Honest Evangelism Needs Honest Journalism
Almost two decades ago, I was asked to become editor-in-chief of the weekly published by the Japanese Conference of Catholic Bishops.
My first reaction was a gut-aching laugh. When I caught my breath, I said to the priest who had been sent to present the proposal: “Look at my face! It was indeed unprecedented to ask a non-Japanese to run a newspaper in Japanese.
Later, I met the bishop who was the newspaper liaison and asked him if I would have the kind of editorial freedom and authority that is usual for a newspaper editor. He replied, “As long as you don’t start publishing heresy, you have this freedom. Test us.
I accepted the job and soon after we had the first test.
A bishop had been prosecuted in a case that was never mentioned in any Catholic media. The only coverage was in a local secular newspaper and a Buddhist newspaper. The Catholics in his diocese who knew the history were mostly silenced.
When the bishop lost the case, I told my staff it was news, but since the whole affair had been kept from the Catholics, we had to do an article that explained its background and history. When reporters showed hesitation, I assured them that the only risky job was mine. The story made headlines.
Sexual abuse by clergy and cover-ups by those in leadership positions highlighted by secular media
On the day it was printed, the bishop who told me to test the bishops was in Tokyo and invited the priests who worked at the bishops’ conference to join him for dinner before he returned home. in his diocese.
When dessert came out, the bishop called my name. Immediately every fork and cup of coffee fell as the priests waited to hear what was to follow.
“Your predecessor [who had come to the newspaper from a magazine put out by his religious order] would not have printed this story.
I replied, “My predecessor was not trying to run a newspaper.
“Yes, but we wanted to. “
Everyone returned to their dessert and their coffee.
A few days later, a package arrived from the bishop who was the subject of the story. It contained his papers relating to the case as well as a note saying that he would not appeal the verdict and that I had free use of the papers if I felt additional coverage was needed.
My mother once complained about a totally different relationship between the Catholic press and a prelate in her diocesan newspaper: “There were nine photos of the bishop on the first 11 pages! I guess none of the photos illustrated an article about a trial.
Pope Francis recently honored two journalists whose “beat” includes the Vatican. Neither works for a Church-related news agency. During the ceremony, the Pope thanked all the journalists who underlined “what is wrong with the Church”.
With few exceptions, media unrelated to the Church have rendered this service. Sexual abuse by the clergy and cover-ups by people in positions of responsibility have been highlighted by secular media. There are other stories that will be told sooner or later, but probably not in Church-related media.
Objective, professional and frankly honest Catholic sources of information are scarce. François praised journalists, but the institution still does not want real journalism
When independent Church-related news outlets tried to present these stories, they were attacked by those claiming to “protect the Church”, although this was more often than not an exercise in self-defense. Non-independent sources print photos of bishops.
Objective, professional and frankly honest Catholic sources of information are scarce. François praised journalists, but the institution still does not want real journalism.
Two thousand years ago, when journalism did not yet exist, Jesus showed the hypocrisy of those who wielded power among and against believers. Today, that is part of the vocation of journalism.
If that does not happen today, if the Church’s communications are just public relations, the Church and her mission will suffer.
We are all embarrassed when, as is inevitable, the corruption and scandal that has been hidden is exposed by others. The decreasing number of those with high expectations are outraged. Idealists who might otherwise choose a life of Church service shy away from an institution that values cover-up over truth. Some leave the Church in disgust.
Compared to all of this, how can Church officials claim that bad press, even (or mostly) when it is true, is a problem?
The biggest problem is the loss of credibility of the Church’s true message, the gospel. The Church is in desperate need of honest, objective, and professional sources of information, otherwise they will be of no use in proclaiming the gospel. Such honesty, while embarrassing at times, will also be a confirmation to the world that we are attached to the truth and therefore worthy of some trust.
The bishops of Japan knew that presenting the full picture of the Church is ultimately a service to the People of God and to the Gospel. Shouldn’t other Church leaders learn from them?
* The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.
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