Controlling Catholic Media

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One of the notable things about Catholicism is that it has a central teaching authority such that it is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty (at least on many doctrinal topics), “The Church teaches X” or “The Church does not accept Y as true.” By comparison, if you want to say something about “What Muslims believe” or “What Baptists believe” much less “What Buddhists believe”, the best you can do is a cite a number of authorities and recognize what the preponderance of them appear to say. (Even this gets very tricky, as different people will have different standards as to who is an acceptable authority.)

Given this, Catholics often suggest it would be a good idea if there were more quality control over who got to go around labeling things as Catholic. Conservatives sometimes ask why it is that Notre Dame and Georgetown are still allowed to call themselves Catholic universities, and make noises that someone should “do something” about publications like Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter. On the flip side, once and a while one hears more left-leaning Catholics ask why it is that the bishops don’t do something to about the largely right-leaning Catholic blogsphere, or reign in venues such as EWTN or Real Catholic TV.

Certainly, control over what is written is something with a long history in the Catholic Church. We are, after all, the ones who had The Index Of Forbidden Books for many years, and who required that authors get an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from the local bishop when publishing works.

Further, I do think that there are egregious cases (which those are will always be controversial) in which Church authorities do need to step in and state that a given work is in error on some important doctrinal issue.

However, bringing more oversight to bear does not always have the effect that those who advocate it desire. I remember a few years back when our diocese at that time announced that it would be conducting a review of religious education textbooks and approving three texts which all parishes would be expected to use in their religious education classes for children. At first there was some enthusiasm for this in conservative quarters, with people hoping this would mean that watered down texts would be banned. Instead, perhaps predictably, it was the texts from the three largest mainstream textbook publishers (the ones, perhaps coincidentally, with the resources to market most effectively to the diocesan education office) that were approved, and parishes that had been using books from Ignatius Press or the Baltimore Catechism were instructed to stop.

It strikes me that, in an imperfect world and particularly in a culture which is deeply divided over social and political issues, trying to exert strict control over what is published or broadcast under the name Catholic is probably going to result in more problems than benefits. Indeed, it may be that this is the case not only now, but at all times.

On the one hand, nearly every educated Catholic has at some point known the frustration of having a friend or family member come to one after having read some book which, “Told me all sorts of things I hadn’t known about the Church before,” only to find that this is because the book is simply wrong or deceptive at a number of levels. And yet, pushing for greater control will result sometimes in one interpretation or another quashing all dissent, and other times in a conflict averse middle quashing any interesting discussion by either side.

Mess and imperfect though such an approach may be, it seems like there is a great deal of practical benefit in simply allowing a very wide range of expression — curbed by the arguments of others, even at times those in authority, when writings go astray, but with the power to silence left nearly always unused. If the frustrations of those who disagree with one claiming to speak for the Church can be great at times, the frustrations of several factions within the Church being effectively gagged at any given time would, it seems to me, be greater. And very often it would be the vocal minorities most eager for greater “quality control” who would find themselves silence.

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  1. Never do anything that is completely futile is usually a good maxim to live by and attempting to control the flow of information and opinion in the age of the new media would not only be futile but impossible. However, it should be possible for Rome to exercise control over what religious orders and colleges affiliated with the Catholic Church do publish. Every orthodox Catholic knows how well that has worked out since Vatican II, and as a result much of the Catholic new media has grown up partially in reaction to the fairly heterodox messages promulgated by quite a bit of the media directly affiliated with the Church.

  2. It doesn’t seem too impracticle, at least at the university level, for some more stringent quality control to exist. I forget the name of the document, but they seem to have tried that to some extent with requiring the sign off on teaching Catholicism as it is represented by the Magisterium. Enforcement requires not only standards, but a way of effectively determining who does/does not meet them, and communicating the results to interested parties. The Newman Society seems to do a fairly good job of it, but how many prospective Georgetown students listen to them (if they are even interested in GT b/c of its “Catholic” identity)? I’d be willing to bet the majority of students (and probably parents) could care less about ND or Gtown’s Catholic identity – they have more secular motives – the prestige of the degree in getting a job.

  3. However, it should be possible for Rome to exercise control over what religious orders and colleges affiliated with the Catholic Church do publish.

    I’d certainly agree, in that Rome has a fair amount of say on who runs religious orders, and it’s Rome’s job to make sure that those orders are run in a way which bring their members (and those ministered to by them) closer to Christ rather than leading them further away. If an order is running a university or publication which is teaching all sorts of wrong stuff, I think clearly Rome ought to ask them (forcefully) to clean the situation up.

    Related to this is the (I hope) obvious point that a Catholic college or publishing operation shouldn’t simply teach or print anything that comes over the transom. If they consider themselves Catholic, it’s their job to disseminate only what they believe to actually be the truth. (And if what they believe is the truth doesn’t line up with the Church’s teaching, they clearly have some thinking to do.)

    What I would consider a big problem, though, would be for individual bishops or even the bishops conference to start stepping in and either directing or shutting down Catholic media options. In a perfect world, this would be done to guard the faith (though in a perfect world, it would be unnecessary) but in reality it seems to me about as likely that such powers would be used to shut down Ignatius Press or First Things as it would be to reign in Commonweal or National Catholic Reporter.

  4. I generally agree with this article. There is always a tension between freedom and authority, and as you note, the exercise of authority has limited effectiveness. But there are three things that the occasional “quashing” does accomplish. It communicates that there are standards; it makes it clear that the Church enforces those standards; it clarifies the teaching of the Church. The first one typically impacts those who are ignorant of the faith; the second one, those who teach; the third, those who receive teaching. All three are important. I think we underestimate the impact of the first effect.

  5. When I think of freedom, as far as the media is concerned, I think of our diocesan paper. Publishes from a leftist perspective. Even ran an editorial against Salt and Light radio when if began in the diocese because it carried so much programming from EWTN. Rarely publishes a letter contrary to its editorial positions and when it does its usually a poorly written one. Then follows up immediately with its own position and selective quotes from CST.

    So when done in charity and truth, I think freedom is good, Christian reality.

  6. RIP Father Richard John Neuhaus. From WSJ 1/10/2009 “Remembrances.”

    “He believed ‘they’ had gravely distorted Vat II so that ‘much of what is called Roman Catholic Christianity is in fact apostate.'”

    Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy is optional, orthodoxy will sooner or later be proscribed.”

    Opinion is not truth.” Plato

  7. It seems to me a part of the great wisdom of the Church that it adopts a negative position with respect to publications. This is the meaning of “nihil obstat”. It covers doctrine; but not stupidity.

    Cardinal Dulles [RIP] had no problem with either nihil obstat or the imprimatur. It is generally persons of lesser intellectual ability who try a run around.

  8. Instead, perhaps predictably, it was the texts from the three largest mainstream textbook publishers (the ones, perhaps coincidentally, with the resources to market most effectively to the diocesan education office) that were approved, and parishes that had been using books from Ignatius Press or the Baltimore Catechism were instructed to stop.

    I do not think better marketing was the reason the education office prohibited the use of texts from Ignatius Press. The Church’s middle-management is a gift that keeps on giving for harvesters of irony (or outrage).

    I suspect domestic corporation law would inhibit the degree to which the Holy See or the bishops to discipline bad institutions. If that be the case, the options on the table would be to remove the institution from the Catholic Directory and pull any clergy or religious employed by the institution on pain of sanctions up to and including excommunication. Even if the bishops have the lawful authority to purge an institution, you have the problem of recruiting capable personnel for positions vacated. There is a talent pool only for a modest run of instutions, not 220-odd institutions with several substantial universities among them. There are 10 institutions in Upstate New York which are foundationally Catholic. I doubt you would be able to save more than one or two. You’ve got to let the rest go.

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