Does every story in The Post about abortion have to start off with the nice Catholic woman who had one? Did the coverage of the controversy over Father Charles Curran at Catholic University have to refer to church officials in formal terms -- while Curran was unfailingly called "Charlie"? With hundreds of seminarians in America -- many of them, you would think, prayerful and happy -- does the only feature on seminaries have to focus on a man with a tale of racism and homosexuality? No wonder there are many who believe The Post is anti-Catholic, and deliberately so.
Now, it is true that The Post's coverage of my church is frequently unsettling. Sometimes there are factual errors. More often, though, the complaints concern a "lack of balance," too much space given to dissent and problems within the church, etc. And there, I think, it would be useful to examine the position of the church in American society in connection with the proper role of American journalism. It seems to me that there are three aspects (at least) of the church that will, almost irresistibly, attract journalists to write stories that will upset some Catholics.
Dogmatic. As readers may have noticed, the church is an institution that is not at all reluctant to tell people what's right and what's wrong. To do so seems to run counter to our traditions of pluralism and tolerance.
The reaction is even worse when the Vatican says, flatly, "Such-and-such is an objective moral wrong." In part, this is a normal human response to a flat statement. If someone says, "Babe Ruth was the greatest baseball player who ever lived," even though I agree with the statement, something inside makes me want to say, "Yes, but what about Ty Cobb . . . or Hank Aaron?"
In somewhat the same vein, I suppose, a reporter who reads a doctrinal statement from the Vatican must ask himself, "Who are they to say what's right or wrong?" I happen to believe that there is a good answer to that question -- but secular journalists can't and shouldn't be writing from the perspective of Catholic believers. So they look for challenges to the flat statement, and they find them.
Anti-intellectual. Journalists, like lawyers, teachers and many others, make their living by their wits. Naturally, they place a high premium on the use of reason. So does the Catholic Church -- much more so than is commonly believed -- but the church also says that believers must ultimately be willing to subordinate their reason to their faith.
This is not the place to debate that proposition. But to a journalist who is skeptical by profession, whose search is for facts with which to compose his story, the church's attitude must cut completely against the grain. His natural response is to seek out intelligent dissenters who do not "take it on faith." We should be neither surprised nor outraged by this response, as long as the writer (and his editor) take care to evidence a decent respect for those who do take it on faith.
Undemocratic. The political process in this country is supposed to be democratic, or close to it. The church is perhaps the most visible institution in the United States that is professedly undemocratic in its organization. There are plenty of reasons for this -- scriptural, traditional, practical. I find these reasons very sound. But there's no denying that its lack of democracy is an apparently inexhaustible source for newspaper articles.
Couple this with the fact that women are not, and apparently are not to be, represented in the church hierarchy, and you have an institution that must appear almost to be thumbing its nose at the principles of political democracy and equality -- principles that we Americans enforce on our governments and many of our mainstream organizations.
So that is how the church will appear to the journalistic observer. It stands for many things that are not only "countercultural" in America, but specifically contrary to tenets that are central to the profession of journalism.
What, after all, is the journalist trying to do? To cover the "news" -- defined in Webster's as "matter that is interesting to newspaper readers." He writes about what is out of the ordinary. The Catholic Church is surely that. In fact, it seems to me inevitable that the most newsworthy aspects of the Catholic Church will be those that run most counter to the dominant American culture.
I think we should hold newspapers to high standards of accuracy in reporting on the church. I think we could justifiably complain if the selection of stories always featured "bad news." But I do not think that we can reasonably expect to see the church covered from our perspective. The church is out of step with the times. That is how it has been, will be and should be. That is how it will inevitably be reported. Instead of taking offense, perhaps we should take pride -- in a church that is newsworthy and controversial precisely because it stands for values that so transcend the good and the bad in our American culture. The writer is a local attorney