On Crux and Partisanship

Last week you might have noticed the debut of Crux, “a standalone Catholic news site”. It’s notable for three things:

  1. The site anchor is John L. Allen Jr., preeminent Catholic journalist.
  2. It was launched by the Boston Globe, a secular newspaper.
  3. The site is really rather well designed.

It’s not surprising that the Globe saw it as a worthwhile venture. Or, at least, it’s not surprising once you examine the facts, rather than the popular media narrative of a Church out-of-touch and hobbling towards its grave. If you look at the statistics, you might be surprised to learn: not only is the Catholic church not declining, it’s actually growing. Add to that the giant marketing bump that anything bearing the words “Pope Francis” receives these days, and it’s clear this isn’t a whimsical enterprise. Aside from any ideological or agenda-based reasons, there is money to be made here.

My initial reaction was delight. The whole thing looks very well done, and my hat is off to the designer. However, my delight was mildly tempered by trepidation. The launch, appearance and name were a bit reminiscent of Vox, the recently launched site that wanted to “fix the news” but veered off course towards vaguely-liberal windbaggery built on poorly googled half-facts. Big buzz led to big disappointment (and a few genuinely funny parody accounts).

So I was worried it might be another Vox, but more than that, I was worried that it might be something worse. There is a certain kind of Catholic writing that manages to leave all of the — you know — Catholicism out, leaving only a warm progressive feeling and some cardboard-box platitudes. It is also dreadfully easy to get a lot of clicks by writing in a snappy way about how awful the Church is.

The Atlantic ran a positive piece calling Crux “the news through Catholic eyes”. The problem with this idea is that Catholicism has about two-and-a-half billion eyes, right now. As a Catholic I feel a proportionate amount of angst — futile though it may be — over how my religion (and by extension, me) is represented in the public sphere, and I definitely don’t agree with all of the people that own those eyes.

Every publication and website has a particular slant or leaning. Even within the corral of those claiming faithfulness to the Magisterium of the Church there is a wide latitude. And this is all fine and well: vigorous discussion has been a part of the Church since it started.

The thing that concerns me, however, is when opinion is expressed in a way that makes it seem like cold hard fact. Unfortunately, this is almost always how it happens, because human nature. But are people capable of identifying bias?

Here’s an easy example from an article in Crux entitled Gobbling up women, turning off lapsed Catholics:

Unfortunately, the cardinal leading the church’s so-called “nunquisition” does. That’s the Vatican’s two-year-old investigation of American nuns for their alleged subversion of church doctrine. . . . Yet in their legendary service to the marginalized and the poorest of the poor, these same nuns seem quite in tune with Pope Francis’ renewed emphasis on social justice. . . . Progressive Catholics had hoped Francis would call off this bizarre crackdown . . . Yet another member of the hierarchy embarrasses himself – yet another reason for lapsed Catholics to cringe, and turn away.

Did you spot the parts where the author swerved slightly from prosaic and objective relation of the facts? Don’t worry, I can wait.

This is unquestionably the “news through Catholic eyes”, but possibly not representative of every Catholic viewpoint on the planet. And this piece is an easy one. There are much more subtle ways to journalistically shape opinion — starting with selective reporting and going all the way to specific word choice (pro-life vs. anti-abortion, for example).

Of course, if articles of this kind were all that were to be found on Crux, it would be easy enough to categorize it (and likely ignore it, unless it happened to align with your politics). But it isn’t that simple. Anyone who ignores John Allen’s Vatican coverage — no matter how well they like his slant — is going to miss out. And, for example, his recent tripartite interview of Cardinal Timothy Dolan is both fascinating and frank.

Clearly, Crux has great potential. Thus far, I have seen criticism from anti-Catholics (“wow, giving another mouthpiece to that corrupt institution, the catholic church, huh?”) as well as Catholics further on the right (“just what we needed, a nicer-looking National Catholic Reporter!”). But these reactions are inevitable. Only time will tell the value of Crux, and whether it will be a catalyst for better Catholic-relevant reporting or a failed experiment in demographic-chasing.

Allowable Partisanship

Pondering Crux and the plethora of other Catholic-focused sites on the internet raises two questions. They are neither of them new questions, but perhaps they have a new weight in this “internet age”.

The first is this: how much bias is allowable within the context of reportage? It’s an arguable point, but whilst the time-honored principles of journalism espouse objectivity as their backbone, there’s never been a news outlet that achieved it. As Hunter Thompson had it:

“With the possible exception of things like box scores, race results, and stock market tabulations, there is no such thing as Objective Journalism. The phrase itself is a pompous contradiction in terms.”

So, since bias is a given, how much of it should you indulge? I’d posit that you can indulge as much as you want, as long as it’s made clear to the reader. And context is dreadfully important here. If you print an opinion piece amongst a bunch of straight reportage, it’s not much different from running an advertisement that looks like just another article.

But assuming you succeed in clearly demarcating opinion and straight reporting, you still have to bear a much more difficult dilemma. To what extent is it righteous to publicly criticize the Church and its officials?

This is a tough one. Certainly no one wants to be part of a religion where any criticism is completely forbidden. That’s somewhat contrary to Catholic ideals. Whenever you encounter this sort of thing throughout history you never get the impression that the people who are doing the forbidding are really doing what Jesus would have done.

At the same time, if all you ever do is complain about the Church, you might be happier, you know, not being part of it.

There’s a balance to be struck. Perhaps a good rule of thumb would be to apply Jesus’ teaching on dealing with interpersonal transgressions:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)

The progression here goes from a one-on-one conversation to a dialogue involving the whole Church. Criticizing something online would in fact involve potentially everyone on Earth, even those not actually in the Church, but we can assume there is no feasible way to contact every Catholic without also throwing it open to non-members.

Clearly, however, the onus is on the injured party — or in this case the writer who has a problem with something the Church is doing — to make efforts to effect change without going public. Once that’s been done and nothing has happened, then it’s time perhaps to publish.

Just doing due diligence doesn’t give a Catholic writer free reign to say whatever they please, though. There are far-ranging consequences to the way that things are said. Even if you’re only writing because you feel that Catholics should be kept informed about something, not necessarily directly to influence change, it pays to be measured and careful.

One would imagine that being in possession with the majority of the facts would be a prerequisite for reporting on them, but of course this isn’t always the case. It’s true that spraying flecks of venomous spittle all over a demonized yet faceless “hierarchy” gets you more clicks. But this is unfairly damaging to those faithful shepherds who, whilst fallible, work hard and lovingly at a very difficult job.

You might not like an aspect of the Church, some of its members, or its chain of command, but think long and hard before you hack at it in print, because, after all, we are the Body of Christ. Self-mutilation is unhealthy.

Is this censorship? No! It’s just discretion. And it’s a principle that applies equally to everyone: the most orthodox should also consider the implications of maligning their “liberal” brothers and sisters with just as much care.

“Let all that you do be done in love.” In the final analysis, this is the metric — not page views or influence — by which to judge all publications. To write with love is the most important thing they can strive to achieve.

And we will know them by it, for the language of Love is not so hard to recognize.

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