The Times that Tries Some Catholic Souls

by Ken Briggs

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The bitter opponents of the New York Times have been again raging at the barricades of their own making recently, denouncing the newspaper for its alleged anti-Catholicism.

It's surprising that one of the latest volleys has been fired in the pages of Commonweal. Funny because the Times long ago adopted Commonweal's definition of itself as the rational, intellectual Catholics who were, shall we say, acceptable. A string of Commonweal editors have either written for the Times or worked for it. The Times has been the sort of Commonweal Catholic secular newspaper.

The Times's admirable coverage of the child sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church has energized the accusers. The Times picks on the Catholic church while ignoring the other violators, they say. They try to pin undeserved blame on the pope. They always had it in for the Catholic church. And so on.

As one who spent many years there, I think nearly all the attacks are absurd. Critics flatter themselves in thinking that Times editors and reporters actually devote time and energy to undermining the Catholic church. No one who has ever experienced a news organization that large which, by nature, exists at the end of a diving board every day, and consists of a grand mix of contrarians, could possible believe the nonsense that is being spewed from poison pens.

In fact, the squeals are coming because the Archdiocese of New York in particular, and Catholicism in general has been granted such deference over the years. If the paper is to be faulted, it is for excessive deference.

The kid gloves treatment has been in response to a belief that the church is more powerful than it is because it looks that way. One of my first impressions of the Times was how much it resembled the church in the middle ages in terms of hierarchical structure and self-assurance. Not that it was competing with Catholicsm for hearts and minds so much as trying to influence the national agenda on a institutional model that had worked for the Catholic church for several centuries.

Recent setbacks involving internal scandals and industry declines have effaced that image almost entirely by now.

The Times has its blind spots in regard to religion, of course, and one of them has been to take the Catholic church's old claim to being the "one true church" more seriously than many Catholics ever did. Neither institution has much tolerance for dissent.

No matter how respectful the Times's coverage, even making possible a regular feature by a prominent Catholic columnist for many years, there's not a whole lot you can do to minimize the impact of a scandal by an institution whose leaders claim absolute authority over morals.

So as the Times's sometimes nervous smiling toward Catholicism melted into a frown, and the tough stories were done, the defenders of privileged treatment rose up and smote the newspaper they loved to hate.

The Times has done a great public service by pressing on with its coverage. It has done so, in my estimation, with integrity and fearlessness.

Like any organization, the Times is made up of all sorts and temperaments. The goal of getting a story right brings their talents and judgments together. I've long been among those who see journalists as moralists (that may be fading as the careerists have moved in), though they may only be dimly aware of that motivation. My respect goes out to them, including the many I had the privilege of knowing at the Times. It is a back handed tribute to the Times, perhaps, that those who carp the most would love to be asked to write for it and can be outraged when they are not.

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