A journalism fellowship program I'm involved with recently heard from one Sam Feist, CNN's Washington, D.C., bureau chief. He told us that many moons ago, he’d written some copy for the on-air talent to read for that night’s show. The line was something like “Clinton believes that the tax bill will pass.” The guy who was supposed to read the line — he happened to be an old-school journalist of some renown — excoriated him. He told Feist that a reporter can never know what a politician thinks, believes or feels. The reporter can only know what the politician says. Politicians might be telling you something for any number of reasons. Sure, it might be because they believe it. It might be because they want to send a particular message to the opposition or to the ground troops. It might be because they are straight up lying. It might be for any number of reasons. But a reporter can never know what someone believes. He can only know what the source says and does.
I don't care who you are, or how well you think you know your source (cough, David Petraeus, cough), you can never know what someone believes. Ever.
I thought of that when reading a portion of this RNS report on how the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops debated a document titled “The Hope of the Gospel in Difficult Economic Times,” and then failed to secure a two-thirds majority for passage.
The article provides some details about the discussion. Nobody got the draft prior to the meeting and many folks had a beef with the 14-page document. Not having followed this debate particularly closely, I wasn't entirely sure what the problem was. But I bring this all up because of this paragraph:
Yet in a sign of the growing generational and ideological split among the bishops, some of the younger and more conservative bishops wanted to kill the statement because they believe the hierarchy should largely restrict their statements to matters of faith. They also view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion, and say the church should emphasize private charity rather than government action to cure social ills.
“I think the best thing we can do is to scrap the document and go home and find some tangible and practical ways to help the poor,” said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., who dismissed the document as irrelevant.
Savvy readers will note that the quote doesn't substantiate the claims made in the preceding paragraph. In fact, there is no substantiation provided for that rather dramatic paragraph. My first problem is that we're told what these unnamed "younger and more conservative bishops" believe. We can't know what they believe. The quote provided talks not about restricting statements to matters of faith but about tangible and practical ways to help the poor.
And do these unnamed folks "view traditional Catholic social teaching with suspicion"? Really? Would a single one of them say that? (And who are these people who've been characterized in such a way?) Why not quote what they actually say? I mean, you may find them saying that the claim made by RNS is not true. You may find them saying that they think what passes for social justice in the modern media-political complex bears no resemblance to actual Catholic social teaching. You may find them saying any number of things. But are we really supposed to buy this assertion -- made without any supporting evidence -- that they view Catholic social teaching with suspicion.
This is a crowd that loves to talk and is easy to quote. Quote 'em!
The rest of the article talks about how Dolan and other bishops (who I guess are neither younger nor on the conservative side of the bishops conference?) tried to get the bishops to say something about the economy. It failed.
As an outsider interested in the topic, I'd like to hear more about the specific proposals of the document, how they were developed, whether any economists were involved, what type of economists they were (if so), what are the major contours of the debate on how best to help the poor, and even more on whether the Catholic Church has anything to say about the benefits or costs of voluntary charity vs. government programs in theory and in practice.
The bottom line: Has anything in recent years made the bishops more leery of taking funding from state and federal governments for health care, adoption, aid to the poor?
In general, I'd like to see more facts and less unsubstantiated speculation on motives.