In defense of balance

Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, has weighed in on the Thomas Reese controversy. America magazine, he writes,

shouldn't be "balanced" in the sense of inviting those who reject Catholic or Christian tenets to present their case for their positions.

By publishing, say, a pro-homosexual-marriage piece and a pro-Catholic-view-of-marriage piece side-by-side, America gives the impression that this is a subject up for legitimate debate within Catholicism and that America is the place to go to participate in that debate. . . . By publishing "name" Catholic commentators who are orthodox, America can draw attention to itself as it says, "See, we give both sides their chance" -- as if on many of the issues under discussion there are two legitimate sides within the Catholic Church, when in fact there aren't.

He discusses the matter further and concludes,

America is not Salon.com or The New Republic or Fox News. It's published by the Jesuits, a religious order of the Catholic Church. It should not be publishing articles contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Period. There are plenty of other publications that do that. What we need in America is a solidly Catholic voice presenting Catholic teaching and defending it. Let the non-Catholics or the not-so-Catholics worry about giving the other side in their publications.

I take Brumley's point, but then I'm not terribly certain what to do with it. As a Catholic, I understand -- or at least I think I understand -- the importance of orthodoxy. I agree with the principle that Catholic institutions and publications should be Catholic. And I do understand that a publication of the Jesuits is ultimately a publication of the Catholic Church.

But it just does not compute for me as a journalist. If a publication got carried away with Brumley's advice, even letters to the editor would have to be massively filtered -- can't have someone offering the other side, after all.

And, no, I do not think I am caricaturing the position. Many people think that Catholic newspapers and journals should be modeled on diocesan newspapers. The church foots the bills and the content is ultimately controlled by the local hierarchy.

Here's my problem with this model: the sex scandals in the Catholic Church. It stands to reason that a lot of reporters and editors at these journals had some evidence of the scandals way before us pew-warming types had a clue. Their business was the activities of the church, after all. But their salaries came from the church, and their papers function more like newsletters anyway, and so it was up to secular journalists and "dissenting" Catholics like the muckrakers at the National Catholic Reporter to expose some really heinous behavior by priests and church leaders.

Say what you want about the Reporter -- I personally think the editors are a little bit nutty on a whole host of theological issues -- what "orthodox" Catholic publication, what thundering voice of truth, has the guts to offer an invaluable service on the level of the Abuse Tracker?

Maybe they keep tabs on such things for the wrong reason. Maybe the Reporter crew wants to advance a theological agenda that many would find odious. Even granting those things, that is still no reason to write off the information they dig up as tainted and unclean.

Similarly, if America is to be a journal of opinion, it has to be lively. There has to be back-and-forth and debate and, sure, some of what is said in the process of disagreeing with one another is going to sound very unorthodox -- or even un-Catholic -- to a lot of readers.

I hope I'm not creating a straw man out of Brumley's argument. If so, I invite him to beat the stuffing out of me in the comments for this post. And let's be clear: He does have a point. I think there is a tension in any Catholic journalistic project between orthodoxy and journalism. It's a high wire that Catholic newspapers and magazines are going to have to get better at navigating in the future.

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