Mass Media: Examining the relationship between the Church and the press

Abraham Lincoln was no media darling, and he knew it. Lincoln once remarked that no one, whether “private citizen or president of the United States,” could “successfully carry on a controversy with a great newspaper and escape destruction.” And then he added, “Unless he owns a newspaper equally great, with a circulation in the same neighborhood.”

Over the years, many people have probably found reason to share Lincoln’s jaundiced view. Prominent and not so prominent figures in government and politics, business and industry, the military, sports, entertainment and the arts — all have felt the lash of news media scourging them for real or imagined faults.

So have figures prominent and not so prominent in the Catholic Church.

In recent decades, no religious institution in America has received such prolonged, probing journalistic scrutiny as the Church. Some of it has been excessive, even unfair, but often it’s been beneficial, albeit painful for Church leaders. A case in point: the investigative reporting that blew the lid off the sex abuse cover-up.

And although the media and Pope Francis have enjoyed a honeymoon up to now, suspicion and hostility often sour the relationship between the Church and news media elsewhere.

Why is that? Does it have to be that way? Each side tends to blame the other. Churchmen accuse newspeople of sensationalism and bias. Journalists say the Church is secretive and heavy-handed in supplying information about itself. Is it possible both sides are right?

Seeking secrecy

A fundamental cause of tension may be failure to grasp that journalists have to be skeptics to do their job. On the basis of long experience, newspeople believe the public interest is best served when they adopt a more or less adversarial stance toward institutions and individuals they cover. That includes institutions and individuals of the Catholic Church.

Skepticism can be carried too far of course. But even when it’s not, those who are its targets may take it personally. They shouldn’t.

Besides arguably unavoidable sources of misunderstanding and conflict like this, a complex variety of factors at work have been at work in the evolving relationship of news media and the Church during the last two centuries. Here several key episodes stand out.

John 23rd
Pope John XXIII convokes Vatican II in 1961, which marked a turning point in the relationship between the Church and media. CNS photo

The Catholic Church’s first face-to-face encounter with media in something like their modern form occurred at the First Vatican Council of 1869-70. Vatican I was the council that defined the doctrine of papal infallibility as a dogma of faith. Media interest naturally was high, and an international press corps gathered in Rome to cover the event.

But covering the council, journalists found, was easier said than done. Strict secrecy was the order of the day at the Vatican. Historian Owen Chadwick says the people in charge took the view that “as all proceedings were confidential no one ought to be told anything.”

But this was an illusion. Says Chadwick: “The Curia did not realize the elementary truth that an assembly of 600 to 700 people could not hide what it did if it was in any way controversial.”

The breakdown of secrecy began with a young Englishman, Lord John Acton, a well-born liberal Catholic historian and journalist who opposed the definition of infallibility. Using his contacts in Roman political and social circles and among French, German and English bishops, he wrote a series of “Letters from Rome” that he sent to a contact in Munich who edited and published them under a pseudonym. The dispatches gave a picture of Vatican I from the perspective of the council minority’s most extreme wing.

Perceiving a problem, Blessed Pope Pius IX resolved to do some leaking of his own. He directed that inside information about the proceedings be fed to Louis Veuillot, editor of a French newspaper called L’Univers known for its pro-papal views.

In a way, the dueling leaks gave both sides what they wanted. Acton shaped the view of the council held by sophisticated secular opinion. Veuillot did the same for loyal French and Italian clergy and laity. But the outcome was a confused version of Vatican I that still influences histories of the council.

Official Church thinking about the media then had helped set the stage for what happened at Vatican I. In an 1832 encyclical, Pope Gregory XVI deplored the “monstrous doctrines and prodigious errors” spread by the press. In 1864, Pius IX denounced “pestilential books, pamphlets and newspapers” as “bitter enemies of our religion.” Considering the anti-clericalism and anti-Catholicism common in the news organs of those times, the two popes had a point.

Vatican 2
Bishops of the world line the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica during the opening session of the Second Vatican Council on Oct. 11, 1962. Around 900 journalists were accredited to cover the event. CNS photo

Breaking the silence

Gradually, though, a different story took shape, with Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) in the lead. In 1888, he wrote that even though demanding unconditional freedom of speech and publication as natural rights was “quite unlawful,” these freedoms could nevertheless be tolerated.

The big breakthrough came with Pope Pius XII (1939-1958). A grandson of the co-founder of the Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano, he often spoke about the news media and praised their contributions to society. He also recognized the need for public opinion in the Church, declaring in 1950 that without it, “something would be lacking,” with both clergy and laity to blame.

Against this background, it’s no surprise that in 1963, shortly before his death, Pope St. John XXIII in the encyclical Pacem in Terris (“Peace on Earth”) declared “freedom of speech and publication” to be human rights.

One of the best surveys of these events is “Secrecy in the Church: A Reporter’s Case for the Christian’s Right to Know,” a book published in 1974 by Richard N. Ostling, an evangelical Christian who later became religion editor of Time magazine. Ostling saw the “outlines of a theology of social communication” in this series of papal statements.

Pacem in Terris
peace on earth

“Information is essential in modern society because it enables the citizen to understand situations and to make responsible decisions. Access to information is justified, because it improves individuals and the community, but to do this information must be ethical, sensitive to the nature of man, true, factual and objective. Sin and untruth can be caused by omission as well as by commission. ...

“Information should not be degraded into propaganda, appeal to man’s passions, or arouse one group against another. Information must stop short of harming a person’s right to good reputation and to legitimate secrecy in his private life. Not all information is good for all people — youth in particular should be protected — so the common good must be respected.”

This was roughly the point that the Church’s official thinking about news and information had reached by the 1960s. Then came Vatican Council II.

Leaks in Vatican II

A year before it opened, Pope John XXIII, addressing an audience of newspeople, spoke of the “precious service” media would perform by making Vatican II widely known and understood. He promised that reporters would receive all the information they’d need to do that.

tv trucks
Satellite trucks and a riser for TV journalists are seen on the road leading to the Vatican on Feb. 12, 2013 — the day after Pope Benedict XVI announced his plan to resign the papacy. CNS photo

But when the council opened in October 1962, that didn’t happen. The 900 journalists accredited to cover the event were provided with a large, well-equipped pressroom near St. Peter’s Basilica where the bishops met — and with a virtual blackout of information. A typical press bulletin read: “Of the fathers who asked to speak, 20 intervened this morning, some to defend the schema, others to attack it.” Stop the presses.

As had happened at Vatican I, the change started with leaks. Early in the council’s first session, the French Catholic newspaper La Croix began publishing reports so detailed that everyone assumed the paper had an inside source. As indeed it did, thanks to the directions of the French hierarchy.

Soon the leak became a flood. Helpful in bringing this about were more than a dozen centers of information and documentation established by national hierarchies and religious institutions. Also significant in the United States was the series of insider reports in The New Yorker magazine by Xavier Rynne — pseudonym of an American Redemptorist priest named Francis X. Murphy — that reported what was happening with a liberal slant.

The official rules on council information were relaxed in reaction to all this, and by the time the second session began in October 1963, the large and growing press corps was receiving a copious flow of detailed information from sources both official and unofficial.

Necessary information

Besides practicing communication, Vatican II also spoke about it in its Decree on the Means of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica, which was adopted with a surprisingly large negative vote of 503 opposed, with 1,598 in favor. More than objections to what the document says, this apparently reflected disappointment at its lack of a forward-looking vision of media.

But the decree did call for a more detailed treatment of the subject after the council. That project was taken up by a newly established Pontifical Commission (later, Council) for Social Communications. The result, seven and a half years later, was Communio et Progressio (“Communion and Progress”), a “pastoral instruction” that takes a highly positive view of the media and the Church’s relationship with them.

Especially significant is what it says about news and information, for instance, this affirmation of the public service rendered by responsible journalism: “Modern man cannot do without information that is full, consistent, accurate and true. ... Only in this way can he assume a responsible and active role in his community and be a part of its economic, political, cultural and religious life” (No. 34).

After considering the media in general, the pastoral instruction then speaks about media and the Church. Here it advocates openness — what today would be called transparency — in making information public: “Since the development of public opinion within the Church is essential [Pope Pius XII had said that a half-century earlier], individual Catholics have the right to all the information they need to play their active role in the life of the Church” (No. 119).

Further Reading
Published in 1974 by author Richard N. Ostling, “Secrecy in the Church” remains one of the best studies on the information policies and practices of the Catholic Church and other churches. Ostling, an evangelical Christian, was to become religion editor of Time magazine and then chief religion writer of The Associated Press. In the book’s introduction he writes:

U.S. bishops

Back in the United States, relations between the Church and the news media were strained at the time the pastoral instruction came out. Much of the conflict focused on the bishops and their general meetings.

Before Vatican II, bishops’ meetings in the United States had been closed affairs attracting little attention from the press. But the council created unprecedented journalistic interest in the Catholic Church. Now much of that interest was concentrated on the bishops as they labored to create and operate a national episcopal conference according to the council’s prescriptions while also coping with the new phenomenon of public dissent in the Church.

The bishops responded to the new media interest by inviting reporters to cover their twice-yearly general assemblies and providing them with a pressroom and occasional briefings. What they didn’t provide was access to the meeting itself. Instead, they met behind closed doors, while reporters fumed in their pressroom or roamed the halls seeking stray members of the hierarchy willing to serve as anonymous sources.

Eventually good sense prevailed, with Communio et Progressio’s strong endorsement of openness helping produce that result. At their meeting in November 1971, the bishops approved admitting designated observers by a vote of 169-76 and gave the nod to reporters by the narrower margin of 144-106. The new system went into effect the following April at their spring general meeting in Atlanta.

Richard Ostling, reporting for Time, called the scene there “extraordinary.”

He wrote: “This had never been permitted in the U.S., or hardly anywhere else, in modern times. The U.S. bishops’ move to an open-door policy was the end of an era in which secrecy was virtually an unquestioned fact in policy formulation.”

Ongoing issues

The open-door policy remained in place in the United States for the next 20 years. For the most part, it served reporters, bishops and the public reasonably well. But for unknown reasons, change again set in during the mid-1990s.

From the start, the bishops had insisted on holding one session of each general meeting, usually an afternoon, behind closed doors. Now, without explanation, more and more time began to be devoted to secret sessions. In Baltimore last November, a full day of the three-and-a-half day assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took place in executive session.

So far as is known, the principal topic of the bishops’ closed-door deliberations last fall was the Synod of Bishops on the family, held in Rome a month earlier. Since the American bishops’ views on this sometimes controversial synod were what concerned Catholics most wanted to know, imposing secrecy on this discussion meant cutting off a significant portion of the Catholic public from information it had a legitimate, urgent interest in.

Forty-three years earlier, the pastoral instruction on communications said secrecy in the Church should be limited to “matters that involve the good name of individuals, or that touch upon the rights of people” (Communio et Progressio, No. 121). The USCCB, following its usual practice, gave no explanation for its closed doors.

Illuminating issues

Nothing better illustrates the dangers of systematic secrecy than the cover-up of clergy sex abuse. That a small number of priests were offenders had been public knowledge since the mid-1980s, but it wasn’t until January 2002, starting with reports in the Boston Globe and continuing in news media elsewhere in the months that followed, that the facts of the cover-up by Church authorities came to light.

Since then, virtually every American diocese has taken steps to deal with abuse and prevent it from happening again. The bishops have promised transparency. But the failures of the past, shielded so long from public knowledge by systematic concealment, unquestionably have done serious and lasting harm to the Church’s credibility.

And now? In the last two years, Pope Francis’ success with the media has done a lot to improve the Church’s image. Reporters like Pope Francis because he’s good copy — a straight shooter who says interesting, sometimes controversial things, especially when he talks off the top of his head.

Now, though, questions are starting to be raised. In an interview with The New York Times, even Cardinal Francis George, recently retired as Archbishop of Chicago, noted the “wonderful things” the pope says but added that he “doesn’t put them together all the time, so you’re left at times puzzling over what his intention is.”

On top of that, some loyal Catholics were dismayed by views on divorce and homosexuality expressed at last fall’s synod. Actions seemingly intended to manipulate news coverage were no help. In a throwback to the early days of Vatican II, official bulletins reporting the debate left out speakers’ names. Reports submitted to the synod office by bishops’ conferences were withheld from the press. The same thing was attempted with small group reports, although the synod fathers themselves said no to that.

A committee appointed by Pope Francis and headed by former British government official Chris Patten currently is studying Vatican communications. (Our Sunday Visitor’s president and publisher, Greg Erlandson, is a member.) It’s expected to make its recommendations later this year.

Glitches and false steps at the synod underline a need to go beyond structures and budgets and tackle fundamental matters of policy and vision regarding news and information — not just at the Vatican but in official Church circles everywhere. Considering the key role played by news and information in today’s world and today’s Church, how the Church relates to news media is too important to ignore.

Russell Shaw is an OSV contributing editor.

Vatican Document on Modern Media
To mark the 20th anniversary of the post-Vatican II pastoral instruction on social communications, Communio et Progressio (“Communion and Progress”), the Pontifical Council for Social Communications in early 1992 published an updated pastoral instruction called Aetatis Novae (“A New Era”). It still stands as the Church’s most recent comprehensive overview of modern media.