Suddenly everyone is an expert on celibacy. Suddenly everyone is an expert on the priesthood. Suddenly everyone is an expert on gay priests. Or more accurately, suddenly everyone is happy to talk about the Catholic Church, no matter how little they know about Catholicism.
Maureen Dowd, in a hateful column in The New York Times (3/24), declared that celibacy is the cause of the church’s sexual-abuse scandals, since celibacy appeals to men who are running away from their sexuality. Though only a small percentage of priests have been accused of sexual-abuse crimes, Ms. Dowd sees no need to offer any proof for her claim. But in the current climate, this kind of sloppy journalism is the norm: one can say whatever one cares to about the church. Speculation passes for serious criticism; anti-Catholic stereotypes abound.
The newly minted church scholar Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, announced in Time (4/1) that celibacy is a sick rule.... Celibacy is unnatural...it’s almost sinful. For good measure, when asked how to solve the church’s current problems, he said he would bring back the Latin Mass.
Finally, Hendrik Hertzberg, in the lead Talk of the Town article in The New Yorker on April 1, loftily addresses the problems facing the church. His lead sentence is: When a man (always a man) becomes a priest in the Roman Catholic Church, he takes vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Of course this is false. Only priests who are members of religious orders take vows of poverty; diocesan priests receive a salary. (Where were those legendary New Yorker fact-checkers?) It is hard to take seriously an article on Catholicism from someone who makes such a fundamental mistake.
Mr. Hertzberg’s error would be laughable if it didn’t point up the widespread laxity of journalistic standards when it comes to the current crisis. But even more disturbing is what follows in the article. From this incorrect premise the author concludes that since one accused diocesan priest owned a vacation home, priests live their vows in a dishonest way. So beginning with his false premise, Mr. Hertzberg gives birth to an easy and hurtful new stereotype: the dishonest priest.
One of the more frustrating aspects of the media’s coverage of the sexual-abuse scandals is the ignorance displayed by usually intelligent commentators. Perhaps it’s the fault of the church for not explaining itself better. Perhaps it’s a hint of anti-Catholicism or Schadenfreude. Perhapssince in our culture celibacy is considered ridiculoussome consider it acceptable to pass along what in other contexts would be qualified as either rumors or stereotypes. Perhaps pundits assume that despite their ignorance of basic facts about Catholicism, they still know what’s best. Or perhaps all four factors are at work. In any case, the number of stupid comments made by the media about Catholicism is astounding.
I am not saying that people do not have a right to their opinions (which they do), or that the church is not in need of serious reform (which it most certainly is), or that some of these topics do not need to be discussed (which they do). Rather, I wish that more enlightened Catholic observers would lead the way. I wish, for example, that more U.S. bishops would publicly offer their perspectives on the crisis (as Archbishop Harry J. Flynn does in our issue this week). I wish that more Catholic priests would pen articles clarifying salient points of the crisis (as James F. Keenan, S.J., has done in The London Tablet). And I wish that more committed Catholic laypersons would write about their ideas for reform (as did Lisa Sowle Cahill in The New York Times).
In short, I wish the discussion could be framed not by media pundits slinging around stereotypes and half-baked opinions, but by informed Catholics. As helpful as the media have been in exposing this crisis, their obvious ignorance makes it almost impossible for them to offer a coherent solution. It is time for our own expertsbishops, priests, brothers, sisters, theologians and, especially, committed laypersonsto step up to the plate and offer solutions. Because when it comes to the future of the church, it’s up to us, not to The O’Reilly Report.