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If I Were King of the Catholic Press

Tom Nash

Diocesan newspapers’ main duty, according to Vatican II’s Decree on the Means of Social Communication, “is to spread and defend the truth and the strengthen the Christian texture of society.” A large number of diocesan newspapers fail to fulfill this duty because their editors take as their ideal the secular newspaper, not the religious newspaper. 

There are many competent journalists editing U.S. diocesan newspapers, but many of them look to The New York Times for editorial inspiration. Indeed, The New York Times is generally regarded as the best written, most substantive and most influential secular newspaper in the United States. 

The key word is secular. While I subscribe to The New York Times for its expansive and insightful news coverage, diocesan newspapers would not be promoting authentic Catholicism if they espoused many of the Times’s editorial or op-ed positions or if they used the Times’s journalistic criteria in deciding whether and how a story receives coverage. 

A diocesan editor must remember his audience is special, and so is the purpose of his newspaper. What’s more, diocesan news-papers do not have the financial resources to match the Times’s news-gathering prowess. A diocesan newspaper is fortunate if it has an editor, an assistant editor, and one or two full-time reporters. Many diocesan newspapers have only one full-time person on their editorial staffs. 

If we believe the Catholic Church is the apparatus through which God effects mankind’s salvation, if we believe the Pope is Christ’s vicar on Earth, if we believe the Church possesses the fullness of Christian truth, then we should be telling the world about it with zealous charity–and we should especially tell Catholics, who so frequently are unaware of the spiritual riches available to them in the Church. 

Given the circulation figures of diocesan newspapers, U.S. Catholics seem to want a change in them (they’re voting with their feet by walking away from the papers, declining to read them). They want more than straight news and features about local, national, and international Catholic events and people–all this they can receive from secular papers. 

Circulation totals of U.S. diocesan newspapers are not impressive, particularly when you consider their potential audiences and the fact that many dioceses require parishes to meet subscribership quotas. The current low circulation numbers of Catholic newspapers would fall to embarrassing levels if the decision and financial obligation were given solely to individual parishioners. 

The diocesan newspaper for which I served as a staff reporter from 1987-1989, The Catholic Observer in Springfield, Massachusetts, had 18,000 subscribers (with the help of parish quotas) in a diocese of 350,000 Catholics. The Martin J. Moran Company, an organization which helps dioceses with fundraising campaigns, estimates that the average Catholic household has four people. My diocese, therefore, had about 87,500 households, but only 20 percent of them read our newspaper–even with parish quotas. 

The Catholic Observer is a respected paper. It won first place in the general excellence category for newspapers with circulations between 17,000 and 40,000. If there had been a “best of show” category–which would have included national Catholic newspapers and diocesan newspapers with circulations of more than 40,000 (the largest diocesan category)–the judges said they probably would have awarded our newspaper first place. 

Still, I thought we could have done a better job in promoting Catholicism. Improvements could have been made in selecting editorial topics, national and diocesan columnists (I wouldn’t have minded replacing one of the worst ones with myself), stories covered and how to cover them, and journalistic departments. (In our typical 24-page, biweekly edition, I would have had two to six pages devoted entirely to apologetics and evangelization.) 

I think The Catholic Observer is a classic example of a diocesan newspaper which was well done and achieved its editor’s journalistic goals, yet did not meet the goals of Vatican II. That 80 percent of diocesan households chose not to subscribe perhaps indicates also that the newspaper’s vision and format needed to be reevaluated. 

In fairness to editors, it must be said they’ve inherited audiences comprised of poorly catechized and spiritually apathetic Catholics, people who are unlikely to subscribe to a diocesan newspaper no matter what its content. If diocesan newspapers had built a tradition of delivering practical and inspirational advice on apologetics and evangelization, perhaps the Church in the United States would be stronger and circulations higher. 

Having surveyed many diocesan newspapers, I think it’s fair to say many editors have a different vision for their newspapers than the one enunciated at Vatican II. They don’t want to undermine Catholic doctrines and precepts (some do, but I’m referring to the mass of editors), but they won’t promote them either. 

Often they’ll run articles which concentrate on opinions critical of the Church’s teaching, and they decline to put those opinions in focus. This failure to promote Catholic doctrine creatively, to interpret news events and express opinions in a manner faithful to the magisterium, has been the greatest deficiency of the diocesan press. 

The time has come for the Church, and diocesan newspapers in particular, to respond. Diocesan newspapers and the people who work for them have a moral duty, a baptismal call, to be true to the name Catholic, helping their readers become better informed, more faithful Christians (Matt. 28:19-20). 

All newspapers have a particular editorial point of view and agenda, which colors not only the editorial views expressed, but also whether and how a story receives coverage. Catholic newspapers should acknowledge this fact, not so much to maintain a journalistic tradition, but to fulfill a spiritual obligation. 

For a Catholic newspaper, promoting orthodoxy does not mean ignoring or covering up religious corruption or problems within the diocese, as perhaps the stereotypical house organ would. A diocesan newspaper should report honestly, using the faith as a guide in offering advice so the faithful can better address their own problems and challenges. 

A diocesan newspaper promoting orthodoxy would cover diocesan controversies. If a dissenting priest, religious, or layman spoke at a Catholic forum in the diocese–one hopes the bishop wouldn’t grant permission for this–the reporter would relate the person’s views. Accurately and fully reporting a dissenter’s views is an effective means of showing how his views are in error. A Catholic journalist covering a dissenter could refute his heterodox viewpoints through objective reporting of the Church’s teaching. 

For example, when Dignity declared that homosexual sex is “loving, life-giving and affirming” at its 1987 national meeting, the Catholic press simply reported this message and the Church’s constant position on homosexuality. As a result, many bishops proceeded to remove official recognition of Dignity chapters in their dioceses. 

A diocesan newspaper should not only be charitable in reproving Catholic dissenters–it should also avoid featuring such persons as regular columnists on its editorial pages. 

Dissenting columnists undermine the mission of a diocesan newspaper: to present, defend, and promote authentic Cathol-icism in its coverage of news and Catholic life. Intelligent dissenters who can write well, particularly priests, can have significant influence on readers who don’t know their faith well or who are looking for a man in a clerical collar to tell them it’s okay to reject one or more Church teachings. 

Dissenting journalists are successors to the people Christ spoke about, leaders who led the little ones astray. They’re prospective millstone recipients. Newspapers do their readers a disservice when they carry such columnists. Some diocesan journalists would disagree, saying these dissenting columnists provoke Catholics to think about their faith. But in what way? 

Are Catholics more likely to understand, appreciate, and live Church teaching after reading columnists who subvert it? Not likely. Studying and questioning the faith is a necessary and healthy process for continued Christian growth. But an editor should aid such spiritual inquiry, not undermine it, running insightful, orthodox Catholic columnists who will educate and edify inquisitive Catholics. 

The same policy should rule in the selection of diocesan columnists. A popular layman, priest, or religious who can write well can have great impact in his diocese. An editor should use prominent diocesan figures when covering news stories in their particular fields of expertise, whether moral theology, Church history, social doctrine, or social activism. Adding to this cultivation of diocesan sources would be periodic meetings with the publisher–the bishop–and other diocesan officials in an attempt to organize events and concurrent news coverage that would be most conducive to increasing the faith and religious knowledge of local Catholics. 

An editor should place apologetics high on the list of an editorial board’s planned events and articles. With the exodus or spiritual stagnation of many of the faithful, good catechesis is gravely needed. Catholics need to know what they believe and why they believe it, and a diocesan newspaper is the vehicle through which a bishop can best provide substantive information to the largest audience. 

Organizing and covering apologetics seminars is a good start, but I propose specific and ongoing apologetics in the newspaper. Many diocesan newspapers today run question and answer columns. That’s useful and covers a wide territory of religious knowledge, but I propose a column that positively explains Church teachings and refutes the arguments against them. 

I also propose a column in which lay Catholics can relate, or have staff reporters relate for them, their experiences of living the Church’s teachings, illustrating that fully embracing Catholicism is not only possible, but preferable. 

I know a good Catholic couple in Massachusetts who could have given an excellent witness through such a column. The couple, now in their mid-thirties, are raising seven children, with another due soon. 

After the birth of their fifth child, the couple decided to look for larger living quarters. When they became interested in a particular house, they discovered they could only afford to pay $25,000 less than the minimum bid the builder had set. 

Their real estate agent told them their bid would be considered an insult, but the wife told her to tell the builder that she and her husband weren’t being cheap, that they really couldn’t afford to pay more than their submitted bid. The agent told the couple to expect a quick and firm “no.” 

Two days later, the dumbfounded real estate agent called with the news: The builder had accepted the couple’s bid. 

Several two-earner couples had expressed interest in the house. They had not yet filed bids, but they could have paid more than the Catholic couple could. Something mattered more than money to the builder, who happened to live in the house behind the one the couple was bidding on. 

The builder told the couple that when he looked out his back window, he wanted to see kids playing in the backyard of the house he built. What the world considers a financial liability, “excess children,” had in fact been the asset that clinched the deal, proving that God honors those who step out in faith and serve his Son by living the faith fully and joyfully (John 12:24-26; Matt. 7:24-25). 

Catholics everywhere need to hear such inspiring testimonies in their diocesan newspapers. Running stories about the lives of the saints would provide added real-life examples of people who have benefited from living Catholicism fully. 

Some may argue I’m advocating too many columns for the typical two-page op-ed section to accommodate, a journalistic subdivision which also includes letters to the editor and staff editorials. My response is to supplement the op-ed section with an apologetics/evangelization section of two to six pages and with a “faith in action” section of two pages. This would include testimonies of local Catholics and lives of saints. 

Journalistic convention should not constrain the most important function of diocesan newspapers: the teaching, advancing, and defending of authentic Catholicism. Cuts can be made in less important sections of the newspaper. If weekly papers have problems meeting the content demands of such a format, they should publish every other week rather than continue producing the less useful format of today’s Catholic press. 

Many Catholics probably don’t see any Catholic publication other than their diocesan newspaper. If there is only one publication reaching these Catholics, general news coverage should take a subsidiary role to an informational format designed to help them better understand and live their faith. An apologetics/evangelization format would deepen the faith of committed Catholics, while providing nurturing spiritual food for those less formed in the faith. 

The most crucial person in making all this happen is the diocesan bishop. He determines how Catholicism is communicated in his diocese. 

The bishop has final approval in choosing the editor of his diocesan newspaper, and the editor, in turn, will largely determine the journalistic philosophy of the paper. Consequently, an editor is typically a person who reflects the bishop’s attitudes toward the Pope, Church teachings, and how the faith should be presented. 

If the Catholic Church really believes Jesus Christ has imparted to it the most important truths in the world–truths which lead to temporal and eternal joy–the Church should present and promote this fervently in its newspapers.

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