By shutting down Catholic News Service, bishops show they have lost interest in civic engagement
The decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to shut down Catholic News Service was terrible in terms of lowering the standards of Catholic journalism. It was terrible, too, because of its ecclesial significance, which is a related but different concern, which touches on a deeper issue for the nation’s bishops.
Fordham University’s David Gibson’s commentary, published here at NCR, addressed some of the reasons Catholic News Service’s closure was pastoral. Gibson observed that the CNS is “a counterwitness to the proliferation of ideologically-driven Catholic media platforms that drive the church and mainstream Catholics apart—often straight out of Catholicism.” It is surely true.
It is also clear that too few bishops have been alarmed by the prospect that the only remaining news service specifically focused on Catholic Church news in the United States will be the Catholic News Agency, an affiliate of EWTN. . More bishops must adopt the position taken by Bishop Christopher Coyne of Burlington, Vermont, former chairman of the bishops’ committee on communications. “In Burlington, we want nothing to do with CNA because of its affiliation with EWTN and the anti-Francois rhetoric on the network,” Coyne said. recently told America magazine.
Several bishops have told me that it was not clear that the complete closure of the CNS was what they were voting for last year during the executive session at their fall assembly in Baltimore, when they chose one of five models presented by Archbishop Timothy Broglio, chairman of the Bishops’ Committee on Priorities and Plans. They told me they understood there would be cuts, but not a complete suspension of operations. What’s more, there was no real discussion on the proposal, except as a necessary budgetary measure.
Here, then, I have to disagree somewhat with the explanation offered by former CNS editor Tony Spence, who told NCR’s Brian Fraga: “USCCB’s Culture Warrior Bishops have always had a certain animosity towards the CNS because it offers direct and unbiased reporting. . Culture warriors don’t want straight, unbiased reporting. They want an echo chamber where everyone has the same opinion.” That’s true, but it wasn’t presented to the bishops as a culture war fight and, if it had been, I doubt that it would have gotten enough votes to pass, or at least it would have generated more opposition.
No, the deeper problem – and in some ways the worst – is that bishops have lost their own commitment to civic engagement, of which the responsibility to provide reliable information is an integral part. A hundred years ago, bishops were princes, and they ventured into the public square from their episcopal homes as leaders of their flock, power brokers of sorts, closer to a labor leader or an eminent civic leader.
Ironically, after Vatican II called the Church to be an instrument, even a sacrament of the unity of humanity in the world, the bishops lost their footing. They did not know what tasks should be handed over to the laity and what remained of their competence. The turmoil of the times, particularly the shifting focus away from issues of economic justice and increasingly toward the hot-button issues of pelvic theology that would come to characterize the culture wars, further alienated the bishops from any kind of civic engagement. Their role was reduced to that of an ethical authority in the public square, and they never understood how difficult the traditional personal ethics of the Church in sexual matters were to translate into any public ethics, in especially in a pluralistic society.
Then came the sexual abuse crisis and many bishops had to hide under their desks.
Now the bishops focus largely on the internal life of the church. They raise funds to support our ministries and our schools. Some may even consider how to evangelize in our secular times. Only a few regularly and effectively engage the cities in which they live.
You can see it in the official statements in response to the Buffalo racist terrorist attack. the statement bishops was anemic and did not even come from a bishop. If the bishops’ conference needs to save money, remove the communications staff who wrote such an inadequate statement, not Catholic News Service!
Compare the statement of the bishops with that issued by Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich, one of the bishops who regularly engages society and culture. Cupich denounced the racism that inspired the attack and spoke out forcefully against lax gun laws that allowed the violence to become a mass casualty event. The strength of his language stemmed not just from an appropriate sense of moral outrage, but from his years of civic engagement.
In 2013, during pre-conclave meetings where cardinals discussed what the Church needed in a new pope, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio invoked the biblical image of Jesus knocking at the door. “In Revelation, Jesus says he is at the door knocking,” Bergoglio reportedly told other cardinals, before he was elected Pope Francis. “Obviously the text refers to his knocking from the outside to get in, but I’m thinking of the times when Jesus knocks from the inside to get us to let him out.”
Too many bishops are content to leave the Lord locked up in the sacristy.
There is, of course, a problem with the culture warrior bishops in the United States. The deeper problem is that so many other bishops have no idea how to engage culture. The prerequisite for evangelism is the building of culture. Part of a vibrant culture, a big part, is reliable information. This is why the closure of Catholic News Service’s nationwide operations is such a dreadful idea and should be reversed.
Broglio may have presented this to the bishops as a financial necessity, but it only goes to show how he fails to grasp the importance of reliable news for civic engagement, and the need for civic engagement if the gospel must be proclaimed.