A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

Is there a difference between the Catholic “church and its “hierarchy”?

That’s a question that very few, if any, editors and reporters working in either the mainstream or religious press seem to have asked themselves. It’s just another of the many questions to come out of the clerical sex-abuse scandal and the downfall of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick that highlighted news coverage since this summer.

It’s a question that was surfaced by Father Thomas Reese (for decades a major source in many mainstream news reports) in a recent opinion piece that ran on Religion News Service. Journalists need to think about what he’s saying, so here’s an excerpt:

I remember in the 1980s taking a tour of the House of Commons in London. The tour guide pointed to a plaque on the wall in honor of a minister “who was killed by the Irish Catholics.” Not the IRA, not the Provos, not the terrorists, but the Irish Catholics.

Today we do the same thing when we say, “Muslims are killing Christians.”

Saying that the Catholic church did not protect children is just as wrong. It was the bishops. It was the hierarchy.

We should not blame the the people of God for the sins of the hierarchy. In many other churches, the people have some say in selecting their leadership and therefore have some responsibility for their hierarchy’s actions. Not so in the Catholic Church, where new leaders are chosen by current leaders.

If the hierarchy had been open with the laity about the sex abuse crisis, if the bishops had listened to the people, we would not be in the mess we are today.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Reese has an interesting take, but one that's loaded with journalistic naivete.

When speaking of Catholicism, the term “church” does often refer to the hierarchy in references used by journalists in news accounts. In this regard, the words “church” and “hierarchy” are often interchangeable.

Catholicism is a hierarchical religion and journalists are, in most cases, not referring to the faithful when saying “the church” failed to protect children or young seminarians. It’s akin to using terms like “the people” when talking about a criminal trial and referencing “prosecutors” or “the government.” It reminds me of some of the gripes Mormons have had, and are still having, with the way the press has identified them.

Dictionaries are still of vital use. Every newspaper editor I have ever known has had one either on their desk or in their top drawer. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the word “church” as the following:

1: a building for public and especially Christian worship

2: the clergy or officialdom of a religious body the word church … is put for the persons that are ordained for the ministry of the Gospel, that is to say, the clergy— J. Ayliffe

3: often capitalized a body or organization of religious believers: such as

a: the whole body of Christians the one church is the whole body gathered together from all ages— J. H. Newman

b: DENOMINATION the Presbyterian church

c: CONGREGATION they had appointed elders for them in every church— Acts 14:23 (Revised Standard Version)

4: a public divine worship goes to church every Sunday

5: the clerical profession considered the church as a possible career

The second definition — that it refers to “clergy or officialdom” — is what journalists mean when they use the term to describe Vatican officials, cardinals and bishops who had any involvement in covering up abuse on their watch and in their jurisdictions.

There is a lesson here for those working in largely secular newsrooms — and especially copy editors who write headlines for print and the web — that know little about religion and often even less about how the Catholic church works. Terms like “clericalism” and “laity” are not seen in mainstream news stories on a regular basis. In the face of the growing sex-abuse scandal, editors and reporters needed to quickly get into the know.

In his column, Reese also makes this claim in an effort to bolster his thesis:

“Church” is the word we use to translate the Greek word “ekklesia,” which originally had the meaning of an assembly called together by a secular authority.

In the New Testament, the term is used more than 100 times — to refer to Christians assembled for the Eucharist, to a local congregation (such as the church at Corinth) or to all the people of God united as a body with Christ as its head.

The leaders of the community were not “the church,” but the apostles, bishops, presbyters and elders.

Language matters.

Indeed, language matters. So does context. There are lots of priests and laypeople who also helped abusers hide. The ultimate authority of the Roman curia is the pontiff and the cardinals and bishops (which the pope appoints and promotes), but the situation on the ground — at local churches and parochial schools — is much more tangled and nuanced.

In my experience, that’s something you can’t catch in a headline. That’s what context is for.

Those whispers in the church pews, for example, about a particular priest were often known by parishioners, but nothing was done by them and those in charge. Church hierarchy has ultimate authority in these matters. I agree that it rests with the cardinals, but Reese’s argument echoes Pope Francis’ claim this past August that clericalism was the real culprit.

Clericalism, the pope has said, is the excessive deference and an assumption of moral superiority from church officials. The pontiff echoed this sentiment again just last month in a meeting with seminarians.

In this case, Reese, a Jesuit like Pope Francis, may be toeing the church line (there goes that word again!) put out there since this summer’s explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report. Editors and reporters do need to be keenly aware of language and the correct terminology, but overall there’s been no journalistic malpractice committed here.

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