The state of Catholic journalism is a matter of intense debate in church circles these days, and for good reason. The U.S. bishops’ decision in early May to eviscerate Catholic News Service, a wire service that has reported on the church with professionalism for more than a century, came as a shock to many, including more than a few bishops who didn’t realize what this would mean for their own diocesan outlets. It also came as a gift to conservative Catholic media who will fill the void with the divisive rightwing agitprop that has already developed a large audience by slavishly following the decadent path blazed by Fox News and Breitbart among others.
This is no abstract debate: the vast majority of Catholics get news about their diocese, about the Catholic Church nationally and globally, and about the pope through Catholic media and via secular journalists who rely on church media for tips and context. The decline of professional Catholic journalism means that news about the church and the Vatican is refracted through an increasingly partisan lens, one that skews to the right against Pope Francis, and away from the facts and the truth.
I wrote about the wider dynamics driving this trend and the entire information industry in an old-fashioned journalist’s cranky cri de cœur in National Catholic Reporter. One issue my essay only touched on, but which needs greater deliberation and amplification, is the question of what in fact defines a Catholic journalist.
The journalism trade today is what it is: a profoundly stressed business that is being buffeted by forces beyond the guild’s control—ever-changing algorithms that can doom your content, an “attention economy” that has more platforms chasing fewer eyeballs, and vampire capitalists who bleed vulnerable media dry. The decline of traditional journalism shops has opened opportunities for many individuals to hang out a shingle and declare themselves Catholic journalists. Some do it with good intentions but mistake popular fluff for serious reporting; others are simply amateurish at best, or insidious at worst.
So how should we define what it means to be a Catholic journalist? Here’s my elevator pitch: A Catholic journalist is a Catholic who writes in good faith about Catholic things while following the trade’s professional standards and ethical practices. Above all, a Catholic journalist seeks the truth and reports it fairly, without fear or favor.
That seems like it ought to be uncontroversial, just commonsensical. Apparently not. Many continue to believe that “orthodoxy” is the baseline trait of a Catholic journalist—defining orthodoxy the way they prefer, of course, usually tilting in a rightward direction. Others see Catholic journalists as evangelists. That is the cringey approach of many of the soft-focus, “lifestyle” approaches to Catholic news promoted by “content evangelizers” like FAITH Catholic, a media provider that is seeking to sell its products to dioceses and supplant actual journalism. The founder of FAITH Catholic, which was recently the focus of an in-depth report by NCR’s Brian Fraga, was quoted as saying that “it is a higher call to be an evangelist than a journalist … When the ideals of journalism appear to take precedence over being a disciple who evangelizes, the diocesan journalist can lose his or her way.”
That is the apologist’s approach to Catholic journalism, a lamentable and all-too common view of the role of journalism in Catholicism that winds up serving neither evangelization nor journalism. Clifford Longley, in a tribute in The Tablet to the recently deceased John Wilkins, a Catholic and a journalist worthy of both dignities, also took aim at that conflation of journalism and public relations. But in his eulogy to his longtime colleague, and his elegy to their shared vocation, Longley argued that the roles of Catholic and journalist are inherently distinct and irreconcilable—“a source of tension which needs to be managed but can never finally be resolved because journalism and Catholicism follow different rules. If both can be described as searches for truth, then they follow parallel lines which can only meet at infinity.”
This is where I would disagree. Journalism tends to focus on facts and Catholicism on faith. But the shared search for truth leads to the same place. Fudging the facts in order to protect the faith—to “avoid scandal,” as the Code of Canon Law has it—is a concept that has been distorted to argue for covering up anything that makes church officials uncomfortable. Such a reading would inevitably put journalism and Catholicism at odds. But a proper reading shows that hiding the truth is what scandalizes the faithful and hurts the church. We have seen how that happens time and again, and it’s inherently contradictory for a religion based on preaching the truth to believe it can be helped by hiding the truth. That would be denying its own identity.
That’s also why a Catholic who is a good journalist has a good shot at being a good Catholic. And given that the career path is more like financial martyrdom, there’s even a chance at sainthood.
David Gibson is a journalist and author and director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.