Positioning Pope Francis on CatholicCulture.org
In an Insights message recently, I asked for feedback on the question of whether I should place the increasingly bad news about Pope Francis toward the end of each message, striving to keep more positive material nearer the top. The responses were mixed, and no clear preference emerged. But an examination of the different points of view—without names—should prove instructive. This is a discussion, as the title indicates, of positioning Pope Francis on CatholicCulture.org.
Some responded to this idea as if I had said that such material will no longer appear anywhere on the website at all, despite my having made no mention of anything but the format of a single twice-weekly email message which highlights new material. But in essence, these respondents took the position that the slightest reduction of emphasis on the shortcomings of the Pope was tantamount to walking away from the most important issue of our times, in effect refusing any longer to defend the Faith or alert Catholics to a serious crisis.
But others thought it salutary to place less emphasis on criticism of Pope Francis for the simple reason that it tends to be discouraging when it is always front and center. These respondents expressed the view that the problem was not going to go away as long as Francis is pope. It would be better—without hiding anything—to give pride of place to more positive things, so that readers would be more likely to focus on what they can do to strengthen the Church and advance the Faith.
A third group took a more analytical point of view: Consider your organization’s purposes, they counseled. In light of those purposes, you have enough experience to know what should get top billing, and that sense of purpose should be the determining factor in both your coverage and your placement of Catholic news and commentary.
Finally, a fourth, far smaller group was very sensitive to all criticism of the Pope, not really wanting to be associated with it whether they thought it was justified or not. These placed great emphasis on the need for Catholics to show filial piety to Church leaders, and especially to the Pope—to avoid, as one person wrote some time ago, “uncovering the nakedness” of our spiritual father (the reference is to Gen 9:22 and Lev 18). Occasionally we have lost donors because of this concern, though usually only those donors who think Pope Francis is a reasonably good pope.
Sorting things out
Those who have pressed this last point in response to the apostolates I have been involved in now for a period of 50 years (having started writing about Church affairs at the age of eighteen)—those who have emphasized filial piety, I say, have failed to convince me. Catholics of my generation faced this problem with the habitual shortcomings of countless bishops from the mid-twentieth century forward, and we face it more than we would have ever wished under the current pontificate. It is not that respect is not owed to ecclesiastical persons as a general rule. Rather, I have never judged it a sign of respect to refuse to discuss a leader’s errors and weaknesses when, if unprovided for, these errors and weaknesses are a snare and a pitfall to others.
Gossip and detraction, on the other hand, are grave evils, and the damage is likely to be even greater if the subject is a person in authority, especially spiritual authority. But we are not talking about making personal hidden things public. We are talking about public teaching and acts of governance.
The responses that struck me as being most on target were those which raised what I believe is the one critical question: What is the impact of what you are doing on your readers? Indeed, it is this and this alone which must govern the entire discussion—not only of this one proposal, but of everything we do on CatholicCulture.org. We have no obligation to write or not write something because of the nature of that “something”. Our obligation is to write (or not write) something for the good of souls—in a way that does good to others. We could harp long and loud on the shortcomings of Pope Francis, but there can be no reason to do so if nothing good can come of it. We could also remain piously silent about every unfortunate aspect of ecclesiastical governance, but there can be no reason to do so if nothing good can come of it.
I don’t mean to pretend that the good or evil done in such matters is unalloyed. In every instance, the good done will be mixed with some evil, or the evil done will be mixed with some good, if only because different members of any audience respond to the same thing in different ways. Readers can feel unrighteous anger, personal resentment, crippling discouragement or even unholy glee when confronted with bad news, just as they can grow in understanding, have their faith strengthened, examine their weaknesses, purify their motives, draw closer to God, and take more responsibility for the salvation of their neighbors.
To increase the likelihood of a positive result, writers and editors need to know a good deal about their audience. Despite the constant presence of outliers, what is the level of Catholic knowledge and spiritual commitment of the vast majority of readers of CatholicCulture.org? The answer, obviously, is that we attract primarily deeply-committed Catholics with a fairly high level of knowledge of the Faith and a passion for apostolic work, including the proclamation of every part of the Gospel—whether in their families or, as opportunity permits, among their friends, neighbors, or co-workers, and in the world at large.
Critical questions, critical answers
To increase the likelihood of a positive result, writers and editors must also beware of certain temptations and tendencies within themselves, in order to avoid mistakes which can only undermine the intention to always do good in their Catholic service to readers. This raises a whole series of questions which must be kept in mind at all times, both by those of us who are professionals and those who get information and ideas from us and run with them:
- Are we trying to make a big deal out of a small matter, or do we color things more negatively than a proper understanding warrants, either to vent our own frustration or—worse—to attract attention, eyeballs, and dollars?
- Within reasonable limits of newsworthiness, do we suppress good news so that our take on bad news seems stronger than it really is?
- Do we fall into the trap of sounding happy that some problem has been exposed? A simple example is letting readers sense, through our manner of expression, that we are glad that a particular incident proves that we were right all along.
- When we report or comment on something negative, do we assume too much? Do we fail to explain why it is important, or fail to clarify the correct Catholic understanding of the point at issue?
- Do we take seriously the need to offer periodic guidance as to which responses to bad news are right and helpful, and which are either completely wrong or do more harm than good?
- Do we assume that the mere publication of bad news or critical commentary will, if we do it often enough, automatically accomplish something positive somewhere somehow? Do we examine what good we think we are doing, and attempt to verify it?
- In an effort to keep our writing sharp and entertaining, do we use language that is more pointed than the occasion warrants, or lace that language with “clever” implications that may not, in fact, be true?
- We are laity. Does our work encourage or discourage good priests and bishops throughout the world?
- Is our work rooted in both the sacraments of the Church and in personal prayer, including constant prayer for both understanding and…wait for it…humility?
We need not be in tears, but every evil, reported or not, is a tragedy—not something with which to enhance our own glory. In the last analysis, doing CatholicCulture.org’s job well depends not as much on formatting decisions—such as where to place the bad news on the page—as on questions like these. I mean questions of fundamental Christian responsibility. Moreover, beyond the fundamentals of that responsibility, I mean questions about growth in holiness. I pray that we might take nothing for granted: Questions of holiness are the most important for both our readers and ourselves.
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