Posted by: L. E. Barnes | May 20, 2010

A Tale of Two Cultures

Our Sunday Visitor has just released an article explaining many of the underlying reasons behind the media firestorm about the clergy sex abuse scandal and the Vatican’s handling of and public response to it. The writer, Russell Shaw, presents a fair and balanced look at the problem, neither glossing over the Vatican’s shortcomings nor stereotyping the media. He begins by pointing out the root of the problem: the differing mindsets of the two “cultures.” Shaw explains:

The controversy over Pope Benedict XVI’s handling of clergy sex abuse is a classic example of the clash of two profoundly different cultures — the culture of contemporary secular journalism and the culture of ecclesiastical bureaucracy at the highest level of the Church. It illustrates the harm that comes from miscommunication or no communication between them.

Two questions are unavoidable here. Are the media anti-Catholic? Is the Church anti-media? But to understand fully what’s happened, a third factor — arguably more important than either of these — must be taken into account: the deeply rooted mutual incomprehension commonly existing between journalists and high-ranking churchmen.

At cross-purposes

Time and again incomprehension has been central to the blunders and hostilities that mark recent events.

On the side of the media, much of that involves assuming a degree of papal knowledge and control of local personalities and events that not even popes of the high Middle Ages presumed to claim. Especially since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), the idea of “collegiality” — although imperfectly realized — has dominated the relationship between the pope and local bishops. The result is an approach to governance stressing the autonomy of local authorities.

On the side of the Church, lack of understanding seems to arise especially from failure to comprehend the mind-set of professional journalists.

Built-in skepticism

It’s a fundamental tenet of journalistic ethics that reporters should approach the situations and people they cover with open minds. That includes minds open to the possibility that the people they’re dealing with have done or are doing something wrong, and aren’t telling the truth.

The result is a built-in leaning toward skepticism that, largely for historical reasons, is especially strong when the people in question are officials of a large institution like the government or the military — or the Catholic Church. Among American journalists, a definitive turning point was the Watergate experience of the early 1970s, which led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation and jail terms for several White House staff.

Loyal Catholics may find this attitude shocking and offensive when it leads journalists to be suspicious even of the pope. Unfortunately, official cover-ups of clergy sex abuse in the past provide plenty of evidence to support it. Moreover, skepticism is an important part of how journalists are trained to think and, as they see it, indispensable to doing their job in the public interest.

That doesn’t rule out anti-Catholicism on the part of media professionals. But it argues against hanging the anti-Catholic label on all of them simply because being skeptics is part of their job.

Shaw goes on to chide the Vatican for the way it has handled–or rather, mishandled–its relations with the media:

If the incident showed ignorance at a major newspaper, it also illustrated self-defeating failings at the Vatican. In truth, the Holy See does a consistently mediocre-to-bad job of explaining itself. And its failure to understand and practice crisis management when needed is lamentable.

In many large institutions and organizations, the onset of a crisis like this one would have been recognized early and someone would have been put in charge of handling it. Staff people — like Father Cantalamessa — would have been told not to sound off, or get their remarks cleared before they did.

“We are not a multinational corporation,” a Vatican source huffed in response to that suggestion. True enough. But the Vatican does well to adopt sensible management procedures from whatever source.

The full article is rather long, but very informative and worth your time. You can read it here.

I appreciate Shaw’s honesty in discussing this highly sensitive issue. As a fairly new Catholic, I realize there is still much for me to learn about how the Church functions, especially at the higher echelons. And although I would bristle at the Church being maligned, I also realize that it does the Church no good to sweep problems under the rug.

What are your thoughts?



  1. I still need to read the whole article but so far, it all makes sense. I have always felt that some of the reporting, including the reporting back in 2002 when the scandal broke here in the US, was very good and professional. It was the Boston Globe who first broke it, I believe. And they did a good honest job. But there was also some irresponsible reporting.
    The cover-up by some bishops and priests added to the scandal which only made it worse and added to the media frenzy. I guess it probably fed the media’s “skepticism.”
    The idea of there being a clash of two cultures makes sense. I will read the rest of the article. Thank you for this.

    • I wasn’t Catholic back in 2002, and I really didn’t read much of the news about the scandal at the time. Shaw’s article definitely makes sense though. Hopefully our Church’s leadership will learn from this and make necessary changes, not only in preventing such scandals but also in putting forth an appropriate response to the public.

  2. […] A Tale of Two Cultures […]

  3. The MSM is leftist and atheistic, and the Catholic church is its biggest enemy. There’s no other force in the world the Left would rather destroy. So the Church will look worse than it deserves to in any run-in with the MSM, because making the Church look bad is part of the MSM mission.

    • The Church has certainly been used as a popular “whipping boy”–much more so than any other group probably has. I don’t think the media would dare target other religious groups or political groups the way it has targeted the Catholic Church. They certainly would never give Islam the same treatment!

      • I don’t know. I think it is too easy to blame the media for everything. Maybe I am too naive. I agree that SOME media does this. Locally we have issues with media reporting on other groups. SOME media that is. Then others are fair and honest.
        Evan, you yourself said that you did not read much about the scandal back in 2002 because you were not Catholic. So you might not have thought of it then as being a “whipping boy.” The fact that we are Catholic, we tend to be more sensitive on negative reports on the church. It is all about perspective. We may get too defensive of this church which we love. But we need to be honest and desire for the truth to be put out there. After all, Jesus was Truth. And truth sets us free. I am so hopeful now that the Church is headed toward fixing the problem of sexual abuse and its cover-up. Would we have done that without the media reports and it all becoming public – into the light so to speak?
        Now that being said (i am sorry this is long), the media has to be fair too. Report the facts and do not mislead. SOME media was misleading about some of the recent stories. And no one was angrier about that than me! But then, it was other news groups who brought out the truth.
        We need to be tough on those who report irresponsibly and I think we should monitor it closely. But I do not think we need to put everyone in the same box. If we do, then we are guilty of doing the same thing we accuse the media of doing.

  4. True, media outlets are not all the same. Some have a very conservative bias, some very liberal. And granted, the public exposure may very well have helped the Church in some ways. I hope as well that the Church takes care of this problem, weeding out candidates to the priesthood who pose a danger to others and dealing appropriately with offenders.

    We do need to be careful not to stereotype. I was speaking in broad terms–maybe it would have helped to narrow things down. However, I still think that the mainstream media, as a whole, wouldn’t dare treat, for example, Islam the way they’ve approached stories on the Catholic Church.

    But I agree that we need to look out for irresponsible news reporting. Thanks for commenting!

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