Secular Theology:The Effect of Anti-Catholic Media Bias on the Catholic Community

       Newspapers and news magazines have long been a mainstay for information and keeping up to date about the world around us. The Internet has increased accessibility and dramatically changed the way people gather and read their news, but it has not changed the perception of bias within today’s print media. Publishers learned long ago that sex, scandal, and controversy would sell copies, so it is not surprising that Catholics would perceive an anti-Catholic bias within those publications. In an age where abortion, sexual promiscuity, and same-sex marriage are commonplace, faithful Catholics find themselves at odds with many of the morals and values portrayed in today’s media. This anti-Catholic bias, whether it is simply perceived or otherwise, has a negative impact on the Catholic community.

       The perception of anti-Catholic bias does in-fact exist within members of the Church, therefore it is imperative to prove the reasons behind it. Rev. Avery Dulles, S.J., a Jesuit priest, provided an example of this perception when he wrote, “The church seeks to promote unity and reconciliation, minimizing discord and dissent. The news media, however, specialize in disagreement and conflict which evidently arouse greater interest and boost circulation” (Dulles, 1994). At first glance, his statement implied that the media is not merely biased, but was simply attempting to sell copies of their publications by creating an element of disagreement and conflict. Although every publication is in the business of selling copies, it is not logical, nor realistic, to conclude that all media outlets create hype in order to increase their bottom line. Dulles offered another reason for the perception of an anti-Catholic bias by pointing out that, “most newspapers and magazines have no professionally qualified reporters in the field of religion” (Dulles, 1994). Articles summarizing sporting events should be written by someone who knows the sport they are covering, and financial reports would not be credible if the writer did not possess a basic knowledge of our financial system, so the same should be required of those writing about religion. The veracity of information comes into question when the person writing it has little to no training or has limited understanding of the subject.

       Catholic journalist Amy Welborn acknowledges, “Reporting on the Catholic Church is quite a challenge, given the historical depth and complexity of the subject matter” (Flynn, 2008). Given the complexity of the subject matter, it is no surprise that many reports contain inaccuracies. In a recent survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, one-third of Catholics surveyed could not name the four Gospels, and 45% did not know that the Church teaches the bread and wine used in Holy Communion actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ (Pew Research Center, 2010). Welborn also offered her own recommendation for her fellow journalists in the print media, “Deepening their knowledge of the Church would be a step forward for journalists covering Catholicism… This does not mean losing objectivity, but reporting on events in their proper context” (Flynn, 2008). Her recommendation supports the position that anti-Catholic bias exists because of misunderstanding and ignorance rather than an intentional bias against the Church.

       The Los Angeles Times has a history of providing editorial space to those who appear to write from an anti-Catholic prospective. For example, Tim Rutten wrote, “Many Catholics worry about a Vatican that fires an Australian bishop for speaking in favor of ordaining women and married men, but declines to act against a Belgian prelate who unapologetically admits to molesting young boys” (Rutten, 2011). His statement appears to be a valid argument against Church hypocrisy, but Rutten purposely misled readers by failing to mention that the Vatican suspended the Belgian prelate immediately, while the Australian bishop was allowed to remain in his position for five years before his removal (Wooden, 2011). In this example, Tim Rutten was clearly attempting to sway readers into being sympathetic for relaxing the rules of the Church by claiming that the Church itself was not enforcing its own standards.

       While sex scandals involving priests are definitely newsworthy, some news outlets go out of their way to make reference to those scandals while covering a wide variety of other topics within the Catholic Church. For example, during his homily at the funeral for Cardinal John Patrick Foley of Philadelphia, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York City said, “any diocese that can turn out such a noble, gentle man is a church which can endure and come out even stronger” (O’Reilly, 2011). The author of the article, David O’Reilly, attributed Archbishop Dolan’s comments as “an apparent reference to the difficulties the archdiocese will face next year – a sex abuse trial, school closings, decisions on 27 priests under internal investigation for possible misconduct with children” (O’Reilly, 2011), when the Archbishop could have simply been referencing the endurance of the Philadelphia community and the effect the loss of their beloved Cardinal Foley will have on them over time. Other news outlets simply quote the most radical thinkers as if they are an example of the Catholic faithful (Seiler, 1999) and some make an intentional effort to undermine Church teaching. Although there are examples of intentional anti-Catholic bias within some segments of the media, the majority of the bias is not intentional, but rather a misunderstanding and ignorance of the beliefs of the Catholic Church.

       Tim Mattingly, director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges commented on the “amazing ignorance by some of the reporters that cover religion” (Flynn, 2008). His comments support the claims made by Dulles and Welborn, in stating that many covering religious topics should be trained and educated in the field they are reporting. This lack of knowledge and training has resulted in an anti-Catholic bias perpetuated by misunderstandings and ignorance, rather than the intentional exclusion of facts.

       The sex abuse scandal within the Church has long been a topic of discourse. While the response from the Church was nothing short of controversial to some, the reaction by the media caused a backlash of unprecedented proportions. In his book, The New Anti-Catholicism: The Last Acceptable Prejudice, author Philip Jenkins wrote, “the sex abuse scandal in the United States has resulted in a public outpouring of anti-Church and anti-Catholic vituperation on a scale not witnessed since the 1920s” (Anonymous, 2003). Allegations of abuse were widespread within the Catholic Church creating an illusion that the entire Church was to blame for the violations. While the investigation of criminal activity and misconduct on the part of Church authorities was completely justified, Jenkins wrote that many reports of abuse, “segued effortlessly into grotesque attacks on the Catholic Church as an institution” (Anonymous, 2003).

       Any attack on the Catholic Church is dangerous because many Catholics today are ill informed about the faith they profess. The U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey, from the Pew Research Center, showed that Catholics answered just 14.7 out of 32 questions (46%) correctly (Pew Research Center, 2010). The results of this survey are not hard to believe, given the influence of today’s media. Rev. Dulles wrote, “It must be recognized that many Catholics learn about what is happening in their Church primarily, or in great part, from the secular media” (Dulles, 1994). As Catholics glean more information from the media than their Church, the influence of that media permeates their lives and begins to distort the teachings of the Church. Jenkins concluded that anti-Catholic bias, “has become so ingrained that reporters do not even recognize their own anti-Catholic attitudes” (Anonymous, 2003). Catholics do not always know their own faith, so we cannot expect them to recognize this anti-Catholic attitude either. Gerald P. Fogarty, S.J. writes, “anti-Catholicism in America today is far more subtle and perhaps even insidious in a culture where religion is too often merely a matter of private opinion” (Fogarty, 2003). Although the result was unintentional, we must realize that the media unknowingly exacerbated the problem of anti-Catholic bias in our society as they continued to report the sex abuse scandal.

       The best recourse for the Church, at this point, is to fight fire with fire. For too long, the Church has ignored the words of Pope Paul VI, who declared in 1975, “The church would feel guilty before the Lord if she did not utilize these powerful means of communication that human skill is daily rendering more perfect” (Dulles, 1994). By utilizing the media to combat inaccurate information, the Catholic Church can establish a new pattern of effective communication and proper context that would contrast the existing media bias and balance the negative messages currently being delivered. The leaders of the Church must learn to use the media as a tool to support their message, rather than to control it. Any attempt to control the message would be seen as censorship and rejected by some of their own members, let alone those working as journalists in the secular media (Dulles, 1994).

       As subtle forms of anti-Catholicism become more prevalent in our society, many people see the Catholic Church as “authoritarian and opposed to freedom of thought” (Fogarty, 2003). This message is deliberately misleading and completely unfounded, yet the Church has done little to dissuade the message from pervading society. “The Church is not without blame in this farrago of vilification. Bishops obfuscate, cardinals equivocate, and Church spokesmen prevaricate as the tide of media condemnation surges around them” (Anonymous, 2003), which is why the leaders of the Catholic Church must embrace new media if they hope to relieve tension and communicate a message that combats anti-Catholic bias in the media.

       As people continue to rely on newspapers and news magazines to keep informed, those sources of media are unintentionally perpetuating an atmosphere of anti-Catholic bias. Publishers of print media focus on stories that will sell copies, often filled with sex, scandal, and controversy and they fail to hire qualified personnel to cover the topic of religion. The consequences of their actions result in misunderstandings about the Catholic Church and ignorance of the Catholic faith itself. The Church must take a pro-active approach and begin participating in the message rather than responding to criticisms after the fact. Until they do so, anti-Catholic bias will continue to create discord and Catholics will become more secular because of that influence. While the existence of anti-Catholic bias in the media may be unintentional, it poses a threat that has a negative impact on the entire Catholic community as well as society as a whole.

References

Anonymous. (2003). Church rounds on anti-Catholic bias by Media. Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=2171705581&sid=1&Fmt=3&client
Id=74379&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Dulles, A. (1994). Religion and the News Media: A Theologian Reflects. America 171, no. 9, pp 6-9. Retrieved from http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/media/me0005.html

Flynn, J. (2008). The Media and Misreporting Religion. Retrieved from http://www.catholic.org/national/national_story.php?id=31225

Fogarty, G. (2003). Reflections on Contemporary Anti-Catholicism, U.S. Catholic Historian , Vol. 21, No. 4, Anti-Catholicism (Fall, 2003), pp. 37-44. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/25154876

O’Reilly, D. (2011). Funeral for Cardinal Foley draws church dignitaries. Retrieved from http://www.kansascity.com/2011/12/16/3324188/funeral-for-cardinal-foley-draws.html

Pew Research Center (2010). U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey. Retrieved from http://pewforum.org/Other-Beliefs-and-Practices/U-S-Religious-Knowledge-Survey.aspx

Rutten, T. (2011). Tim Rutten: Is Pope John Paul II fit for sainthood? Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/commentary/la-oe-0504-rutten-20110504,0,963466.column

Seiler, J. (1993). Pope’s visit unleashes anti-Catholic media. Retrieved from http://proquest.umi.com/pqdweb?did=145475401&sid=1&Fmt=3&clientId=74379&RQT=309&VName=PQD

Wooden, C. (2011). Church unity motivated papal action against bishop, Australians say. Retrieved from http://www.catholicnews.com/data/stories/cns/1104169.htm