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.
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.
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?