewpoints.” Defending the removal of Reese, Neuhaus claimed that Reese’s editorial policy “suggested to some the magazine’s neutrality or hostility to the church’s teaching.” Here we have it—the orchestra with no discordant notes. (Neuhaus himself, though, was not shy about criticizing bishops and even the Vatican when he disagreed with either.)

The issues are real, and they are not easy. For Catholic doctrine is not something chosen in the supermarket of ideas. About that, Archbishop Ecclesiasticus was quite right. There are revealed truths that are presented to Christians for obedient acceptance, and Christian media have to reflect them. But there is also a hierarchy of truths, according to Vatican II, in which the lower ones are not of the same order as the higher ones. Catholic editors, walking their tightrope, have to discern the different levels of truth-telling in the church that they serve, and act accordingly. Always in the background will be their conception of what the church truly is—according to Vatican II, a mystery, a sacrament for the human race, the People of God, herald of the kingdom, the Body of Christ. This is not a business concern, said Reese. And it is not an army marching to the beat of a single drum. It is a communion. The crunch comes when an independent Catholic editor’s duty to reflect public opinion in the church appears to clash with his or her responsibilities to the teaching authority. And these editors will face certain moments when it is exceptionally clear that the buck stops with them.

For my predecessor at the Tablet, that moment was the Humanae vitae crisis. For me, it was the scandal of clerical sexual abuse of minors that made headlines in media across the world. It had been one of my principles as editor that a Catholic paper must be able to tell the truth without fear or favor, like the secular press at its best. As we delved into the records of the dioceses in England and Wales, we found patterns of laxity. They were worst in the diocese of Cardiff, where the archbishop had ridden over the guidelines accepted by the other bishops of England and Wales in 1994 and where there had subsequently been two clerical pedophile scandals in two years. When the Tablet called for Archbishop Ward to take the retirement that was his due, his acting press officer accused the paper of running “a vicious and totally wrong campaign against him.” But Rome’s decision was that the archbishop had to step down.

The cardinal archbishop of Westminster himself, Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, was forced to admit that he had made a very serious mistake as a bishop in his previous post when he readmitted a pedophile priest to a restricted ministry, despite warnings from psychiatric advisers that the man was likely to offend again—as he did. It was always my nightmare that my professionally skilled, driving news editor, who worried away at information like a terrier after a rat, would uncover something that might put the cardinal’s survival at risk. That did not happen—rather, the cardinal’s appointment of an independent commission of inquiry saved the day—but if it had, I would have had to publish it.

There were nights during these months when I found it hard to sleep. The whole church was shaken. The media onslaught was relentless, and it would be naive to imagine that this was without its share of malice. Here revealed as hypocrites were the clerics who had set themselves up as the judges of sexual behavior: what a target! In the United States, a combination of resort to lawyers plus claims for financial compensation proved lethal. This attack on the church, said Cardinal Rodríguez de Maradiaga of Honduras, could be likened to the persecution unleashed by Nero, Hitler, or Stalin.

Was it? It was certainly a hue and cry by the free media in the full flush of—to use a word repeatedly on the lips of Pope John Paul II—“sensationalism.” But without the free media, does anyone think there would today be the safeguards against abuse that were rapidly introduced in the English-speaking Catholic Churches, and the raising of awareness everywhere among the congregations? An evil in the church that had been routinely covered up had been exposed, and had to be rooted out. The purification of that “filth,” as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger called it, still needs to continue, as some church reaction to the recent revelations from Ireland showed.

Pius XII said that informed public opinion is necessary to the church’s life. If that is the case, there has to be a way to communicate that opinion. Here, independent Catholic media that are critically loyal have an indispensible role to play provided their approach is founded on knowledge, research, love of the church, humility, self-discipline, self-examination, and readiness to accept correction. At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church defined itself as a hierarchically structured people’s church. In that case, open channels for public opinion within it are even more essential now than before.


This essay is adapted from the keynote address given at a conference on the Catholic media convened by the Catholic Studies Program at Fairfield University.

Published in the 2009-11-06 issue: 

John Wilkins was editor of the Tablet of London from 1982 to 2003.

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