Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the faithful had ready access to reliable media sources that consistently present news items and important issues truthfully and completely, while also communicating the authentic doctrine of the faith so dependably that Catholics could receive the information they relay with complete confidence?
The Second Vatican Council thought so.
In the Decree on the Media of Social Communications, Inter Mirifica , the Council Fathers spoke of the “inherent right of the Church to have at its disposal media as necessary or useful for the instruction of Christians, and all its efforts for the welfare of souls” (cf IM 3).
Along with this right, the Catholic media has the duty “to instill a fully Christian spirit into readers,” (cf IM 14) and for this purpose the Council Fathers envisioned, “A truly Catholic press with the clear purpose of forming, supporting and advancing public opinion in accord with natural law and Catholic teaching and precepts” (ibid .).
Enter Catholic News Service (CNS) — an agency of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that was created more than forty years before the Council specifically for the purpose of carrying out this very mission.
Today, CNS is the world’s largest Catholic news organization of its kind, generating news items and editorial pieces that are reprinted in more than 200 Catholic publications worldwide. In fact, whether you live in New York, NY or Sydney, Australia, CNS is almost certainly a major provider of content for your official diocesan newspaper.
Mission accomplished, right? Well, not exactly.
Catholic News Service has long been viewed with a suspicious eye by “conservative” Catholic groups, but any perception that this wariness was confined to some traditionalist fringe, however, was officially put to rest earlier this year.
By January 2009, CNS’ failure to consistently apply reliably Catholic editorial standards had become so problematic that Archbishop Raymond Burke, Prefect of the Apostolic Signatura at the Vatican, was moved to take the extraordinarily bold step of criticizing CNS from Rome.
“The bishops need to look at our Catholic News Service; they need to review their coverage of [the Church’s moral and social teachings] and give some new direction,” he said.
The problems at CNS, which has been under the directorship of Editor-in-Chief Tony Spence since 2004, are well illustrated by considering the case of Pepperdine law professor Douglas Kmiec.
In the months leading up to the recent U.S. Presidential election, Kmiec — a Catholic — not only campaigned for Barack Obama, he became the self-appointed spokesperson for moral relativists everywhere by publically insisting that Obama’s pro-abortion agenda fits comfortably within authentic Catholic social doctrine.
Naturally, Kmiec’s views drew the criticism of a number of American bishops, including Archbishop Charles Chaput who said that Kmiec had “done a disservice to the Church, confused the natural priorities of Catholic social teaching, and provided an excuse for some Catholics to abandon the abortion issue.”
Kmiec has since established himself as the Obama Administration’s chief Catholic apologist, rankling the pro-life community by applauding the nomination of pro-abortion Catholic Kathleen Sebelius to head the Department of Health and Human Services and offering praise for the President’s decision to overturn the “Mexico City Policy” thereby forcing American taxpayers to fund overseas abortions.
Based on this brief snapshot alone it is painfully obvious that Kmiec’s agenda is the antithesis of the Council’s vision for a media intent on “advancing public opinion in accord with Catholic teaching and precepts” (IM 14).
How then can anyone explain why Catholic News Service — an organ of the USCCB — would grant Kmiec’s opinions a de facto Imprimatur by syndicating his columns for distribution to Catholic publications all over the world?
To be fair, everyone makes mistakes in judgment. Goodwill or the lack thereof, however, is easily discernable by examining the way in which one amends their ways, or does not, after being called to account, as in the case of Archbishop Burke’s stunning rebuke of CNS.
In April 2009, Tony Spence left little room for doubt in the matter when he decided to publish a Kmiec column that hailed the National Institutes of Health’s newly proposed guidelines for Federal funding of embryonic stem cell research as “ethically sensitive” and a move “in a noticeably more Catholic-friendly direction.”
This latest CNS-sanctioned apologia on the Obama Administration’s assault on human life was so out of bounds that Cardinal Justin Rigali, who chairs the USCCB’s Pro-Life Committee, was moved to refute Kmiec’s falsehoods point-by-point in a column of his own, ultimately evaluating Kmiec’s CNS piece by saying, “The truth is opposite.”
It is bizarre theater indeed when an American Cardinal must directly refute the errant opinions that were syndicated, published and propagated by the news service owned by the Bishops’ Conference to which he belongs, and this just months after the leadership of said news service was put on notice by a powerful Vatican prelate.
Can any reasonable observer view this series of events and fail to conclude that Tony Spence has made a conscious decision to throw down the gauntlet, and is now daring the USCCB to hold him and CNS to accountability?
CNS’ cavalier attitude toward orthodoxy is not confined to its recent treatment of the life issue alone. Some other examples, just to name a few:
In 2005, CNS issued a glowing review of the movie Brokeback Mountain and rated the homosexual propaganda piece as suitable for a “limited adult audience.” Following the backlash of outraged readers, CNS eventually changed the rating to “morally offensive,” but the fawning assessment of the film as “a serious contemplation on loneliness and connection” remains unchanged to this very day.
In August 2008, a CNS feature article on the origins of the Bible offered the erroneous claim that, “The Catholic version of the Bible is actually a library of books specifically chosen to reflect Catholic teaching.” When confronted with the fact that the First Vatican Council specifically condemned this error, and that Vatican II reiterated the long held Catholic teaching that the books of Sacred Scripture are canonical for the solitary reason that they have God as their Author, Mr. Spence personally dismissed out of hand any suggestion of offering a correction.
In April 2009, another of CNS’ syndicated columnists offered praise for an elderly priest for possessing the “scholarly acquiescence to nuance our church sometimes forgets,” all because he has the high-mindedness to invoke the Holy Spirit as “She.” Whether or not anyone at CNS knows or cares that the Congregation for Divine Worship clearly forbade such un-Traditional acts of Divine gender-bending is anyone’s guess.
So, how will the USCCB — our “authentic teachers endowed with the authority of Christ” (Lumen Gentium 25) — respond to the challenge of CNS’ apparently unbridled hubris? Stay tuned.
The more pressing question for us is how should we, the Catholic faithful, respond?
For starters, we need to begin as responsible consumers of Catholic media, spending our time and our money wisely.
Even though CNS makes the claim that it is “financially self-sustaining,” don’t be fooled.
Many parishes “force feed” subscriptions to the diocesan newspaper upon their parishioners, paying for them with parish funds and then making special appeals for reimbursement at a later date. In some places, diocese-wide collections are undertaken specifically to raise money for the official newspaper, but in all cases the diocesan newspapers pay CNS for the content they provide and are a major source of CNS’ revenue.
Dioceses throughout the U.S. also participate annually in the USCCB’s National Collection for the Catholic Communications Campaign. Fifty percent of the money raised is retained by the diocese to fund special projects which, according to the Conference website, includes “efforts such as televised Masses and diocesan newspapers.” The remainder of the National Collection is used by the USCCB to fund special media projects like the aforementioned CNS movie reviews.
The bottom line is this: CNS is subsidized to no small extent with money donated by hard working Catholics, many of whom would never knowingly choose to underwrite Douglas Kmiec’s syndicated columns or the other kinds of questionable content that we’ve been discussing here.
We the “people in the pews” need to soberly consider whether or not our diocesan newspapers are truly worthy of our support based on the quality of their content alone. Many certainly are, but if yours is not, don’t allow yourself to be quietly forced into supporting it. Offer respectful but candid feedback to the editors, pastors and bishops involved letting them know that you will not fund media content that misrepresents our Catholic faith.
As responsible media consumers we can force publications like our local diocesan newspaper, and news outlets like CNS, to earn their keep by offering real value in the marketplace of authentic Catholic content.
We also need to make it a point to support and promote those Catholic media outlets that, unlike CNS, enjoy neither the imputed prestige of being attached to the USCCB nor the financial perks that come with it, yet contentiously uphold their duty to communicate the authentic faith just the same. If you’re unable to support these dependable media sources financially — and they do exist — at the very least you can help them expand their readership base by spreading the word to other faithful Catholics.
Most of all, we must pray for all involved, especially our sacred pastors, that they will be endowed with the grace and the courage necessary to protect the faithful from false teachings in all of its many forms.