The forced resignation of Father Thomas Reese as editor-in-chief of the Jesuit weekly, America, may have the unintended side effect of deflecting attention away from the state of the Catholic diocesan press, where each local bishop is the publisher of each diocesan paper.
The bishop alone calls the shots as to who edits the paper and what editorial leeway that editor will have in the writing of editorials, the coverage of news stories, the publishing of syndicated columns and the printing of letters from readers.
As anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the U.S. secular press knows, the publisher is key to everything that goes into a paper as well as to what is kept out of it. Had it not been for the courage of the late Katherine Graham, publisher of The Washington Post, the Watergate scandal might never have been exposed. The same is true of the publication of the Pentagon Papers in The New York Times.
One does not have to be the dean of a school of journalism to recognize the difference between the same Washington Post and its rival paper, The Washington Times. The latter is owned by the politically and religiously right-of-center Unification Church, headed by its founder, Sun Myung Moon. Nor does one have to be a journalistic wizard to recognize the amount of daylight that exists between the same New York Times and its tabloid rival, The New York Post, published by its politically conservative owner, Rupert Murdoch.
Should it really come as any surprise to Catholics — or to anyone else for that matter — that diocesan newspapers also reflect the mentality and values of their respective publishers, namely, the local bishops?
Neither should anyone be surprised that the diocesan press in this country has changed considerably in the past two decades because of significant changes in the composition of the U.S. hierarchy.
As bishops of a more open and moderate approach to pastoral leadership (one that not only respects but also welcomes legitimate diversity on debatable matters) depart from the ecclesiastical scene either through retirement or death, they have been in many cases replaced by men who are more rigid and authoritarian in manner.
Many of these newer bishops seem to regard themselves as enforcers of orthodoxy and discipline. To put it more benignly, they see their enforcement duties as what pastoring is all about. For them, anything less would smack of permissiveness and dereliction of duty.
As such bishops became more numerous in the U.S. hierarchy since 1980, diocesan papers changed accordingly. Some have been transformed from adult-level sources of information, interpretation and discussion regarding developments important to the life and mission of the church into house organs, comparable to publications produced by labor unions and business organizations.
One of the first things that many of these discipline-minded bishops have done when taking the reins of episcopal authority was to send signals to the editors of their diocesan papers that hereafter they, not the editors, would be the final judges of what goes into the papers and what stays out. And that would include news stories, editorials and syndicated columns, even though few remain that could possibly disturb such bishops.
At this year’s annual convention of the Catholic Press Association, meeting in Orlando, Fla., the 2005 Bishop John England Award was bestowed on Raymond J. Boland, the recently retired bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph in Missouri.
Bishop Boland was hailed in the formal citation as a “consistent defender of the Catholic press.” His diocesan paper, The Catholic Key, so ably edited for many years by Al de Zutter, reflected his open and supportive leadership.
“Having somebody keep the leaders of the church, whether they be bishops or others, honest, is very important in an open society,” the bishop once said. He praised The Key “for being a newspaper rather than a house organ.”
The citation continued: “He defended the (editor’s) right to take positions with which a segment of the Catholic community strongly disagreed, as long as the positions were soundly based in Catholic teaching and tradition.”
Full disclosure compels me to say that the citation also specifically noted Bishop Boland’s defense of his editor’s right to publish this column each week, in the face of persistent opposition from “Catholic ultra-traditionalists” and “even while disagreeing with some of (the column’s) views.”
If there were more bishops like Raymond Boland, the diocesan press would consist of more newspapers than house organs. And the church would be far better off for it.
Father McBrien is a professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.