C21 Panel Discusses Responsibilities of Catholic Journalists

by Adriana Watkins


On Tuesday, March 12, The Church in the 21st Century Center (C21) marked the kickoff of its Easter Series, a program of lectures and panels that promote the renewal of the Catholic Church. The first event of the series was a discussion between John Allen (Editor, Crux) and Fr. Matt Malone, S.J. (President and Editor-in-Chief, America Media), moderated by Jack Dunn (Boston College). Presented under the title “Revitalizing the Faith: Ideas from the Catholic Press,” the panel explored questions of transparency, efficiency, and responsibility in the world of journalism as it concerns the Church today.

The C21 Easter Series, hosted by director Karen Kiefer, aims to inspire new energy and confidence in a scandal-wearied Church. This first installment drew an audience of students, professors, Jesuits, and Sisters, and offered advice to clergy and laypeople alike. Allen and Malone framed their observations in the context of their perspectives on journalism.


Allen began by recapping February’s meeting of bishops on the sexual abuse crisis. This gathering—and the wider response to the crisis itself—provided a starting point for the panel’s conversation on Catholic communications.


Malone remarked, “One of the things that frustrates me, as somebody who loves the Church, is how poorly the US bishops as a group have responded to this crisis, just in terms of their public communications. …People will frequently say to me, ‘Oh, you know, the bishops, they’re a bunch of politicians.’ You know what, if they are, they’re the worst politicians ever.”


He continued, “Politicians will get ahead of a story. …I think there is still a reluctance [on the part of bishops] to be fully transparent and to be frank and honest and upfront about what it is that we’re dealing with. That requires a huge cultural shift.”


Included among the necessary changes, according to Malone, should be a push to overcome clericalism. He highlighted the need for a balance of clergy and laypeople among leadership positions in parish life, explaining, “We should take an inventory of every job in the Church in this country and ask ourselves whether it really has to be done by a cleric—and if it doesn’t, it should be given to a layperson, with a preference for a woman.”


The panelists also noted the need for communications reforms at the level of the Vatican. When asked what it would take to improve Rome’s public relations, Allen responded, “What will not do the trick…is the recent overhaul of the Vatican’s communications structures. …At the end of the day, the Vatican’s problem here is that…not only does it not get ahead of a story, but it operates out of this notion that it can set the terms of public conversation about the Church—that if it’s not ready to answer a question, then it doesn’t have to.”


Though Allen noted the Vatican’s “top-down” hierarchy as an obstacle to change, he also pointed out that a Pope could exercise drastically positive influence on public relations if he so desired. Allen cited Pope St. John Paul II as an example.


“For a brief, shining moment,” said Allen. “We had a reasonably functional communications environment. The reason it hasn’t [been done now] is that, to this point, this particular papacy and the people around this particular Pope have not seen it as a priority.”


The discussion moved regularly between specific questions in Catholic journalism and broader concerns about the future of the Church. Malone urged Catholics to remember the Church’s identity as the body of Christ, and to use that knowledge as a starting point for action.


Malone also reminded the audience that Jesus has already won salvation for mankind through His Resurrection. Rather than seeing this as a reason for inaction, he presented it as an impetus for hopeful initiative. The journalist’s role in that initiative, according to both panelists, is to create a constructive dialogue; Malone contrasted this with the approach of the mainstream media, which aims to tear down opposing voices.


“For Christians,” he said, “Truth is a person, and his name is Jesus Christ. …As Pope Benedict said, ‘We never possess the truth. We dare to hope that He possesses us.’ It is only in that mindset that our evangelization becomes about encounter, rather than confrontation, and accompaniment, rather than lording it over people.”


The next C21 panel, “Ideas from University Presidents,” will take place on March 28 at 7pm. Speakers will include BC President Fr. William Leahy, S.J., and the presidents of Emmanuel College and Fordham University.

Featured image courtesy of University Communications


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