Pope Francis speaks to reporters during a news conference on board the papal plane on Nov. 26, 2019, on his flight back from a week-long trip to Thailand and Japan. (Photo: AFP/ UCAN files)

By Fr Myron J. Pereira, SJ

Jul 12 2023

In the 1980s, there used to be much talk of the ‘new world information order’ and the UNESCO report, “Many Voices, One World,” edited by Sean MacBride, summarized the salient features of this new order.

MacBride, an Irish politician and a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1974, was always solicitous about the fate of journalists. He felt that in any political turmoil, journalists were the first to be targeted and eliminated.

“Truth is the first casualty in war,” he often repeated.

It may come as a surprise to many that it is the same in the Catholic Church.

In spite of the words, “the truth will make you free,” in the hierarchical Church, truth is often sacrificed in favor of image — and all too frequently a false image, based on intimidation, fear and ignorance.

And like all authoritarian and undemocratic institutions, the Church loves secrecy. So naturally it looks askance at “investigative journalists,” and frowns on the very idea of free speech.

If anyone has doubts about this, let them consider the reactions of the hierarchy in almost every country during the recent pedophile scandals.

What is serious journalism?

So once again, we ask: Is there a future for serious journalism in the Church?

By ‘serious journalism’ we mean reporting that goes beyond exercises in puffery and image-building, and which courageously investigates financial scandals, sexual abuse and partisan governance.

This does not mean that “washing dirty linen” is the sole task of journalistic investigation. Not at all.

Investigative journalism holds up a mirror to the Catholic community wherever it may be. It documents its diversity and its similarities, its socio-economic travails and political aspirations, the situation of its women and children, its relationships, both ecumenical and dialogical, and its present and its past.

Such journalism is, in essence, “truth-seeking.” It probes the realities which go unreported beneath the religious veneer of novenas and benedictions.

However, in actual truth, it is rare to find such journalism in the Church.

Why is investigative reporting not encouraged?

There are a number of reasons why this is so. Most representatives of the Church — that is, its bishops and priests — have a sense of entitlement, and take strong exception to anything which may hurt their public image.

Frequently too, they have no idea at all of the demands and constraints which the media impose.

Television, for instance, is a magnifying — and distorting — glass, and a TV news bulletin can only give a few minutes to a given subject. As deplorable as this may be, that’s the way things are.

Yet bishops and other Church leaders often produce detailed written statements for TV which are of no real use, and are enraged when these are discarded.

Because of this ignorance of what the media are, Church leaders complain of being misrepresented, and refuse to have anything to do with journalists at all.

This is surely an unreasonable position, for the religious correspondent is a necessary go-between the Church and public opinion, and his delicate position is often vilified by both.

For the Church is not only the hierarchy. It consists in large measure of ordinary people, many of whom are marginalized and rejected by society, and who are voiceless and powerless. Among these are largely women and children.

The more the ‘official Church’ seeks to impose a single voice, a uniform attitude, the more the Catholic press should encourage free debate.

Encouraging debate and dissent

After all, ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ and so by implication ‘diverse.’ Through his call for synodality, this is precisely what Pope Francis wants.

But this is not easy. For four hundred years at least, the Church has held up obedience as the cardinal virtue for Catholics, inspired undoubtedly by the sons of Ignatius Loyola and their significant influence on the Tridentine Church.

Jesuits who were trained to obey, have only succeeded in making the laity feel guilty should they ever dissent, or challenge authority.

But obedience without the freedom to question, dissent and disagree, is little more than indoctrination. This is what the religious formation of so many adult Catholics has in fact amounted to.

What is sorely needed is a ‘critical awareness’ among Catholics — related to Church history, Church structure, and even theological and Scriptural beliefs.

And yet, this will not be heard from the pulpit unless it is first taught in the seminary. Will it ever?

A Church in Dialogue

For centuries, the Church saw itself as a “perfect society,” preaching virtue to others, and claiming to be the authoritative interpreter of God’s word. Naturally, it does not like admitting mistakes.

In this context, journalists will always run afoul of governance in the Church.

But Vatican II gave a new image to the Church; a “pilgrim people,” journeying together in faith to their final destiny.

If on pilgrimage, then the Church is still in movement, and has not yet reached “there.” If on pilgrimage, the Church can learn from the faith experiences of others. So dialogue, as Pope Paul VI would say, “Is the new way of being Church.”

But how is this dialogue to be effected?

Basically by listening to what the other has to say, and not imputing error and mischief because the other’s opinion is different from one’s own.

In this context, as they report one side of the Church to the other, journalists can help the Church to communicate better.

Cardinal Newman used to say that there were “three voices” in the Church. The first is that of the magisterium, or its teaching authority. The second is that of theological insight, belonging to the scholars and theologians. The third, that of the laity, is pastoral experience.

Over the centuries what we’ve seen is that the first continually tries to stifle the second, and completely ignores the third.

Certainly, the Church could do with a better balance between each.

A better balance comes with more information, the ability to listen and avoid presumptions, and greater space for opinions, discussion and dissent. All the tasks of journalists.

So perhaps, after all, there is a place for journalism in a future Church! – UCA News

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.