Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

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If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

Even the NCR has noticed the rise of Catholic media. So much so, that it noted the trend in a piece posted on Jan. 15 from Religion News Service under the headline, “From the Bible Belt, EWTN shapes world Catholic news.” This is how the feature opens:

When Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò wants to get the attention of the pope or his fellow bishops, he sits downs and writes a letter.

Then he sends it to Alabama.

At least that's been the pattern since last summer, when Viganò made headlines worldwide after he called on Pope Francis to resign for allegedly covering up misconduct and abuse by Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C. and a former member of the College of Cardinals. It was the first in a series of letters published by the National Catholic Register, a conservative Catholic publication whose parent company is based near Birmingham.

Viganò's latest letter, published Jan. 14 by the Register, calls on McCarrick to repent.

"Time is running out, but you can confess and repent of your sins, crimes and sacrileges, and do so publicly, since they have themselves become public," wrote Viganò. "Your eternal salvation is at stake."

Analysts argue Vigano's controversial letters — and the international media firestorm they sparked — are a sign of the Register's growing influence alongside its parent organization, the Eternal Word Television Network, which also owns the Catholic News Agency. EWTN leaders have spent the better part of four decades quietly building a Catholic media empire that spans the globe.

But the conglomerate, which was founded by a nun, has also drawn waves of scrutiny from cardinals and commentators who argue EWTN uses its profound resources to shore up conservative political and theological positions and attack Pope Francis.

Not that you would know any of this if you pulled up to EWTN's headquarters in Irondale, Ala.

The unassuming brick buildings that house the organization are tucked away in the small Bible Belt suburb outside Birmingham, where pale, weather-beaten statues of biblical figures dot EWTN's grounds. The facilities include EWTN's own in-house sanctuary, where masses are televised and broadcast worldwide every day. The Monastery of the Poor Clare Nuns of Perpetual Adoration and the Shrine of the Most Blessed Sacrament are just a short jaunt away.

Last month, the NCR also ran a piece by RNS columnist Father Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest. His resume includes time as an academic, writer and a stint in the Barack Obama administration. In a Nov. 26 column (which was dissected here at GetReligion), Reese argued that conflating the church’s “hierarchy” with its followers is a mistake. It is worth noting that Reese was senior analyst for the NCR from 2013 to 2017.

In the piece, he argued the following:

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 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.

A month later, it ran a series of letters reacting to Reese’s column. In the eight letters posted to its website, all of them agreed with Reese. There’s no way to know how many letters on the topic they received or whether anyone disagreed.

While it is entirely up to a publication to decide which letters to run, it’s no surprise there was no dissent. The Catholic press, like its mainstream counterpart, is increasingly polarized and made up of niche audiences (thanks largely to the internet). The NCR also serves as a roadmap of how the church got to its current state.

Whether or not you agree politically with the newspaper, the NCR remains a force in the intellectual zeitgeist of American Catholicism and our national politics. It also isn’t afraid to ruffle some features — a tradition that goes back decades. In 1968, Bishop Charles Herman Helmsing of Kansas City issued a statement condemning the newspaper, arguing that it had a “policy of crusading against the church’s teachings” and featured a “poisonous character.” He threatened that NCR’s writers were guilty of heresy and risked excommunication. He ultimately asked the editors to drop the word Catholic from their name. The editors refused.

In 2013, Bishop Robert Finn wrote a column in his diocesan newspaper recalling his predecessor Helmsing’s past condemnation, saying it had refused to “submit their bona fides as a Catholic media outlet in accord with the expectations of Church law.” Then-publisher Tom Fox denied that characterization.  

The newspaper has also featured some wonderful journalists and opinion writers over the years, including John L. Allen. He wrote a column for NCR, in addition to appearing in many other publications, until taking up a position at Crux in 2014. He currently serves as its editor.

All this history remains relevant as the publication forges ahead in the digital age. In regards to Reese, those on the right have had to counter his arguments on a consistent basis – even when it comes to the pro-life movement. In a June 2018 column, following the referendum vote in Ireland that legalized abortion, Reese wrote:

The reality is that most Americans think that abortion should be legal even if they think it is immoral. There is no indication that this thinking will change. In fact, opinion is moving in the opposite direction, thanks to the attitudes of younger generations. The Pew Research Center shows Americans under 50 are more likely than their elders to support abortion in all or most cases. Likewise, in Ireland, younger people voted more strongly to change the law. Time is on the side of the pro-choice movement.

If making abortion illegal is an impossible goal, what should be the pro-life strategy for the foreseeable future?

The answer is simple and obvious: work to reduce the number of abortions.

When women are asked why they are having an abortion, the main reasons given are that having a baby would interfere with their education, their work or their ability to care for the children they are already raising, or that they simply cannot afford another child at the time.

Pro-life activists must take these reasons into consideration when developing a new strategy.

That earned rebuttal from traditionalists — and even prompted New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan to issue a response column for Religion News Service — that the National Catholic Reporter also published. In a sign of progress, that rebuke came in the form of a column — not threats of excommunication.

In another, harsher rebuke years earlier, The Lepanto Institute, in a blog post on its website, wrote: “The fact of the matter is the National Catholic Reporter has a long history of spreading heresy and attacking the eternal Truths taught by Holy Mother Church.” That was in response to the newspaper calling on the pope to allow Catholics to use contraception. The conservative group describes itself as a “research and education organization dedicated to the defense of the Catholic Church against assaults from without as well as from within. Whether in the form of armies, heretics, or traitors, the Church has always faced enemies seeking Her destruction. Today, the Church faces all three.”

Those who run the church always half-heartedly joke that the Catholic church isn’t a democracy. After all, the pope isn’t elected by the faithful and cardinals and bishops are appointed. In a democracy, however, media censorship isn’t the answer, dialogue is.

The NCR, through its reporting, analysis and commentary, continues to exert its influence. One may not always agree with its worldview, but the newspaper keeps the debate going and typifies how diverse the American Catholic church has become over the last four decades.

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