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In Praise Of Tabloid Catholic Journalism

Sometimes it takes hacks with wide eyes and hot heads to tell the terrible truth
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Catholic commentator George Weigel doesn’t want fellow Catholics reading aggressive conservative Catholic websites, like (presumably) Lifesite News, One Peter Five, and Church Militant:

Resolve to limit your exposure to the Catholic blogosphere. In 2019, many Catholic websites went bonkers. There is no need to click on sites that specialize in all-hysteria or all-propaganda all-the-time. If you want reliable Catholic news, visit the websites of Catholic News Agency and the National Catholic Register. If you want sane commentary on the turbulent Catholic scene, go to the websites of Catholic World Report, First Things, and The Catholic Thing. That’s more than enough for anyone. Limiting your blogosphere browsing to these sites, while ignoring the hysteria-mongers and propagandists, will lower your blood pressure while keeping you well-informed.

Well. I can’t fault his recommendations for those websites at all. They’re all quite good, and I check in with them regularly. But it’s more than a bit rich in 2020, after events of the last two decades, for Weigel to put down those other websites. He’s right that they at times lead with their passions, and go beyond what the knowable facts state. That’s something that readers should know going in. That said, it pays to remember what the Catholic journalist Ross Douthat has said about conspiracy theories:

[W]hen I was starting my career as a journalist I sometimes brushed up against people peddling a story about a network of predators in the Catholic hierarchy — not just pedophile priests, but a self-protecting cabal above them — that seemed like a classic case of the paranoid style, a wild overstatement of the scandal’s scope. I dismissed them then as conspiracy theorists, and indeed they had many of conspiracism’s vices — above all, a desire to believe that the scandal they were describing could be laid entirely at the door of their theological enemies, liberal or traditional.

But on many important points and important names, they were simply right.

Back when I was a Catholic, I remember that respectable conservative Catholics turned their nose up at the traditionalist Catholic publication The Wanderer, for the same reasons. Too radical. Too rash. Too weird. And yet, prior to 2002 (and for some years after), who do you think was better informed about what was actually going on in the Catholic Church regarding sexual scandal and corruption: readers of The Wanderer, or readers of First Things, the magazine for which Weigel has long written? It brings to mind this famous comment that the left-wing intellectual Susan Sontag made in a controversial 1982 speech denouncing communism:

”Imagine, if you will, someone who read only the Reader’s Digest between 1950 and 1970, and someone in the same period who read only The Nation or The New Statesman. Which reader would have been better informed about the realities of Communism? The answer, I think, should give us pause. Can it be that our enemies were right?”

There are some truths that are so terrible that it takes people who are already relatively radicalized within a culture or institutions to see them. This magazine, The American Conservative, saw the folly of the Iraq War more clearly than did all the mainstream conservative magazines and writers (including me). That crazy old far-right wingnut and “unpatriotic conservative” Pat Buchanan — as so many mainstream conservatives called him at the time — called the most important US foreign policy issue of the 21st century right, and the rest of us got it wrong. Buchanan’s alienation from the mainstream of establishment conservative thinking gave him a vantage point for seeing things that the rest of us could not. People who think that establishment conservatives really knew that Iraq was going to be a disaster, but went along with it anyway, are simply wrong. We were all too invested in our narratives to imagine otherwise.

The same thing happened to a lot of smart and dedicated people — conservative and liberal — in the Catholic Church, regarding the sex abuse scandal. People just didn’t want to believe these things were true, or could be true. They sounded too outlandish, like something out of the hysterically anti-Catholic Jack Chick comic books. But in most cases, the stories turned out to be true. Little of it surprised regular readers of The Wanderer. Whatever bad news is yet to come out of the Vatican and the US Catholic Church, the people who read the vividly reported, semi-tabloidy Catholic news sites are going to be less surprised than those who don’t.

Again, I don’t fault the “respectable” news sources Weigel names. I read them, and learn a lot from them, and know (and respect) some of the journalists and writers who contribute to them. I do give things reported on those sites more credibility, for a variety of reasons, but I also know that they operate under certain (non-sinister) restrictions. No newspaper, website, or media source can be all things to all people. I read the alternative sites too, and learn useful information there. In New York, if you want to have a more complete picture of what’s going on in the city, you need to read the Times as well as the Post and the Daily News. Same deal here.

I like what the widely respected conservative Catholic theologian Janet Smith had to say on her Facebook page about Weigel’s comments:

There is wisdom in this post but also some, I am sorry to say, short-sightedness and even foolishness.

Weigel recommends a limited number of news services that Catholics should consult and warns people against others. While many don’t like the tone of some sources, several of these are responsible for much of what we know about the corruption in the Church and their persistence has been invaluable in achieving the few successes there have been.

Yes, those who are excessively troubled by the relentless revelations should limit themselves to reading only “safe” sources, but don’t blame the messenger in respect to the news sources that investigate and report upon events that the others eventually report, somewhat less sensationally. Remember that the news being reported is in itself sensational and some reporters have a flair for highlighting just how outrageous is “news” that is no longer news.

We have become inured to scandal in the Church and laud bishops for minimally doing their jobs and are afraid, it seems, to rebuke those who continue engage in cover up and tolerance of corruption in their own dioceses let alone in the Church as a whole.

The Church rather desperately needs news outlets that realize that “business as usual” is not an option when the corruption is so pervasive. I am all for reporting good news and having hope and providing just and balanced treatment of all people and issues, but I think it unwise and unfair to try to marginalize those who have been and are in the forefront of exposing corruption. The “mainline” Catholic news services perform a valuable service, to be sure, and perhaps some should limit themselves to reading those services. But when the history is written of this period, some of what are now considered to be extreme and fringe outfits will be lauded as heroes. Muck-rakers are rarely “balanced” but they often expose corruption that other “more respectable” reporters and analysts won’t for fear of seeming sensationalist or alarmist. It is hard to clean up the dirt without getting a bit dirty. Those who are being bombarded day by day with those who call in with stories of more and more abuse can’t fully be blamed for shouting the truth at the rest of us who just might not want to hear it.

Amen, sister.

If you have the time, check out the transcript from a Catholic media conference held in Washington in March 2002 — a couple of months after the Boston scandal blew the Church wide open. I was one of the speakers there. What’s not on the transcript are the self-congratulatory remarks the Legion of Christ priest who at the time was publisher of the National Catholic Register — at the time, owned by the Legion, and full of happy-clappy conservative news. That priest praised his own newspaper for not getting down in the gutter with the secular media in reporting about the Church scandal. Eight years later, after the horrifying revelations about the demonic sexual predator Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legion, that priest, Father Owen Kearns, publicly apologized for having overseen coverage defending him, and having defended Maciel himself. (The Register is now owned by EWTN, and is a much better newspaper.)

Check out this exchange between then-First Things contributor Joseph Bottum and me:

Bottum: Now that job of being a professional Catholic, it seems to me, is one into which Rod Dreher has fallen. In recent articles Rod has fallen off the tight rope. He said that pedophilia scandals have to be talked about. He’s absolutely right and we should talk about it. We should talk about it in this room, but that doesn’t mean it has to be talked about on the front cover of National Review.

He says we need to regain our public voice. It strikes me that this is not the way to regain our public voice. This is the way to lose it forever. In fact, there are publications that would willingly use Catholics to be the point men in this attack which they intend to ultimately to be an attack on Catholicism. We’ve seen it before. The lefty journals of New York City have a set of people they use as their professional Catholics, Garry Wills, or Mary Gordon. They’re always trotted out to say: I am a Catholic, but I have to say, the Church’s position on this or what the Church is doing on that is an outrage.

I’ve watched it happen on the right as well. The Wall Street Journal a few years ago published a column by Ralph McInerny that bothered me a great deal. He let himself be used by the Wall Street Journal to write exactly the Garry Wills/Mary Gordon column that says I am a Catholic, but I can’t believe what the Church is saying about capital punishment. This is a perpetual threat, a perpetual danger and it seems to me one that we must all guard ourselves against and that Rod has fallen off the wagon on.

DreherSo what’s the alternative? If we only leave the public square open to the Richard McBrien’s, the dissenters, among the professional Catholic set, who’s is going to be out there to stand up for what the Church really does teach. Being a faithful Catholic does not mean that you have to fall in line behind the bishops just out of respect for the bishops because of their office.

Bottum: It’s when it becomes obsession that it begins to worry me. I also think you are mad, Rod, if you imagine that by being widely quoted in dissent you are thereby going to gain a standing that you will be able to use in the mainstream media when you want to put out a position of orthodoxy. You are not gaining resources on this topic which will then allow you to print something otherwise orthodox on a later issue in the New York Times. It’s just not true.

Dreher: I just don’t see what the alternative is. I don’t enjoy attacking the Church, but I think it has to be done and it has to be done from a position of fidelity to the magisterium and fidelity to the laity as well because the Church is not just the institution.

I assure you that in the spring of 2002, Jody Bottum’s position was that of respectable conservative Catholicism. I think my stance has aged better, even if the same anger that allowed me to see more clearly what was happening within the Church and be properly outraged about it ultimately burned me out as a Catholic. That is a professional hazard I didn’t grasp with sufficient clarity. And lest I seem to be praising myself, let me point out again that I might have gotten the scandal right as a National Review writer, but at the same time, I was writing blog posts for The Corner praising the march to war in Iraq. We are all fallible people. You should be grateful that unlike journalists and politicians, you have the ability to make your mistakes privately, and they can be quickly forgotten, instead of preserved forever.

All of which is to say that I prefer the malcontent journalism that the alt-Catholic news and opinion sites do to the establishmentarian restraint counseled by a consummate Church insider like George Weigel. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I, given what happened to me and my Catholic faith?

I’ll say this, though: a big reason for the despair that cost me my Catholic faith in 2005 was the fact that so few orthodox Catholics — Phil Lawler and his team at Catholic World Report are honorable exceptions, but there are others — were standing up to the corruption and lies of the hierarchy. It felt like a pretty lonely and quixotic battle. Well, in 2020, Catholics such as I was back then have a lot more company. Some of them write for National Catholic Register (I see you Edward Pentin), Catholic News Agency, First Things, Catholic World Report, and The Catholic Thing. But some of them write for Lifesite News, Church Militant, and One Peter Five. Fifteen years ago, if there had been as many orthodox Catholic voices crying in the ecclesial wilderness as there are today, the situation would still have been bad, but it wouldn’t have felt so damned hopeless.



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