The Internet, the Church & Catholic Journalism

by Michael Sean Winters

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The internet is both opportunity and challenge, to society, the political order, the Church and especially Catholic journalism. This week, NCR is holding its annual webathon, so it seems a good time to analyze some of the possibilities and challenges posed by the internet. If you are reading this, hopefully you have already made a donation. If you have not yet made a donation, I encourage you to do so, and to make a donation at the appropriate level. Here is the link.

Appropriate? It is a loaded term. By appropriate I mean that some of you reading this may live in Africa or Latin America, or here in the U.S., and you may have limited means. Even the widow gave her mite. A $5 contribution from someone in the global South may not go as far as a $250 donation from someone of means living along the Northeast Corridor, but it means as much. And, if you are a reader of means, think of how often you come to NCR for news and analysis about the Church? Other sites make you pay to reach the content. We don’t. That allows us to continue to reach people who could not afford us otherwise. We need those who are able to do their part. We need everyone to do their part.

I admit my bias as an NCR writer. But, I am also an NCR reader. I also read dozens of other Catholic websites on a daily basis. I ask: Is there better reporting in Rome on all the goings on in this marvelous pontificate than the postings from my colleague Joshua McElwee? Of course not. Who is doing a better job covering environmental issues and how those issues are affected by, and affect, the Church, than my colleague Brian Roewe? When I need a spiritual pick me up, who better to turn to than Melissa Musick Nussbaum? It is a commonplace to say that we Catholics love our Sisters, but did any of us know so much about all that the Sisters are doing throughout the world before NCR launched the Global Sisters Report?

Being a computer Luddite – I still have an AOL email account – I never thought I would be living, literally, from hand to keyboard to mouth. But, there you have it. Some days, I know what I will be writing the night before, even outlining some thoughts. Some days, I sit down at my desk having no idea what I shall be writing about, but scouring the web will plant an idea that becomes my morning column. Without the internet, how would I be able to check the Vatican daily bulletin, the pope’s morning homily, the latest at Politico, various leftie and rightie Catholic blogs, etc. all before 7 a.m. and my second cup of coffee? Someone has to police the culture. And someone has to police the subculture that is the Catholic Church.

On surveying the web, it becomes obvious that the democratization of information has both ups and downs. Some sites are tendentious. Some are really reliable. Both sets require attention: A meme can take hold in the culture even if it is not true, and reliable information can and should be spread as an antidote to foolishness. What is remarkable, however, is the unique role a site like NCR plays in the broader culture. Twenty years ago, if a secular producer of a news program wanted to do a segment on anything religious, that producer probably had one name in the rolodex: Martin Marty. Now, I think Professor Marty is as smart as they come, to be sure, but today there are other voices that previously went unheard and many of the most important voices are found here at NCR online.

Very few Catholic websites publish the array of opinions found here at NCR. In print and online, we have always done our best to fulfill the journalist’s first ethical obligation: Without fear or favor. We have been criticized, even demonized, in the past because we published articles exposing Fr. Marcial Maciel, but who was proven right by events? And would the Church have been better off if the powers that be had listened to us or continued to live in the smokescreen Maciel’s champions created? Sometimes, I am the target of criticism from both left and right. Nothing makes me happier. Well, one thing makes me happier. Sometimes, a reader will send a note saying something like, “I wasn’t sure where you were going to come down on this issue but….” A publication that is univocal and predictable is not only boring, it is uncritical and probably not worth a second read. I have been blest to work with two editors here at NCR -- the late Joe Feuerherd and Dennis Coday. Neither has ever attempted to muzzle me nor restrict the topics about which I choose to write, still less the content of the opinions I choose to express. I am sure I give Dennis more grey hairs than most of my colleagues, but I appreciate enormously, and I think the readers appreciate, his liberality. Only at NCR.

I am no longer astonished when I attend a conference or meeting and a complete stranger comes up to me and expresses how much NCR means to them. I am especially encouraged that an increasing number of such comments come from young people. (By the by, yesterday, the line about who would ask someone under 30 what they think? That was a joke. Alas, one thing the internet does not always do well is transmit a joke.) And, young people, who unlike me are very tech savvy, can sniff bias a mile away. They come to NCR because they know they will find solid reporting and an array of opinions and analysis. There is no party line. NCR is not Catholic Pravda. People who want a party line have other venues to scratch that itch. Most young people I know think it is unhealthy to scratch that itch. That is a source of hope for the future, and that hope gets nourished on our NCR website.

That said, there is one exception to the “without fear or favor” rule. Everyone at NCR cares about the Church. Their views and opinions may be very different from mine, but as I have gotten to know my colleagues over the past five years, it is obvious to me that everyone here loves the Church, and it is that love which propels to discussion and the debates. We all want the Church to be Her best, even if we hold different understandings of what would constitute the best. Disagreements need not be disagreeable. NCR is both a purveyor of news and analysis, but because of the web, it has become a place where the Church can have an adult conversation in a way that letters to the editor in a print edition never permitted. And, if our Church needs anything, it is adult conversations.

The internet will not change the content of the kerygma. But, it does encourage, even require, different avenues of evangelization. Pope Francis is rightly known for his powerful gestures, but would we even know about them if they were not transmitted around the globe almost as soon as they are witnessed? His apostolic visit to the United States in September will be the best antidote to secularization in years: If the culture has grown forgetful of God, who better than Francis to remind the culture about Him? And, where will you find the best coverage of that trip? Here, at NCR of course.

So, please, consider what you can give and help us continue our work. It is such an exciting time in the life of the Church and someone has to tell the tale. NCR is that someone, actually those someones. Our many voices, together, appear on the pages of this website for free, without fear or favor, telling the tales that matter to you because you love the Church too. Please be generous.

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