Editorial: Unedifying news

“Can a new pope save the Catholic Church?”

“Second Act: How Benedict XVI may become more influential after his resignation”

“Pope Benedict XVI’s missing mea culpa”

These are just some of the headlines you’ve most likely been seeing since news broke that Pope Benedict was resigning from his position at age 85 for reasons of health.

Though he certainly never intended this, the pope’s action has triggered a tsunami of speculation and lobbying in the mass media about why he was stepping down, what it meant, and who the next pope would be.

In part, this is not unusual. Catholics — whether at the local Knights of Columbus hall or on Twitter and Facebook — were asking some of the same questions. But the blatant editorializing, innuendo and harsh criticisms that often were assaults on the Church and its teachings in the secular press were something to behold.

Within hours of his announcement, Pope Benedict’s name was associated in many headlines and news network crawls with the word “scandal.” The news became an opportunity to dig up past charges long refuted and to tarnish the Church with a new round of ill-informed news summaries.

In the rush to make the scandals the defining theme of the papacy, however, little was said that might add a balanced perspective to the discussion. Barely mentioned were Pope Benedict’s actions against Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ, his response to the crisis in Ireland, his meetings with victims, the steps he took to make sure that abuse allegations were addressed consistently and the guilty priests dealt with more quickly. These facts did not fit the quickly developing story line.

The next wave of stories read like the coverage of national politics. Would reactionaries win out — odds are they would, reporters opined, since Pope Benedict had appointed so many cardinals — or would the forces of progressivism and enlightenment somehow prevail and drag the Church into the blissfully libertine 21st century?

Women priests, contraception, abortion, homosexual marriage — gender and sex comprised the bulk of what passed for objective analysis of burning issues. To paraphrase Dorothy Parker, the news coverage ran the gamut from A to B, in this case from Abortion to Birth Control.

Thoughtful discussions of the Benedict papacy were few and far between in the secular media, and the spectacle makes us despair of the coverage yet to come. No matter who is elected pope, the process will be turned into a low-budget political convention, with many of the same “experts” — particularly ex-Catholics and disgruntled Catholics — trotted out to explain how unsatisfying the election results will be.

In truth, the only place where Catholics are likely to see solid reporting and in-depth analysis will be the Catholic press. Catholic journalists for Our Sunday Visitor and many other Catholic news agencies and publications will be the only trustworthy sources for a knowledgeable discussion of the issues within a Catholic context.

The din of secular coverage, however, is where most Catholics find their news about the Church most of the time. As we have seen with the Health and Human Services mandate, the abuse crisis and the life issues, a steady diet of secular news coverage leaves Catholics intellectually malnourished and worse than uninformed.

Bishops take heed: The recent coverage of the pope is a reminder that without a vigorous Catholic press, without an honest and engaged Catholic media presence, the Church will have little chance of making itself heard.

Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Sarah Hayes, presentation editor