Pope Francis speaks to journalists on board an Alitalia aircraft en route from Bratislava's Milan Rastislav Stefanik International Airport in Slovakia back to Rome on Sept. 5. (Photo: Tiziana Fabi/AFP)
Nearly two decades ago, I was asked to become the editor-in-chief of the weekly newspaper published by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Japan.
My first reaction was gut-hurting laughter. When I caught my breath, I said to the priest who had been sent to present the proposal, “Look at my face!” It was, indeed, unprecedented to ask a non-Japanese to run a Japanese-language newspaper.
Later, I met the bishop who was the liaison with the paper and I asked him if I would have the sort of editorial freedom and authority that is usual for a newspaper editor. He replied, “So long as you don’t start publishing heresy, you have that freedom. Test us.”
I took the job, and shortly afterward we had the first test.
A bishop had been sued in a case that was never mentioned in any Catholic media. The only coverage was in a local secular newspaper and a Buddhist newspaper. Catholics in his diocese who knew the story were mostly cowed into silence.
When the bishop lost the suit, I told my staff that it was news, but since the whole case had been hidden from Catholics, we would have to do an article that explained its background and history. When the reporters showed hesitancy, I assured them that the only job at risk was mine. The story went on the front page.
Sexual abuse by clergy and cover-ups by those in positions of responsibility have been spotlighted by secular media
The day it was printed, the bishop who had told me to test the bishops happened to be in Tokyo and invited the priests who worked at the bishops’ conference to join him for dinner before he headed home to his diocese.
When dessert came out, the bishop called my name. Immediately, every fork and coffee cup went down as the priests waited to hear what would come next.
“Your predecessor [who had come to the newspaper from a magazine put out by his religious order] would not have printed that story.”
I replied, “My predecessor was not trying to run a newspaper.”
“Yes, but we wanted him to.”
Everyone went back to their dessert and coffee.
A couple of days later, a package arrived from the bishop who was the subject of the story. It contained his papers regarding the case along with a note saying that he would not appeal the verdict and that I had free use of the papers if I felt further coverage was necessary.
My mother once complained about a totally different sort of relationship between the Catholic press and a prelate in her diocesan newspaper: “There were nine pictures of the bishop on the first 11 pages!” I assume that none of the pictures illustrated an article about a lawsuit.
Pope Francis recently honored two journalists whose “beat” includes the Vatican. Neither works for a Church-related news agency. During the ceremony, the pope thanked all journalists who point out “what’s wrong with the Church.”
With few exceptions, it has been news media with no connection to the Church that have performed that service. Sexual abuse by clergy and cover-ups by those in positions of responsibility have been spotlighted by secular media. There are other stories that will sooner or later be told, but probably not in Church-related media.
Catholic news sources that are objective, professional and, frankly, honest, are rare. Francis praised journalists, but the institution still does not want to see real journalism
When independent Church-related news media have tried to present those stories, they have been attacked by those who claim to be “protecting the Church,” though more often than not it is an exercise in self-defense. Non-independent sources print photos of bishops.
Catholic news sources that are objective, professional and, frankly, honest, are rare. Francis praised journalists, but the institution still does not want to see real journalism.
Two thousand years ago when there was as yet no such thing as journalism, Jesus pointed out the hypocrisy of those who exercised power among and against believers. Today, that is part of the vocation of journalism.
If that doesn’t happen today, if the Church’s communications are just public relations, the Church and its mission suffer.
We all suffer embarrassment when, as is inevitable, corruption and scandal that have been hidden are exposed by others. The shrinking number of those who have high expectations are scandalized. Idealists who might otherwise choose lives of service in the Church turn away from an institution that values cover-up over truth. Some leave the Church in disgust.
Compared to all that, how can Church managers claim that bad press even (or especially) when true is a problem?
The biggest problem is a loss of credibility for the true message of the Church, the Gospel. The Church desperately needs honest, objective, professional news sources or it will be useless for the proclamation of the Gospel. Such honesty, while sometimes embarrassing, will also be confirmation to the world that we are committed to the truth and therefore worthy of some trust.
The bishops of Japan knew that presenting the whole picture of the Church is ultimately a service to the People of God and the Gospel. Should not other Church managers learn from them?
* The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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