I am neither a Catholic nor the son of a Catholic (to misquote the prophet Amos), and I disagree with Rome on a wide array of ecclesiastical and theological issues. Yet here I am, rising to the defense of the Catholic Church in the face of media attacks that seem to me to be patently unjust.
The journalist Sheila Liaugminas attributes the recent spate of biased stories about Pope Benedict XVI and the Catholic Church to "lazy journalism and tendentious reporting." She is being charitable. The slanted stories and offensive editorials are motivated by something darker: by a disrespect for the Church in general, for Catholics in particular and for conservative beliefs, in toto.
Consider the Feb. 15 Newsweek article by Tim Parks titled "Benedict's Act of Grace" and subtitled "John Paul II left the church a mess." There is a sense of disdain throughout the article. Rather than using papal names, the author repeatedly refers to John Paul II as Wojty≈Ça and Gregory XVI as Ratzinger. He chooses inflammatory adjectives to describe the pontiffs: "reactionary," "arch-conservative," "interminably glamorous" (John Paul II) and "unimpressive" (Benedict XVI).
Michael Moynihan's Newsweek column, "Good Riddance, Benedict! Why the pope was a moral failure," is, if possible, even more disrespectful. The lead calls Benedict "the failed pontiff" and the article characterizes the 85-year-old ailing pope's retirement as an abandonment of his post.
One might try to excuse this contempt as a reaction to the ongoing clergy sexual abuse scandal, and surely it has played a role. It has been a hellish business, and the Church's response to it has, in some cases, been shameful. But even this tragic matter must be put into perspective.
In 2002, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 9.6 percent of school students - nearly 1 out of 10 - "in grades 8-11 report contact and/or noncontact educator sexual misconduct that was unwanted." Commenting on the report, Hofstra University researcher Charol Shakeshaft said, "So we think the Catholic Church has a problem? The physical sexual abuse of students in schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests."
But while that may make parents cringe, it does not make the Catholic Church's clergy sex abuse problem any less of a problem. Still, one can't help but feel there is another dynamic at work behind the devastating critiques appearing in the secular media. A characteristic feature of both print and broadcast media's coverage has been the repeated references to the Church's conservative stance on sex and gender issues. Again and again commentators imply that the Church's present difficulties could be surmounted if only she would abandon her moldy sexual ethics and give her blessing to same-sex relationships, contraceptive use and married priests. Additionally, if the church would ordain women to the priesthood, everything would be rosy.
Page 2 of 2 - This prescription, I suspect, comes from people who see the Church through a postmodern, irreligious and political lens. And it comes with a subtle kind of arrogance: that the outside observer's objectivity allows him to form a clearer understanding than the poor, superstitious (an adjective Parks used to describe John Paul II) believer.
But who sees more: the person looking at a beam of light, shining into a dark room, or the person looking along that same beam of light, to see what it illuminates? Much of the recent commentary comes from the first perspective and, we would do well to remember, is severely limited in its point of view.