2016-06-30
A number of people are under the impression that "the media" are responsible for the crisis of the Catholic Church in America. Prominent members of the church hierarchy in Rome are said to be among them. The member of the Roman Curia who has received the most publicity for his criticism of the media is Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras. In an interview with the Italian Catholic magazine Thirty Days, he accused the press of acting with "a fury which remind me of the times of Diocletian and Nero, and more recently Stalin and Hitler." The church "should be free of this kind of treatment," he advised. Getting more specific, he said that "newspapers like The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe" are "protagonists of what I do not hesitate to define as a persecution against the church."

Before addressing those strange comments, we should be clear about one thing. The press did indeed generate the level of publicity that enveloped the church in scandal. In that sense, the media were "responsible." But were they responsible for something bad, as the cardinal would have it, or for something good?

Many bishops evidently believed that if there is one thing worse than corruption, it is the public airing of corruption; as though God only sees things if they are reported in The New York Times.

Let there be no mistake about something else. The media in the U.S. have much more power and independence than in any other country in Europe, probably in the world. The newspapers criticized by the cardinal are richer than their European counterparts, with the resources needed to mount unprecedented coverage of an institution as large as the Catholic Church. In recent months the New York Times had about 45 reporters working on the story. Dozens of other newspapers have joined in -some would say "piled on."

There has been nothing remotely comparable to this level of media coverage of the Church, ever before in its history. (I am confident of that because "the media," as an independent power-unto-itself goes back only about 30 years, approximately to the time of Watergate.) In recent months, the media have also been helped by lawyers of the tort bar who have not shrunk from publicizing their cases, and by judges who mostly seem to have sided with plaintiffs, especially in Boston.

The key question to be addressed is whether what the media have reported is true. Notice that Cardinal Rodriguez didn't point to any errors, and one must wonder in all candor whether he even read the articles in question (certainly, reading all of the material would have been close to a full-time job).

Notice that what has been reported in the press has been a double scandal. First, the scandal of pedophile priests; second, the scandal of complicitous bishops. Many of these bishops evidently believed and perhaps still believe that if there is one thing worse than corruption, it is the public airing of corruption; as though God only sees things if they are reported in The New York Times.

In any event, it is clear by now that the facts reported about pedophile priests and bishops who covered for them have been overwhelmingly true. If the Globe or The Times had been lying about Cardinal Bernard Law, you can be sure that he would have said so by now. He hasn't.

The real difference of opinion is between those who think that corruption is best hushed up (because it will scandalize the faithful), and those who think it is best exposed to the daylight. Indeed, the scandal of bishops who hid the truth arose precisely because they felt that the exposure of corruption is even more to be deplored than the corruption itself.

I find that difficult to understand. In my frequent discussions with Catholics who are every bit as conservative as I am, I have not yet found one person who felt that the exposure of corrupt priests and bishops has been undesirable. Every single person I have spoken with has felt it important that these unsavory facts be brought to light. To be sure, a publicized scandal may be disheartening to many of the faithful, but that is only because they were under the impression that the condition of the church was healthier than it really was. Can anyone doubt that it is better to know the truth than to be kept in the dark?

In contrast, the position of those in the Vatican who deplore the exposure of corruption really is perverse. They seem not to understand that the moral harm is done whether or not it is exposed, and in fact may well be greater if it is not exposed. For one thing, there is a greater sense of lingering injustice among those who were victimized. There is also a simmering resentment against the perpetrators who not only did bad things but got away with it and emerged with their reputations intact.

One of the things most shocking about this scandal is the extent to which the bishops involved were not going to do anything about it until the press made direct inquiries. So the old cliché, with which the press pats itself on the back, would seem to be mostly true: only the "daylight" of press scrutiny helps keep those in power honest. The depressing fact is that if the church hierarchy had not been exposed and embarrassed in the way that they have been, they would have continued indefinitely in their corrupt ways. And the corruption would have grown deeper, as indeed it has over the last 20 years.

Endless scrutiny may create a certain tension in those whose lives are scrutinized, but it also makes it easier for them to live up to their vows. The certainty of exposure imposes its own code of virtue, even if only as a matter of prudence. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. People don't necessarily want to be good, so instruments and institutions that create incentives for goodness are to be encouraged. The prospect of being exposed as a hypocrite-as one who espouses virtue but does not live by it-is even less appealing than the discomfort that may arise from exposing the scandalous behavior of one's subordinates.

For this reason alone, cardinals should embrace a watchful and independent press. The sure anticipation that bad deeds will be exposed makes it less likely that they will be committed in the future. In the Renaissance period, popes had so much power that they were free to live wicked lives without fear of exposure. It would be almost impossible for a pope to do so today, if he were so inclined: it would be front-page news all over the world. No doubt we now have, and may anticipate having in the future, popes who lead lives more in accordance with their vows than used to be the case; if so, we may thank the media for that. True, they have virtue thrust upon them, and it would be better if it sprang from personal holiness. But the alternative, in which there are no "checks and balances" to temptation, is surely worse.

Think about the now retired Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, and his embarrassing exposure. He had some kind of a love affair with a younger man twenty years ago, then paid $450,000 of diocesan money to keep the man from exposing it. He must have been quite confident, back in 1980, that his clandestine relationship would not be exposed. All bishops, not just Weakland, should have no such confidence about the confidentiality of immoral acts. The press corps should stay on the case.

All this is not to say that the newspaper stories have been without bias. The peculiar nature of that bias is worth noting. The reporting itself has been remarkably good. But accompanying it there has been a sideshow of commentary, to the effect that celibacy is too much to expect of priests these days.

The problem arose because priests and bishops were not faithful to their vows. Blaming celibacy implies that rules were broken because those rules are just too strict. This is little more than a disguised plea for a climate even more libertine than ours already is. It is absurd to say that those with religious vocations can no longer be expected to live celibate lives when they have been successfully doing so for centuries. Are we to believe that human nature has changed? Trying to correct sexual abuse by breaking down the rules against sexual activity is like trying to solve the problem of bank robbery by keeping the banks unlocked.

The great bias of our day-it has endured for 40 years-is in favor of breaking down codes of conduct and behavior, softening up the Ten Commandments.

If only we are allowed greater freedom to do our own thing, the theory goes, we will all be happier and more "fulfilled." The recommendation that celibacy be overthrown is simply one more attempt to expand the scope of this still-prevailing liberalism. But that is the philosophy that got us into this mess to begin with. Some accounts have suggested that priests quietly abandoned their vows because they were persuaded that, within a few years, the church itself would yield to the zeitgeist and would change its rules accordingly.

But this isn't one more conservative complaint about liberal bias. The truth is that the reporting on the church has been good for the church, and Catholic conservatives are hoping that the scrutiny will continue. It has been well said that New York Times editorials take a position that is "holier than thou." The truth is that the paper, secular as it is, really has been able to claim that moral high ground in this scandal; that is how bad the situation has been. The Pope's biographer, George Weigel, has said that it was worse than anyone in Rome realized. Now that Rome knows, we may expect corrective action--and we'll have the media to thank for it.

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