Tuesday, April 13, 2010

John Allen Again

One final reflection on "Crimen Sollicitationis"

(Repeat from the previous post)

As the story was unfolding, I received a couple of comments from church officials here and in the United States along the lines of, “thank you for setting the record straight.” They were reacting to the fact that early coverage was overwhelmingly negative. Church spokespersons, who knew the document was no “smoking gun,” were frustrated that they couldn’t get that message across.

If my reporting helped restore some perspective, I’m glad. But I don’t think church officials should take any comfort from the pattern this story revealed.

I suspect that the Crimen Sollicitationis episode may signal a new season for how the Catholic Church is covered by the American press. Just as Watergate changed the way the Americans perceived the government, the sexual abuse crisis may have reconfigured attitudes towards the church. All sorts of conspiracy theories and suggestions of corruption that once would have been dismissed by the mainstream press may now be given attention, and swallowed much more easily by the public. It will be increasingly difficult for church spokespersons to refute even obviously bogus stories, not because the spokespersons are wrong, but because few people are disposed to believe them.

This is not a matter of anti-Catholicism, meaning the malice with which some segments of American society have always approached the Catholic Church. This is a new phenomenon — a tendency of even fair-minded people to believe the worst interpretation of any story involving the church.

Of course, this is terribly unfair. In the case of Crimen Sollicitationis, CBS should have checked with canon lawyers before rushing on the air with a report that created an inaccurate impression. But the church has to some extent brought this on itself: its record of concealment, stonewalling and denial has created a climate in which hasty and one-sided reports are going to find traction.

What is needed now is a communications strategy for the Catholic Church in the United States that goes beyond waiting for the next story to blow up, and then blaming the press for its incomprehension. The American church desperately needs to go on the offensive, opening itself up, telling its story, and reestablishing trust with the press and the public. If not, a whole generation of reporters may come of age thinking of the Catholic Church as its Nixon White House, the great white whale of investigative journalism.

In fact, there is a terrific story to be told about American Catholicism, but for now it is being suffocated. Time will tell if the bishops are capable of the leap of imagination necessary to let it see the light of day.

[Blogger: The entire affair smacks to me of the Old Testament defamation of Naboth by Jezabel in order to take the vineyard from him: "And I [Ahab] spoke to Naboth the Jezrahelite, and said to him: Give me thy vineyard, and take money for it; or if it please thee, I will give thee a better vineyard for it. And he (Naboth) said: I will not give thee my vineyard. Then Jezabel his wife said to him [sarcastically]: Thou are of great authority indeed, and governest well the kingdom of Israel. Arise, and eat bread, and be of good cheer, I will give thee the vineyard of Naboth the Jezrahelite. So she wrote letters in Achab's name, and seal them with his ring; and sent them to the ancients, and the chief men that were in his city, and that dwelt with Naboth. And this as the tenor of the letters: Proclaim a fast, and make Naboth sit among the chief of the people, and suborn two men, sons of Belial, against him, and let them bear false witness: that he hath blasphemed God and the king. And then carry him out, and stone him, and so let him die".... And so it was (3 Kings 21, 1-17)].

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