Catholics, the Media, and the American Public SquareFAITH AND REASON INSTITUTE
The following is an edited transcript of speeches given by: Rod Dreher Senior Writer, National Review J. Bottum Books and Arts Editor, The Weekly Standard Philip F. Lawler Editor, Catholic World Report and Robert Lockwood Director of Communications, Diocese of Pittsburg. These papers were given at a conference on Catholics and the Media held at the National Press Club on March 13-14, 2002.
As Philip F. Lawler, editor of Catholic World Report, notes in one of the following essays, the Archdiocese of Boston's The Pilot (another journal that he has edited) was, in it heyday at the end of the nineteenth century, the newspaper of record for Irish Catholics in that city, with a weekly circulation that matched or bettered that of The New York Times. But that cohesive readership and the kind of firm identity it appealed to has long since evaporated.
Today, Catholicism faces several difficulties in operating in the current media environment. Many Catholics have distinguished themselves in mainstream secular publications. Rod Dreher of National Review and J. Bottum of The Weekly Standard discuss some of their experiences as journalists in non-Catholic circles. While both have had obvious successes, they point out some of the innocent prejudices they have encountered, and the intellectual and professional minefields they feel they run as they try to talk about issues from a perspective that is not typical of our major media.
Philip Lawler and Robert Lockwood contribute essays from within specifically "Catholic" journalism. Lawler points to one of the paradoxes currently challenging all Catholic media, but especially print: while Catholics are by far the largest faith group in the United States, with roughly one-quarter of the U.S. population, and a still rapidly growing church, the number of Catholic readers for serious magazines and newspapers has been steadily shrinking in recent years. Lockwood, for many years the editor of Our Sunday Visitor, a widely read weekly newspaper, and currently director of communications for the diocese of Pittsburgh examines some of the cultural and theological reasons for this crisis.
These papers were given at a conference on Catholics and the Media held at the National Press Club on March 13-14, 2002. Unfortunately, the keynote address by Archbishop John Foley, President of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications at the Vatican (and a Philadelphia native), could not be included here. Several of the other papers presented at that event, however, are available at the Faith & Reason Institute website (www.frinstitute.org) along with various materials generated by FRI's project American Catholics in the Public Square, which has been made possible by support from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
I think that being a Catholic makes me a better journalist because truth is one. We don't have journalistic truths and Catholic truths. All truths work for the good of the faith and we do not need to be afraid of the truth. It may humble us, but it will make us holy, and we can't be holy outside of the truth. I don't see that there's a particular conflict between my vocation, as a journalist, to tell the truth and my vocation, as a Catholic, to tell and to live the truth.
Catholics see things that others don't. This has certainly been true in my career in the newsroom. I've worked at the Baton Rouge Advocate, the daily paper in South Louisiana, the Washington Times, the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, and the New York Post. In most of those places I've seen things that others in the newsroom don't.
A lot of Catholics complain about bias in the secular media, which is certainly there. But in my experience it's more a case of ignorance than outright malice. A lot of people in the newsroom just don't know Catholics, or they know lukewarm Catholics or dissenting Catholics. They don't know Catholics who really live and practice the faith, do so in charity, are fun to be around, nice to talk to, and are not nuts. They just don't see people like us in their offices or in their daily lives.
I am grateful to Crisis Magazine, to First Things and other Catholic publications for giving me my formation as a Catholic and as what you might call a public Catholic. Father Richard John Neuhaus of First Things has been more of a pastor to me in his writing than any pastor I've actually had in real life. He and others like him have showed what it's like to think as a Catholic and apply Catholic thought and teaching to issues of public import. They taught me how to debate and how to think, and they taught me who my friends were and where those who are faithful to Rome live, what they're saying and who you can and cannot trust.
The culture of life is especially important to those of us who are Catholic. We see things that others don't. We see what's coming down the road with euthanasia and with cloning, and we know our arguments. We can frame these things in ways that make our readers think, even in secular publications. We don't have to relate these questions explicitly to the catechism or the Bible.
A lot of my evangelical friends find it hard to argue without referring to scripture. Catholics tend to be free from that sort of thing. We can make more natural law-based arguments. In fact, we have to because you're not going to get anywhere appealing to the authority of scripture or the catechism in the secular media.
I remember once at the New York Post talking about how ignorant most secular journalists are. The Post has a reputation for being conservative, but that's only the editorial page. When I was a news columnist there, I was answering to the City Desk editors. And I kept going to them, wanting to write about particular issues and the news that had to do with religion, freedom of religion.
The editor said to me, "I don't get it. Don't you understand, New York is not a religious city. People aren't religious here." I thought to myself, this guy, he lives in my neighborhood. On his way to the subway he has to walk by a Catholic church and a synagogue. He has to pass by a mosque. He has to come near an Iglesia Bautista Hispana and an Iglesia Antiochia Hispana, and this is only within one ten-block stretch of New York City. And he doesn't think that religion matters in this city? Of course, it does matter. It's just that he doesn't know any people who are religious. Therefore, it doesn't matter.
He would always give me things at the Post addressed to the religion editor. (We didn't have one). I was the only one there who knew anything about religion, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, so they always would give it to me. I repeat: this wasn't malice. This was ignorance. It has a malicious effect, I would argue, but the way to combat that is to pick your battles carefully. You can't go down swinging for every single story you want to write. You get to know the people you're working with and understand how to debate with them and how to open them up. Use the arguments of the secular left, for instance, about diversity and tolerance. That tends to de-fang them a lot of times.
I'll always remember being at the Sun Sentinel at Fort Lauderdale. We all had to attend mandatory diversity training. I made an alliance with this gay black guy, our fashion editor from Nashville, and our television critic from Queens. (A sawed-off Archie Bunker type). Both great guys. We completely ruined the day of our diversity consultant. She let us out early and promptly went up and quit. We considered that a great victory.
We just weren't going to be talked down to like that. Anyway, after it was over, the woman who was running the diversity seminar came up to me and said well, how was it? I said it was terrible and here's why. She was a white professional woman and could see some black members of our staff nearby. I could tell she wanted to score some points off the right-wing crazy. She said, "don't you think that our news room should reflect Broward County? We're 30 percent black; 20 percent Hispanics;" blah, blah, blah. And look across the news room. Shouldn't the news room look like that?
I said, "Gayle, you've got a newsroom here that does reflect Broward County, if that's how you choose to think of it, but have you thought about how many Pentecostals we have in Broward County? How many Catholics? How many Republicans? And so forth. That's true diversity. Diversity of thought. Well, you're not going to start hiring people based on what their opinions are. That's repulsive. But don't think you have diversity here. You have people who look different on the surface, but they all went to the same journalism schools. They all vote Democratic and they don't go to church or synagogue."
Well, she couldn't handle that. She huffed off. But that's where we are.
I was a film critic at the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel and I very much had to learn how to fly below the radar there. Again, I also write movie reviews now for Our Sunday Visitor; and I wrote them for Crisis at one point. In those publications you can be a lot more explicit about what you think and what you're basing your judgments on: scripture, the Catechism, Catholic teaching, that sort of thing. You can't do that for a secular paper. So it was a real challenge for me.
Once I had to review this movie called "Jeffrey" which is based on a Paul Rudnick play about a gay man who decides that he's going to give up sex because AIDS is too scary. Over the course of the play, he learns that you just can't give up sex. Life is not worth living unless you have sex. One of the men who teaches him this, I'm sorry to say, is a gay Catholic priest played by Nathan Lane.
Well, my editor at the Sun Sentinel was a Christian of a sort. He knew where I stood on this and he didn't tell me watch yourself. But he kind of looked at me and I knew what he was saying. So I wrote this review without any reference to homosexuality, good or bad. I reviewed the film and criticized it on the basis of its presentation of love. What is love? This movie sees love as being synonymous with genital activity and that is an impoverishment. Isn't that a shame?
After the review was printed, the editor came to me and said "good job" because he knew that I was able to get in my critique without raising the hackles of the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and half their supporters in the newsroom. But I still told the truth about that movie.
I went up to the New York Post in 1998 to replace Michael Medved, and boy was that an education. Medved is hated by people in the movie industry primarily because he stands up for traditional moral values. I didn't agree with all Michael Medved's opinions about movies, but I respected him as one of a kind, especially at that level.
I was talking at a party to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax a week after I got there. He said "I'm so glad you're here. We just hated that Michael Medved." I answered, "Well, Harvey, I may not be that much different from him." "Oh, it doesn't matter, you can't be as bad as he was. Welcome here." I always wondered, whenever I watched one of the Miramax films, if Harvey remembered that.
I once went to the Toronto Film Festival, and saw "Happiness", one of the most repulsive films ever. Among other things, it made a comedy of child molestation. There was a particular scene where a pedophile father is trying to drug his son's best friend so he can rape the twelve-year-old boy. This was played for comedy. After the movie was over, Todd Solodnz, the director, got a standing ovation. I had to leave. I ran into a film critic from the Cleveland Plain Dealer. He and I looked at each other and had the same thought. He said "I've got to call my wife and make sure I'm still living on Planet Earth."
That's the world of the people who write movie reviews for the public. They all tend to think alike, I find, without exception. They're all very libertarian, not particularly political and don't see things ideologically, but they never find any challenge to their point of view, certainly not within their industry. So they tend to think they see things as they really are.
I did find that after seeing eight to ten movies a week, that doing my job at the New York Post, was affecting my Catholicism in a bad way. I was glad when I got away from being a film critic. I did it for about two years and then Ray Kerrison, long-term pro-lifer at the New York Post retired. The Post wanted to get a pro-lifer and a conservative to come in and take his place, have someone to speak to a pro-life, Catholic readership, but also someone who could critique Hilary Clinton as she was gearing up to run for senator. So they tapped me.
I did it because I wanted to spend more time with my newborn son. After a couple of months, I went to see "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" for Our Sunday Visitor. I was appalled about how grotesque this movie was and all the double entendres, the sex references. I came home and told my wife: I can't believe this is what kids are seeing. She said: do you realize that your threshold has gone way down. If you were still doing this for the Post, you might have been mildly offended, but you wouldn't have seen it in the way that you're seeing it now.
She said I've seen you over the past couple of years lose your tolerance or maybe gain more tolerance for more and more outrageous things. And she gave me examples. I had to admit she was right, even though I would pray before going into movies that I thought would be bad. I tried hard to be a responsible Catholic reviewing these films, but it's like the proverbial frog in the boiling water. I didn't realize how bad it had gotten.
I don't want to say that no Catholic should go into reviewing movies professionally, because I certainly don't believe that. But for me it was a danger that I hadn't quite reckoned on, and I'm glad I got out of it.
So I became a news columnist, meaning I was writing three times a week in the Post about stories that were in the news. They also wanted me to write opinion pieces, but also make them reportorial. The things that I wrote about that mattered the most to me involved abortion. I was the only pro-life columnist for a daily paper in New York. I think Nat Hentoff is the only pro-life columnist period in New York and he writes weekly in the Village Voice.
I also wrote about religious freedom. Once a pro-life group was trying to buy ads in the New York subway system to say, "Support life. If you're pregnant, call us, we'll help you keep your baby." New York's subway system didn't want to let them do that. Meanwhile, I take the subways every day. You would find Planned Parenthood saying, "Call us if you're pregnant," all over the subways. But nobody in New York cared about that. And certainly nobody in the newsrooms. They're all pro-choice anyway.
In my newsroom, they didn't care until I went to my editor, and appealed based on freedom of speech and convinced him this was a free speech issue, not a pro-life issue. Fine, then write the stories.
So I wrote a series of columns, and embarrassed the Metropolitan Transport Authority. We got those ads in the subways. I'm not saying that if not for me this wouldn't have happened. But where are the other Catholics in the media? Where are the great protectors of the first amendment and the right of freedom of speech in the New York media? They weren't out there for the pro-lifers, and I was just glad that I was.
There was another case. Dan Savage, the gay sex columnist who is syndicated, went out during the Iowa Republican Primaries, lied, and got on the staff of Gary Bauer. Savage was very sick with the flu, so he went around at night after everybody had left the staff office and licked all of the coffee cups, spat on the door handles, tried to get people sick there so that Bauer would have to drop out of the Iowa race. Of course, he thought this was okay because Bauer is a "homophobe," who wants to put all gays in concentration
Unidentified Speaker: Excuse me, Rod, how do we know that?
Dreher: He wrote about it. Well, I wrote saying that this is outrageous. It got picked up on "The Capitol Gang" and suddenly it was national news. I think most people in the secular press would only have thought: well, isn't that guy crazy? What a kooky prank!
I said no. What if somebody there in that office had a compromised immune system? My kid, when he was a newborn, spent a couple of days in the hospital with a respiratory infection. What if there was a newborn in some of the houses of the Gary Bauer workers? Nobody in the secular media initially saw it that way. Eventually, other people did condemn Dan Savage.
I once stood up for Dr. Laura Schlesinger a big deal in New York, because the only time I got more hate mail was when I wrote about Aaliyah the pop princess. Al Sharpton held a press conference to denounce me and I had to go into hiding because I got death threats. But I stood up for Dr. Laura Schlesinger's right to free speech, and put it as that kind of story.
I was attacked by homosexuals. They said they wanted my children to die; and I was really afraid for myself and depressed. One day, I opened a letter from a little old lady in Staten Island who said, thank you for what you wrote. I thought I was the only sane one. That made me realize that despite all the abuse we have to take from these activists, it's important for those of us who are Catholics in the secular media to stand up just to let people know that others out there believe as they do, and they're not crazy.
Now there are some conflicts with Catholicism, with institutional Catholicism, that I ran into as a result of my working at the secular press. Cardinal Egan does not like the press, doesn't care for them, doesn't trust them, never has. That's become apparent to those of us who cover him.
Not long after he was appointed, the New York State Legislature was going to try to force Catholic hospitals and Catholic employers to provide contraception as part of health coverage. This is outrageous, a violation of religious freedom and I was ready to go to bat. My paper was going to give me the front page, if I could get an interview with Cardinal Egan. Cardinal O'Connor would have known what to do. That man knew how to work the media. He would have given me an interview and we could have made a bid on the front page. Cardinal Egan didn't want to do that. Egan just sort of let me hang.
And here I was; somebody who could have been in his corner, but nothing happened. A lot of time went by and the state passed a law forcing the Catholic employers to provide contraception. There was really no serious public outcry from the bishops.
I got in trouble with him too over September 11th. He went off to the Synod in Rome two or three weeks after the attack. The Cardinal was supposed to run the Synod. (The Pope had asked him long before and he just left). I started getting e-mails and calls from readers, most of them Irish Catholic cops and firemen saying where's the Cardinal? Why isn't he here? I said he's at the Synod. Well, shouldn't he be here? I don't know. Well, he should be here they would say. This happened over and over.
Then I started talking to priests. They said, yeah, he should be here. After the Al Smith dinner, the big fundraising dinner in the Archdiocese of New York, Jewish colleagues came back saying what's the Cardinal doing at the Synod? You should have heard those Catholics last night. They were outraged that he wasn't there.
So I wrote a column: this is what Catholics are saying. Joe Zwilling, the spokesman for the Cardinal, stated that the Holy Father wants him at the Synod. But a lot of Catholics didn't believe it. I reported that. It made some friends angry. But I thought it was news. This is what Catholics are saying. A lot of Catholics in the pews felt Cardinal Egan was aloof and didn't really care about them. That may be untrue. I hope it is untrue, but that's what Catholics are saying and that needed to be reported.
Now we come to the pedophilia scandal. I believe we have to talk about it. As soon as it broke in Boston, I wrote about it in National Review, where I was by then working. I was outraged by the dereliction of duty of Cardinal Law and those who worked under him. I was outraged by the fact that my own Bishop Daly of Brooklyn, in his deposition in Boston, said that, at the time, he was a Vicar General, and he didn't know that the Catholic priests were subject to this civil and criminal law forbidding molestation of minors.
I said in the National Review column: the man is either a fool or a liar. And I stand by that. This is just too much. We have to take a stand. I'm a father, I'm a loyal Catholic and I kept hearing from people, readers of National Review, saying thank God somebody who is orthodox is saying this thing. Thank God the National Catholic Reporter is not the only one to raise this issue. I kept hearing from readers saying, I'm an orthodox Catholic too. This is what happened to me. This is what's happening in my diocese. This is what happened to our families. The rot has got to be exposed.
I started writing about it and realized that this scandal in Boston was not happening in a vacuum. It's tied to the theological dissent in dioceses and in parishes. It's tied to the fact that people are not being taught the faith in catechism; that the seminaries, many of them, have gone bad, and are driving orthodox candidates out, and are promoting sexually active homosexuals and theological dissenters. It has to be talked about.
I heard from friends of mine, some of whom are in this room, that you shouldn't talk like this. You're giving scandal. It's not something that a Catholic should do. I respect that opinion, but I strongly disagree because the time for reform is now. If we don't get this cleaned up right now, the state is going to come in and clean it up for us.
We already had the outrageous suggestion by the Attorney General in Massachusetts made to the Boston Globe that he wants the AG's Office to come in and oversee the recruitment and training of priests. Well, that will never fly. That's unconstitutional, but the fact that in Massachusetts, 50 percent Catholic population, an Attorney General named Riley felt like he could say that tells you how far the Church has fallen.
The Church needs to recover its integrity on this not only for the safety of our kids, but to regain our public voice. Two weeks after this broke in Boston, the Massachusetts legislature passed (without a single dissenting vote) a law like the one in New York forcing the Catholic Church to offer contraceptive coverage to its employees.
We're going to have a big fight over cloning soon in this country. We're going to have a big fight over homosexual marriage in this country and the Catholic bishops are not going to be able to speak to those matters if the only thing people think about when they see a Catholic bishop is oh, they're not taking care of their child molestation problem.
It's time that faithful Catholics stand up everywhere not in spite of being Catholic, but because we're Catholic.
But unlike Rod, I don't seem to have quite the same talent for making enemies. I try, it's not like I want to get along with everybody, you understand.
Just two nights ago I was on a panel at the National Cathedral with Tim Russert and E.J. Dionne, and a bunch of other people. We were supposed to talk about America's perceptions of religion after September 11th. The Anglican Bishop of Washington gets up to give the invocation, with maybe 150 people there in that beautiful space. They actually used the sacred space for meetings. They roll out the dais and we're all sitting up there and the Anglican Bishop gets up to give her invocation. And she carefully gives a prayer that never mentioned the name Jesus, or God, in her own cathedral. But she has asked that we undertake this thinking about religion after September 11th prayerfully and thoughtfully, and that the spirit descend upon the presenters and upon the audience, but never judgmentally, remembering that we in the United States ourselves have had people who call themselves Christians bomb abortion clinics. And so we are in no position to judge the people who did this, but we need to think our way through it, she said, remembering that America at its best stands for the spread of rights around the world, particularly the right of a woman to choose to have an abortion. And so when my turn came to speak, I said I'm sorry, I can't let it go. I know you're not supposed to beard a bishop in her own cathedral, but I can't let this moral equivalence go by.
And I thought pretty much that would be the end of not just me, but anybody from the Weekly Standard at the National Cathedral. But lo and behold, this morning there was a phone call on my answering machine from the Dean of the Cathedral saying how wonderful it had been and how exciting and really lively a discussion and we want to have you back again soon, can you make such and such a date. Rod gets death threats, I get the Dean of the Anglican Cathedral calling me up saying, oh, come back.
But part of the reason I don't feel gloom is because I don't actually get these sorts of death threats. I also don't get the letters from the little old ladies saying praise the Lord, someone who shares my views. I don't get those letters either. There may be a cause and effect here, but part of the reason that I don't quite feel the personal gloom that Rod can feel and that others have is my own experience has been sort of blessed.
I just sort of float along. God treats you as a child, never testing you beyond your strength, and good things happen to you. I never have any problem being published on anything I want to write about. Now maybe it's because I don't actually want to write about something that might cause a problem, but I don't think that's it. If you try and be a good writer, you find that people will publish you.
I have never had to work for people who were exercised about my Catholicism except for the time I was teaching Medieval philosophy at a Jesuit college.
Leaving that aside, I've never had to hide my orthodoxy. I got my doctorate. I was teaching Medieval Philosophy and Medieval Neoplatonism at a little Jesuit college up in Baltimore. I wrote my dissertation on the concept of time in neoplatonic metaphysics. If any of you can't sleep, I'll send it over. And I needed money.
I started writing for little magazines. I didn't realize at the time how little they paid, but it was a period in my life when a check once a month for $250 made a big difference whether we were going to have hamburger or hamburger helper that month. So I was writing for First Things, Crisis, Commentary, Partisan Review, and then Father Richard John Neuhaus offered me a job. Midge Decter retired at First Things and offered me the job of Associate Editor up there. And I found out that same week that, although I had written much more than anybody else in my department, my chairman had told me they had taken a vote and none of it was going to count for tenure because it wasn't in peer-reviewed journals. So I took the job and I went up to New York and First Things I never quite had Rod's experience of feeling that Father Neuhaus was my pastor outside my Church. Father Neuhaus and I actually fought a great deal, in part, because we were way too close in personality. We are much closer friends since I came to Washington, and serve as poetry editor of First Things.
The advantage of the job at First Things was that Father Neuhaus owns a house there. The job came with an apartment in New York, which is quite a boon. But at one point, Father Neuhaus is my boss and he's my landlord and he offers to be my confessor, too. And that's when I thought maybe I should start looking around for another job because I could feel the whole world closing in on me.
But on the other hand, there were fun people passing through that office. Jim Neuchterlein, and other people who worked at that office were fantastic. The conversations were great. Neal Kozodoy tells the story becoming the new editor of Commentary after Norman Podhoretz retired. Everyone moved up one rung. So they were looking to hire somebody at the lowest level. And as Neal tells the story, he brought somebody in, a lawyer from Los Angeles, who had written a review or two for Commentay. He seemed really good and, he said, he had made all this money as a litigator in Beverly Hills, but he always wanted to be a public intellectual, the poor fellow.
Everybody liked him and he did really well. But Neal said, he lost the job in the last day of the interview when he assured them with great confidence: I've worked in a real office, I know what work is, you can be sure I won't engage in office chitchat. As Neal tells the story, he didn't seem to understand the job is office chitchat.
The life of the magazine happens like that. It's the talk that goes on because nobody can have all the ideas, nobody can have read all the things. It's because we talk and talk and talk about "did you see this piece here, did you see that piece there. So and so said this, so and so said that." Out of this mishmash of stuff that is unimportant, the stuff which is important begins to stand out. I had that experience at First Things. And then I came down to work at the Weekly Standard.
But again, when the editors Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes brought me down from New York, they took me out to lunch at the Mayflower Hotel. I remember this scene with enormous clarity, in part, because I had just come from New York where when they ask you at lunch if you want a drink you order a drink. Here everybody at the table ordered iced tea. I knew then that I had left New York and arrived in Washington.
But we were there at lunch and we talked a little bit in vague generalities about money and talked more specifically about what they wanted if I took charge of the Books and Arts section at the back of the book and relieved them of some worry. At the same time, they made clear to me that they were the editors of the magazine and had friends who wanted to write for them.
In other words, all the kind of things that you do when you work at a magazine. And I said: this all sounds great. I think I'd love to do it. I have to have one thing on the record, though, which is that if the day ever comes when the Weekly Standard I don't think it will, but I just want this on the record if the day ever comes when we run an editorial for the editors that says the time has come to embrace Roe v. Wade, I can't be one of the editors. And Bill Kristol sort of looked down, took up his fork and sort of drew circles on the table cloth because he didn't particularly seem to like being dictated to by a prospective literary editor. But he said what I remember as a great line: he said, we are square on abortion and getting squarer.
So I have to confess that I've never had to hide my light under a bushel in the career that I've had, such as it is. Now it's not much of a career. It's also unfortunate and this is the real problem that I want to get to it ain't much of a light either that I haven't had to hide.
The truth is I'm not a very good Catholic. I don't know why anybody would put me up in a position like this, to present myself as a Catholic, any kind of Catholic authority or Catholic figure or Catholic speaker or Catholic anything. If the world were rightly ordered, I would be a very plain journalist of an old-fashioned sort who happens to be a Catholic.
Now the fact that I'm being presented even in this context, even by my friends, in some way or other is proof, it seems to me, of the massive disorder of the world. When Catholics are doing secular jobs, it seems to me that we bring two things to it. We cannot bring our faith to it, in particular. You can be a faithful man and you can do your work faithfully, but the Catholic faith trotted directly into the work, if it is a secular magazine, strikes me as a mistake. The two things that can be brought in, however, right away is a sensibility, which is to say, a kind of feeling about what is important: why certain things matter, why truth and beauty are real in the world. The unity of truth, which is actually Thomas Aquinas' phrase.
The second thing, oddly, we can bring in is metaphysics. I've never trotted my faith out on the page. I feel scruples about that, even for Catholic magazines. It just seems inappropriate. But I also believe that Catholicism is true, which is to say that there is an order of truth in the world. The world is porous to explanation. God has invested it with the possibility of explanation; there are truths of physics, truths of metaphysics, and truths of ethics, which are universally true regardless of whether or not we believe them, and that metaphysical view of the world as well can be brought into the work and is brought into the work all the time.
I've written over the last year, maybe six or seven editorials on cloning for the Weekly Standard, each one more over the top than the last. None of them trotting out my faith, but all of them trotting out the metaphysics of truth that I believe is true. >
Rod spoke about ignorance. He's absolutely right, of course. Father Neuhaus loves to recall a time that the New York Times referred to the St. James translation of the Bible. It was seven years ago and he is still using it. But he's still using it because it shows a level of ignorance about religion that the Times would not tolerate in copy editors and proof readers in any other field whatsoever.
For the New York Times to allow that level of error to reach print means that they have a belief in or disbelief in the importance of this that's really quite revealing.
Now some of our evangelical friends want to argue for biblical positions. That's exactly what I feel I can't bring in. Besides the fact that Catholics typically can't do it because we don't read the Bible, it's usually reserved for converts to do so for us. God gives us converts as a sword. Frank Ward once explained that Chesterton, Ronald Knox, and all the rest of the people writing all of these books of apologetics argues either an unbelievable articulateness on the part of these converts or a monstrous inarticulacy among Catholics.
I think I suffer from the monstrous inarticulacy because I'm not sure how to structure a real apologetic in a secular world. In one sense, my faith informs everything I do.
But taking my own case as paradigmatic which I know is a dangerous thing, it seems to me that there are two errors. If you're Catholic working for the secular media, you are walking a tight wire and you can fall off on one of two sides.
One side is overscrupulousity in which you are simply afraid there are Catholics who work for the New York Times who are like this. They are so afraid of being tarred as Catholics or being accused of bringing their personal faith into their professional lives that they go further than anybody else in hiding their personal faith, suppressing it, going to the opposite extreme, reporting the anti-Catholic stories more because they are Catholics and thus can demonstrate that they are professional. That's definitely an error.
The second error, however, it seems to me that we risk falling into is the error of becoming professional Catholics. It is a particularly alluring error right now because there was a time in the world of public intellectuals when Bill Buckley could be a Catholic, but that was only one of the things he was. In the world of public intellectuals and talking heads, what television program producers, what the magazine editors want is to have a tag for you filed in their heads. This is very bad and very dangerous to have that tag Catholic, professional Catholic, because then you are expected to be a spokesmen for Catholic things. Whenever you show up, you are not allowed to have any opinions except insofar as those opinions reflect the official Catholic opinion or you are one of the people. This is very dangerous because I don't think in the culture at present that you can be many things. You can't be all things to all people. And the Catholic point of view will not be presented except by professional Catholics if all of the people in the secular media are determined by the label Catholic. And that strikes me as a particular worry, particularly as it has never been easier to get into print.
Taking my own case as paradigmatic, the problem is I can't write enough. It's not getting published. It's never been easier, it strikes me, to get your opinions out into public. It's a really good time for it, a really easy time for it.
Now that job of being a professional Catholic, it seems to me, is one into which Rob Dreher has fallen. In recent articles Rod has fallen off the tight rope. He said that pedophilia scandals have to be talked about. He's absolutely right and we should talk about it. We should talk about it in this room, but that doesn't mean it has to be talked about on the front cover of National Review.
He says we need to regain our public voice. It strikes me that this is not the way to regain our public voice. This is the way to lose it forever. In fact, there are publications that would willingly use Catholics to be the point men in this attack which they intend to ultimately to be an attack on Catholicism. We've seen it before. The lefty journals of New York City have a set of people they use as their professional Catholics, Garry Wills, or Mary Gordon. They're always trotted out to say: I am a Catholic, but I have to say, the Church's position on this or what the Church is doing on that is an outrage.
I've watched it happen on the right as well. The Wall Street Journal a few years ago published a column by Ralph McInerny that bothered me a great deal. He let himself be used by the Wall Street Journal to write exactly the Garry Wills/Mary Gordon column that says I am a Catholic, but I can't believe what the Church is saying about capital punishment. This is a perpetual threat, a perpetual danger and it seems to me one that we must all guard ourselves against and that Rod has fallen off the wagon on.
Dreher: So what's the alternative? If we only leave the public square open to the Richard McBrien's, the dissenters, among the professional Catholic set, who's is going to be out there to stand up for what the Church really does teach. Being a faithful Catholic does not mean that you have to fall in line behind the bishops just out of respect for the bishops because of their office.
Bottum: It's when it becomes obsession that it begins to worry me. I also think you are mad, Rod, if you imagine that by being widely quoted in dissent you are thereby going to gain a standing that you will be able to use in the mainstream media when you want to put out a position of orthodoxy. You are not gaining resources on this topic which will then allow you to print something otherwise orthodox on a later issue in the New York Times. It's just not true.
Dreher: I just don't see what the alternative is. I don't enjoy attacking the Church, but I think it has to be done and it has to be done from a position of fidelity to the magisterium and fidelity to the laity as well because the Church is not just the institution.
If a newspaper or magazine fails to attract readers, then everything else about that publication the crispness of its reporting, the cogency of its editorial insights, the originality of its approach becomes utterly irrelevant. A publication without readers is like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods, far away from anyone's ears; it might make a sound, but the question is purely academic.
(I should mention, before continuing, that in this presentation I will often speak of "the press" and "publications." In doing so, I am showing the instincts and yes, the prejudices of a print journalist. But I would argue that my analysis applies, mutatis mutandis, with equal vigor to the electronic media.)
Now let me offer a corollary to my initial proposition. If the first imperative for a publication is to be read, then every other imperative to be accurate, to be incisive, to be timely, to be entertaining becomes relevant in proportion to the extent to which the first imperative has been met. Readers will very logically set higher ethical standards for a publication that is circulated widely; if the New York Times carries a story containing factual errors, then that is a much more serious than if the same sort of errors appeared in the newsletter of a local garden club. So when we set out to render judgment on any publication, we should begin with the fundamental question: How successful is that publication in attracting readers?
Sad to say, the Catholic media in the United States do not measure well against that standard. There are too many diocesan newspapers that are tossed, unread, into the recycling bins. There are too many magazines that publish interesting essays, which are read by only a handful of subscribers. In short, the Catholic media in the United States are not fulfilling their first ethical imperative.
Why is this the case?
The first answer to that question lies in the structure of the publishing operation. Most of the Catholic publications printed in America today are diocesan newspapers. These are, more often than not, viewed as publications of record, rather than commercial enterprises. Since they are subsidized by the diocese, their continued existence hangs on the verdict of the publisher the bishop rather than that of their readers. So these publications are never exposed to a "market test." They are never forced to measure their success against the one fundamental standard that should apply to any publication.
Leaving aside the diocesan newspapers, however, we can turn to the other journals that have sprung up in the world of American Catholic publishing. Unfortunately, many of these publications are also marked by the same failure to meet the market test. There are dozens of very talented, capable Catholic journalists who have fired by their idealism set out to publish magazines and newspapers. These would-be editors can readily find writers who will supply them with material. They can easily find illustrators, and typographers, and copy-editors. What they cannot find is readers.
affairs. As a business plan, this model for editorial policy is guaranteed to produce a disaster. And regrettably, this model is the dominant one among diocesan newspapers. But there are alternatives. An editor can carve out his own market niche by specializing in the treatment of stories that other, more powerful media outlets do not cover. Nearly a decade ago I noticed, in my work as the editor of Catholic World Report, that I was receiving an unusual number of requests from the editors of diocesan newspapers for permission to reprint stories about the Cairo conference on population. At first blush, those requests seemed absurd. Why would diocesan papers most of them weekly look for permission to reprint news articles from a monthly publication? Shouldn't that process work in reverse?
The fact of the matter, however, was that secular media outlets had ignored many important aspects of the Cairo conference. At the time. Catholic World Report was functioning as "the only game in town" we were the only media outlet providing a clear picture of the conference as seen through the eyes of the Vatican and of the Catholic Church.
As a former editor of The Pilot, which is now the official newspaper of the Boston archdiocese, I recognized this situation. Late in the nineteenth century, before it was acquired by the archdiocese, the Pilot was an independent lay publication designed for Catholic readers but, more particularly, for the enormous market of Irish Catholics who had recently immigrated to America. For years the Pilot was the newspaper of record for all Irish immigrants, and the subscription figures testified to the success of that business plan. At its peak, the weekly circulation of the Pilot compared favorably with that of the New York Times.
The challenge for the Catholic media in America today, I contend, is to create what marketing experts call an "affinity group" a cohort of people who, like those Irish immigrant readers of the Pilot years ago, identify themselves with the publication.
How can this be accomplished?
Faithful Catholics in American today complain frequently and with good reason about an anti-Catholic bias in the media. My purpose here is not to prove that the media harbor such a bias, but to explain how it is made manifest.
At times, a bias against Catholicism becomes evident in a reporter's choice of words, or his selection of sources. But the more important form of bias is a less obvious one. Catholics who complain about media bias can complain about a particular inaccurate sentence, or a specific misleading quotation. But it is much more difficult to catalog the quotations that have not been printed, the stories that have not been treated, the news events that have not been given even a few lines of hostile coverage.
Editors portion out coverage of the day's news stories according to their own perceptions of the stories' importance. If editors take a keen interest in economic affairs, then economic stories will dominate the headlines. And since surveys have conclusively proven that American newspaper editors are, by and large, uninterested in religious affairs, it should be no surprise that American newspapers give very little prominence to the stories that are of specific interest to religious believers.
To take the most obvious example, consider the treatment of the pro-life movement in the American mass media. The number of American citizens who have taken a direct, active role in the pro-life movement is much larger than the number of those involved in the civil-rights movements of the 1960s. The number of pro-life protestors arrested during the heyday of Operation Rescue in the late 1980s is exponentially greater than those jailed during the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era. So how can we explain the comparative paucity of media coverage for the pro-life movement? It is a simple matter, really. In the 1960s, most of the reporters working for the major media news outlets had personal acquaintances who were active in the civil-right protests. In the 1970s, most reporters had friends in the anti-war movement. But in the 1980s, few reporters had personal ties to pro-life activists.
There are, in other words, two very different ways in which the mass media can put their own "spin" on a story. The first method is by selecting the facts that are at their disposal, so as to favor one approach to a potentially controversial story. The other method is both more innocent and more insidious: Reporters put their own prejudices into the news when editors select the stories that are most interesting to them, and to their reporters without thinking about whether those stories are equally interesting to their reading audience.
The effect of media bias, then, is most telling not in the coverage of stories, but in the selections of stories. The anti-religious bias of opinion leaders in the American mass media which, again, has been amply documented in studies by groups such as the Catholic League and the Media Research Center shows not so much in the treatment of news stories as in the omission of stories that could be included in the news.
So I return to my experience as the editor of a monthly magazine, taking a keen interest in the preparations for the Cairo Conference. I was successful in producing stories that were interesting to Catholic weekly newspapers not because I had any special access to the facts (which were equally available to anyone who took an interest) but because I asked reporters to follow up on the available leads. I was able, in that way, to develop a "niche market" at least for that one-time event.
And now I am happy to report that, in this generally gloomy appraisal of the future of Catholic journalism, there are some very clear indications of hope for the future. The most salient aspect of recent developments in media technology is the expansion of access to the means of mass communication. We no longer live in the world in which only wealthy individuals or large corporations can afford access to the mass media. Anyone with a computer and a minimum of technical expertise can offer his own reports, and make them available at least in theory to an unlimited number of readers.
A generation or even a decade ago, it would have been unrealistic to think that a single individual could challenge the major players in the business of delivering news and commentary. Yet look at the success of the Drudge Report! The Internet, by reducing the costs of delivery to virtually nil, has made it possible for many independent operators to enter into competition with larger operations. (So it is that my own start-up syndicate, the Catholic World News site cwnews.com has become a realistic alternative to the Catholic News Service, a much larger operation nourished by subsidies from the American hierarchy.)
The leitmotiv of news coverage in the internet age is diversification. As the barriers to entry into the news business are lowered, and the number of competitors in the field is increased, the market competition will become keener and more specialized. Few if any Catholic outlets will be able to compete on a daily basis with the sheer news-gathering muscle of media giants such as Reuters and the Associated Press. But some of us may be able to survive, and indeed to flourish, if we demonstrate our ability to produce stories that these larger services ignore.
The best prospect for success in Catholic publishing, then, lies not in competition with the secular media, but in consistently finding those stories that elude the editorial interest of secular news gathering agencies. Although the pool of "Catholic readers" may be diminishing, it is paradoxically the case that the most successful Catholic publications of the early twenty-first century will be those that cater more and more specifically to the interests of the Catholic readership.
The late and great English Catholic evangelist and apologist, Frank Sheed, saw a seminal problem in the early 1970s. He had spent much of his life dedicated to what we might call "enlightened Catholic apologetics" aimed at two audiences: first, the majority membership of the Church of England which still maintained a rather strong anti-Catholic bias, and, second, a message aimed at the enlightened atheism of the intellectual elite.
By the 1970s, he saw a changing and growing need. More and more, he felt that a new apologetics was needed aimed at the Catholic population itself. This was not for the purpose of arming them with an array of arguments to support and defend their Catholic beliefs in a sometimes hostile White Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture. Rather, Sheed used the word "reversion" to describe this new apologetics. Catholics would need a "reversion" to the faith as adults, an informed conversion in response to the post-Christian world that will overwhelm them. In his own way, Sheed had seen the troops of the French existentialists having their impact on Western culture, with the resulting cultural despondency. What Sheed saw coming three decades ago was not Catholics losing their faith to other Christian denominations, but to an a-religious mode of thinking. They were losing an ability to "think Catholic" to see, judge, and act in their world based on the principles of their Catholic faith, even if those people regularly practiced the faith. This new faith expression of faith was simply a benign agnosticism confined to the sacristy with no real impact on how a life was lived and a world understood.
My temptation in these brief comments on the difficulty of reaching adult Catholics today with the message of faith was to focus on the business side of things. As publisher and president of Our Sunday Visitor for many years, I battled to find decent mailing lists, the dark science of direct-mail marketing, renewal rates, and website promotions. Since I got out of the business precisely because I was sick of all that, I will refrain. Rather, let me just address this issue of reaching adult Catholics today with a simple concept: "It's difficult to preach to the choir when the choir cannot sing."
What Sheed feared, we have. Even among practicing Catholics, a benign agnosticism has settled in. The choir no longer knows the words, the melody, or the meaning. They can't sing because they neither know the song nor, really, understand that they should be singing at all.
It is my unoriginal observation that for most practicing Catholics, the faith they profess on Sundays has little to do with their daily understanding of the world. We gather here today because most of us understand that if the opinions of the average Catholic on the issues of the day happen to coincide with that of the faith, it is purely that: coincidence. The beliefs by which most practicing Catholics in America drive and guide their lives come from the daily propaganda of the humdrum clichés that make up conventional wisdom, rather than an application of the truths of faith to the world in which they live. Americans and Catholic Americans of course embrace that safe, so-called tolerant "civil religion." They express belief in God by high percentages, and half readily identify themselves as religious, while an additional 33 percent identity themselves as "spiritual," though not defining what that means exactly. Over 30 percent attend religious services once a week, a church attendance rate more than three times that of Europe.
Our "choir" that can't sing makes up anywhere between 20 to 40 percent of those identifying themselves as Catholic in any given region of the United States. These are the people who do attend church regularly. But for many of these, their religious expression has little or no impact on their worldview. And here, I go on intuition and the rhetoric of experience, though backed up by things such as voting patterns and various and sundry opinion polls on issues that would relate to applying faith practically.
Of course, Catholics have always been a part of the culture in which they live. But it is the extent of the problem today that I believe is unique and makes finding answers all the more difficult. This is not simply a matter of better doctrinal preparation in schools, better sermons, better Catholic publications. Not that any of these would hurt. Yet so many of adult Catholics unable to apply the faith to their lives have in fact benefited from all that, yet they are still unable to resist the siren call of today's secular propaganda. These Catholics are not just callow youth. Many of them are over 50 and raised in the Church of Pius XII. That is why I think the picture has become much bigger than merely shallow catechesis, and that's why countering it is that much more difficult.
Let me explain my difficulty in approaching this issue, particularly as it overturns one of my own pet theories. In my experience in dealing with what we might call the average Catholic in the pew, my common difficulty was in the general acceptance of our American Protestant cultural heritage. Many Catholics in America had absorbed a Protestant vision, as this was the vision that predominated in American culture. Their understanding of history, their education, their philosophy, if you will, came from this milieu. I still think there is certainly much to that among Catholic Americans. Give a speech to a secular or Catholic audience on virtually any topic that is at all contentious, and you will hear about: 1) the Inquisition; 2) the Crusades; and 3) more recently, the "silence" of Pope Pius XII (which has replaced the Syllabus of Errors of Pius IX). All such topics have received a historical gloss based on an essentially English Protestant heritage. American Catholics were simply inheriting in huge gulps an anti-Catholic understanding of culture and history.
The difficulty today is the same, but different. Most Catholics still judge what they know of their faith by the prevailing understanding of the culture. The problem is different today in that this culture no longer has a body of shared thinking, or heritage. In effect, fighting the culture is like fighting the wind. There is "no there there" to combat. Yes, there is a certain mushy secularism, a leveling that persists with the impact of media. But the more serious problem might be the culture of entertainment that has crowded out all thought.
I have often argued the necessity of teaching people to think Catholic. The difficulty today is compounded by the need to get people thinking at all; to get people engaged above and beyond merely "feeling." We are not combating a particular brand of thinking; we are combating what has essentially become anti-thinking. There is an overwhelming influence now of a philosophy, such as it is, of entertainment. The influence of the philosophy of entertainment has become ubiquitous, to the point where everything all media, all news, all analysis is wrapped in the deadening cloak of entertainment. It has created a "popular culture" that has chased out all other culture.
This certainly creates the common ignorance so commonly deplored: people who know virtually nothing of history, philosophy, or the tenets of the religion they allegedly profess. Yet, their knowledge of the pop culture is virtually encyclopedic. They can discourse on fashion, films, celebrity, sports and television programming ad infinitum.
But there is more going on here than merely the distractions of popular trivia passing as knowledge. The language and patterns of the culture of entertainment infect their approach to everything. It is a culture that focuses on the ephemeral, the individual, and that which seems most personally gratifying. Emotional self-indulgence and individual deification are the hallmarks of this new age.
We can see how this culture of entertainment dominates journalism. Virtually every story involving any "issue" now begins with the individual. Each story goes from the personal to the trend, rarely settling in for careful analysis or reasoned thought. Euthanasia, for example, cannot be discussed in the context of how we view life, how we view our culture, how we treat illness and the ill in our society. The story, in order to be entertaining, must be presented based on one particular case, one particular individual. The treatment is purely "human interest," meaning that it avoids as much as possible the dull distractions of thought. The rule pounded into every journalism student now is that we would rather read about people than issues. Read your daily newspaper and count how many stories begin with a personal lead.
Entertainment has become the central point of reference in people's lives. This is not just the incessant search for the distraction of "entertainment." It is a celebration of a superficiality that replaces the real with the unreal, worth with self-worth, thinking with feeling.
How does this culture of entertainment impact on faith and how people view faith in their lives? The essential difficulty is that faith is looked to as another competing element of entertainment. People will be observant at Mass and the sacraments, but allowing the faith to have impact on how they respond to the culture does not occur to them. That's not what makes the faith real to them. What makes it real is the sense of "entertainment" that it provides in their lives; what makes it real is how "happy" it makes them feel on a personal level. And the problem with the Catholic faith is that its primary mission of salvation is not tied to making one happy. The Faith was never meant to make life easy. In fact, I agree with Flannery O'Connor's assessment: "What people don't realize is how much faith costs. They think of faith as a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe."
So why do we have such great difficulty in getting our message across even with the practicing Catholic population? Because we are at cross-purposes. Essentially, they look to the Church to make them happy, while the Church sees its mission as saving their souls.
What is my answer to all this? I remind you that I finally left Our Sunday Visitor in frustration. That is how effective I was in finding an answer. But let me offer a few simplistic ideas with the assumption that the renewed quality of the catechesis of the young, driven by the Catechism of the Catholic Church, will remain the norm.
First, the nuns told us when we were very young to "act as if you have faith and faith you will have." Despite my poor, disparaged, non-singing choir, that choir generally performs better than those who never take part. Practicing Catholics those who attend Mass and the sacraments regularly are far better in taking at least the initial steps in bringing their faith outside the sacristy. We see this in virtually any survey on any issue when Catholics are differentiated between practicing and non-practicing. Evangelization to Catholics to get them back to Mass and the sacraments must be a priority. This should be reflected in our publications. Assisting our readers in the mission of returning indifferent Catholics to the practice of the faith should be an essential part of our apostolate.
Second, we also need an adult religious education that gets rid of the models of childhood faith expression. Too many adult Catholics I meet have an image of God and the faith that has never grown beyond the images presented for a child's understanding. Adult religious education is too often merely an exercise in self-absorption, reflecting a model that affirms a lifestyle rather than challenging the intellect. In this way adult religious education has simply shadowed the excesses of experiential catechesis from an earlier period in religious education. The adult expression of faith has to be concrete, thoughtful and real, not ethereal, utilitarian and self-absorbed. There is no reason that this cannot be a critical part of our publishing goals.
Third, we need to network the faithful better. The best Catholics I encounter are never isolated. They have built up or found a community of like-minded believers that is not confined necessarily to the parish in which they practice. They have re-created what my friend Russell Shaw refers to in the most positive sense as a new Catholic ghetto. But they do this not in a sense of parochial isolation. The goal of this network is to evangelize the wider Catholic community, as well as society as a whole. The more our periodicals can reflect this sense of community and encourage this level of communication, the better they serve the Church.
Which brings us to the necessity of public witness, particularly through secular media. I believe totally, strongly and firmly in the Catholic Press. I have dedicated my life to it and I think it absolutely vital. But we cannot focus our efforts solely in that forum. It is essential to reach out through the secular media, which is usually not difficult because our perspective to them is the ultimate "man-bites-dog" story. We need to do this both to confirm to the like-minded that they are not alone; and to evangelize that wider culture. Our goal, after all, is the conversion of society, not just to bless our own.
In our own Catholic newspapers and periodicals geared toward adults particularly those meant for the average adult in the pew we must adhere to Frank Sheed's apostolate of reversion. This is a call for a new apologetics that aggressively challenges the conventional cultural wisdom of our times and our society from the understanding of faith. We need to defend faith and a faith-based response to the times. Again, the beliefs by which most practicing Catholics in America drive and guide their lives come from the daily propaganda of conventional wisdom, rather than an application of the truths of faith to the world in which they live. It is that conventional secular religion, a pastiche of mushy secularism where the only virtue is an ill-defined tolerance, that needs to be forthrightly and regularly addressed. Our response has to be to the propaganda of the ordinary in the culture of entertainment.
Finally, at least in this modest list, we need a constant drumbeat on the application of faith to the world and what is going on in the world. The people in the pews desperately need to understand the vitality of the faith, not just in terms of personal enrichment, but in the conversion of their society. We should leave them armed and dangerous, so that they can best respond to those French existentialist paratroopers.
"Catholics, the Media, and the American Public Square." Faith and Reason Institute (March, 2002).
These papers were given at the National Press Club on March 13-14, 2002.
"The Catholics, the Media, and the American Public Square" Conference and text was made possible by a grant from Pew Charitable Trusts.
These talks are reprinted with permission of the Faith and Reason Institute.
Faith & Reason Institute
© 2004 Faith and Reason Institute
Not all articles published on CERC are the objects of official Church teaching, but these are supplied to provide supplementary information.