Spin and professionalism

The press was even more an unruly beast in 1787 than it is today; yet the Framers of the Constitution gave the fourth estate extraordinary latitude, convinced that the robust exchange of ideas was democracy’s lifeblood. Journalism’s virtual immunity from legal sanction implies, however, certain responsibilities. One of them is to distinguish rigorously between what gets printed as “news,” and what gets printed as “opinion.” The welcome invention of the op-ed page should have thickened the line between what happens in the news hole and what happens on the opinion page. But has it?

On May 21, USA Today ran a news story on the recently-published Reagan diaries which, according to the reporter, “show Ronald Wilson Reagan more engaged in the job [of president] than had been portrayed.” (Portrayed by whom? By papers like USA Today, papers that clearly got it wrong.) Moreover, the diaries illustrate what Reagan was “really thinking” during “two terms of self-styled optimism…” (Self-styled? What does that mean? The man was an optimist, period; no mild put-down adjective was required — if this were really a news story.)

The very same day, in a New York Times story on “A New Breed of Evangelicals,” readers were informed that a 2004 Pew Forum study had “placed evangelicals into three camps — traditionalist, centrist, and modernist — based on how rigidly they adhered to their beliefs and their willingness to adapt them to a changing world.” “Rigidly,” I submit, is an op-ed adverb, not a news story adverb. The reporter could easily have used “firmly” or “deeply” — and in doing so, would have conveyed the real meaning of John Green’s study. Instead, “rigidly” was the adverb of choice: an editorial interjection signaling that there are evangelicals you can live with (because they “adapt…to a changing world”), and there are nutters. Two generations ago, no serious editor would have permitted such intrusions of reportorial point-of-view; today, no reporter could get a story on evangelicals into the Times without including such adverbial winks and nods.

Then there was the May 29 Washington Post “news” story on Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis. Burke, according to the Post’s gimlet-eyed reporter, has “roiled the Church in St. Louis” because he is “adhering to Vatican orthodoxy endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI,” a posture that has caused some St. Louis Catholics to “complain that the Church under his direction seems out of touch.” That’s a lot of confusion in a few phrases. The Catholic Church’s teaching on the impaired ecclesiastical communion of Catholic legislators who facilitate abortion (like Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill) is not a “Vatican position” that takes its force from being “endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI.” It’s settled moral conviction, based on philosophical convictions about the first principles of justice that are open to public scrutiny.

Things quickly got worse, however. For whom did the Post choose to illustrate, by contrast, Archbishop Burke’s being “out of touch”? Father Marek Bozek of St. Louis’s boldly schismatic St. Stanislaus Kostka Church, whom the Post presented as the paladin of a new, “open” Catholicism. The Post failed to mention, however, that Bozek had been run out of a seminary in Poland; had gotten himself ordained in a small Missouri diocese while someone wasn’t paying attention; and has subsequently been having fun wearing witch hats as complements to his Mass vestments. Other peculiarities at the parish could easily have been adduced. So is St. Stanislaus Kotska Church the embodiment of “open Catholicism,” or a gathering of schismatic malcontents? You make the call — but do it on the op-ed page, not on A2.

My first mentor in matters journalistic, Seattle’s David Brewster, once said that journalism’s claim to being a “profession” would remain an affectation until journalism became self-disciplining (like law and medicine), with the members of the guild taking real responsibility for policing themselves. Such professional responsibility means editors keeping editorials out of the news hole, and reporters telling the whole truth. That the misshapen stories cited here are hardly rarities suggests the unhappy probability that David Brewster, who was right thirty years ago, will remain right long into the future.

Which is bad news for American democracy.

COMING UP: Collegiality and eucharistic integrity

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The concept of the “collegiality” of bishops has been sharply contested since the Second Vatican Council debated it in 1962, 1963, and 1964. That discussion was sufficiently contentious that a personal intervention from Pope Paul VI was required to incorporate the concept of episcopal collegiality within the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church in such a way that the pope’s primacy and universal jurisdiction were safeguarded. The debate about collegiality has continued ever since. Now, however, it’s focused more on what kind of collegiality exists within national conferences of bishops. Is it an “affective collegiality” of mutual support and encouragement? Or is episcopal collegiality within bishops’ conferences “effective,” such that a conference has real teaching and legislative authority?  

Whether collegiality is “affective,” “effective,” or some combination of the two, it ought to be clear what truly “collegial” behavior isn’t.   

It isn’t individual bishops attempting end-runs around their national conference, appealing for Roman interventions that would forestall debates that their brother bishops wish to engage. It isn’t bishops trying to browbeat the conference chairman into changing an agenda to suit the tastes of a distinct minority — and misleading their brother bishops as to what they’re about when soliciting support for such a gambit. And it isn’t trying to filibuster a conference meeting so that no action is possible on an agenda item that the great majority of bishops wish to consider and act upon. 

If any of those three maneuvers qualifies as collegial, then “collegiality” has no more meaning than the claim that my poor Baltimore Orioles have a great starting rotation. 

For years now — and by “years,” I mean long before the idea of a “President Biden” entered the stream of national consciousness — the bishops of the United States have been concerned that ours is becoming less of a eucharistic Church than Vatican II called us to be when it taught that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Church’s life. Pope St. John Paul II reaffirmed that conciliar summons when, in his final encyclical, he taught that “the Church draws her life from the Eucharist,” which “recapitulates the heart and mystery of the Church.” Yet all around us we see declining Sunday Mass attendance: a sadness that preceded the pandemic but has been further exacerbated by it.  Moreover, surveys suggest that too many Catholics think of Sunday Mass as essentially a social occasion, rather than an encounter with the living God in which Christ is offered to the Father and is given back to his people in holy communion — a communion in and through the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, received under the forms of bread and wine.

If the Church lives from the Eucharist and yet the people of the Church don’t participate in the Eucharist as often as they should, or don’t understand what they’re celebrating and receiving when they do, then the Church suffers from a serious eucharistic deficit. Those ordained to leadership in the Church are obliged to do something about that. 

That is why the U.S. bishops have been determined for some time to undertake a comprehensive program of eucharistic education throughout the Church. For the great majority of bishops, that determination has been intensified by the fact that our eucharistic deficit is being compounded by the eucharistic incoherence of public officials who, rejecting authoritative Catholic teaching based on both revelation and reason, nonetheless present themselves for holy communion as if they were in full communion with the Church. The longstanding episcopal failure to address this incoherence exacerbates the eucharistic deficit in American Catholicism by implying that the Church really doesn’t mean what it teaches about the sacred nature of the Eucharist. 

Those suggesting that this is all about “politics” are either ill-informed or deliberately misleading the Church and the gullible parts of the media. Concern for the eucharistic integrity of the Church includes, but goes much deeper than, concerns about the eucharistic incoherence of Catholic public officials who act as if the Church’s settled convictions on the life issues and on worthiness to receive holy communion don’t exist. That is why the U.S. bishops are forging ahead with developing a teaching document that will clarify for the whole Church why we are a Eucharistic community, what the Eucharist truly is, what reception of the Eucharist means, and why everyone in the Church should examine conscience before receiving Christ in the sacrament. 

The wheels of collegiality may grind slowly. In this case, however, they are grinding truly, and for the sake of the Gospel.

George Weigel is an independent columnist whose weekly column is syndicated by the Archdiocese of Denver. The opinions and viewpoints expressed by Mr. Weigel therein are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Archdiocese of Denver or the bishops of Denver.