Targeting the Bishops?

Deal W. Hudson
May 29, 2008

In this special InsideCatholic.com Point/Counterpoint, Deal W. Hudson and Francis X. Maier, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver, discuss and debate whether a Catholic may criticize a bishop publicly. Is it a violation of canon law? Must Catholic journalists avoid scandal or bad news or anything that shows the Church in a bad light?

Deal Hudson began the exchange yesterday here by arguing that a faithful Catholic may turn a critical eye on his bishop. Fran Maier responded here, agreeing with much of what Deal said, but making a few important cautions.

Both offer their closing thoughts below.

We encourage you to participate in the comments section with your own opinion. Where do you fall on the question?

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Deal Hudson responds:

Fran Maier is a man who speaks from years of experience, both as a Catholic journalist and as a diocesan chancellor. He has faced the challenge of reporting and commenting on the work of bishops, and has worked side-by-side with one of the most respected bishops in the country, Archbishop Charles Chaput.

Having gotten to know a few bishops myself, I agree fully with Maier’s point that a prelate’s life is much more difficult and complex than is widely understood. Most Catholics think only of a bishop’s power and prerogative; they don’t think about the varying interests and attitudes he has to manage while keeping his diocese – with its schools, hospitals, social services, and parishes – afloat. Add to that the excoriating experience of the recent scandal, and we see the life of a bishop as a challenge, which all Catholic journalists should keep in mind.

Furthermore, Maier’s recommendation for a sympathetic attitude is not a bow to clericalism, but the opposite: A request that journalists have realistic expectations of how and when a bishop wields his authority.

The reminder that Catholic journalists can unknowingly strengthen the hand of anti-Catholic writers and pundits should not stifle reporting or comment but should inform journalistic prudence. This type of consideration can shape how negative stories are reported. I’m pleased that Maier agrees with me that how Catholic journalists report on the Church, especially its bishops, is crucial to fulfilling their mission. What appears to be “bishop bashing” often has little to do with the facts being reported, but with the attitude of disrespect being conveyed by the journalist.

But I must quibble with him over the word “evangelical” as it applies to Catholic journalism. To be evangelical, as Maier points out, means to proclaim, propagate, and defend Church teaching. A one-dimensional view of this idea as it applies to journalism might eliminate anything that does not provide what Flannery O’Connor termed “instant uplift.” It should be made clear that Catholic journalists are being “evangelical” when they report or comment on problems – even scandals – in the Church.

The fact is that the Church often falls short of the truth it proclaims. Catholic journalists must report that. The issue for some bishops – and those with a clericalist attitude – is that it is the journalists who are pointing out how the Church is falling short. That journalists have the role of revealing and commenting upon failures in fulfilling the Church’s mission is a challenge to the clericalist attitudes that remain among many Catholics, both lay and religious.

Catholic journalism is still in its relative infancy in this country. By that, I mean that most Catholics do not expect Catholic media to break “negative” stories about the Church. As a result, those stories are publishing in the Boston Globe or on 60 Minutes.

Six months before the Boston Globe “broke” the story on the priest sex scandal, Crisis magazine published a cover story about pedophilia in the Catholic priesthood and the likelihood that it would cost the Church at least a billion dollars. As it turns out, we underestimated the cost, but the bishop’s response to the article was not positive. In retrospect, if Catholic journalists had been doing their job all along, this problem might have been dealt with earlier and the grave public scandal avoided.

Francis Maier responds:

Few who know me would suspect me of favoring “instant uplift” as the benchmark of Catholic journalism. As Christopher Lasch wrote, one of the marks of real religion is that it makes us uncomfortable. It leads us be self- and socially critical, and to become more aware of our obligations to others.

Different Catholic media have different roles, from the properly devotional to the intellectually rigorous, and sentimental religious publishing can too easily infantilize people’s faith in the name of solace. We already have too much of the wrong kind of childishness in laypeople’s experience of their faith. We don’t need any more. So I would agree that Catholic journalism should have teeth. But biting mom rarely does the family much good.

Second, as I suggested earlier, the Church is a she, not an “it,” and until we internalize that distinction, we’ll continue to treat the Church – as even Deal unconsciously seems to do in his comments here – as an institution based on power relationships.

Third, I’m not sure what clericalism really means anymore. If by “clericalism” we mean that some clerics behave like jerks or hypocrites or even criminals, well, this is painful, but hardly news. In fact the real news is that clericalism – despite those who still practice it, those who complain about it, and those who’d like to bring it back – is a dead horse, and historical circumstances have killed it.

Bishops in 2008 foolish enough to ignore good lay counsel and engagement in the leadership of their dioceses simply can’t succeed – and certainly won’t in the future. As for priestly vocations, I know of few men who seek out the priesthood for its social privileges these days, and if that’s what they’re looking for, they rarely stay in seminary or survive in the field. Lay influence in the Church will continue to grow, and clerical “power” – a badly overused word in the ecclesial context – will continue to change.

The reason is simple: The numbers to support a clericalist establishment simply aren’t there. In fact, I’m much more concerned about overconfident and under-formed laypeople, who think the Church belongs to them and undermine the legitimate authority of priests than I am about a new generation of princeling clerics rolling back the clock in Church life.

Finally, American Catholic journalism really isn’t in its relative infancy. The Denver Catholic Register played a decisive role – literally, decisive – in fighting anti-Catholic bigotry and breaking the power of Colorado’s Ku Klux Klan more than 70 years ago. In fact, despite our postconciliar vanities, American Catholic journalism may be weaker today than half a century ago in nearly every category except one: secular-style adversarial reporting. The National Catholic Reporter and its constant carping about problems in the Church are surely not what Deal intends by his line of argument, but they can easily be the end result.

Speaking the truth with love to Church leaders is good Pauline Christianity and, especially on grave matters, an obligation of justice. But reproving our own leaders is so much easier than converting the world outside. To the degree that pursuing the former obscures the latter, we’re conning ourselves and forgetting our mission – both as Catholic journalists and Catholic disciples.


Deal W. Hudson is the director of InsideCatholic.com and the author of Onward, Christian Soldiers: The Growing Political Power of Catholics and Evangelicals in the United States (Simon and Schuster, 2008).

Francis X. Maier is the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Denver.
► This is the sixth entry in a multi-part, multi-week series on the issue of clericalism in the Catholic Church. The project will conclude tomorrow with an online symposium involving Catholics from various perspectives, offering their own analysis and solutions. All the articles will be gathered into a single printable volume, available for free download tomorrow afternoon.

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