While it has been most obvious during the pontificate of Pope Francis, the Church has had a problem for awhile. That problem is certain Catholics taking incidents and blowing them up into scandals to promote their own agendas. Whether that agenda is one of a liberal advocacy of changing Church teaching or whether it is a conservative advocacy of reverting practices to the way they were before Vatican II, the tactic is to take an event involving a member of the Church and changing that member into a hero or a villain and claim that if only we had changed/not changed things in the Church, things would be better.
In other words, one faction cannot put the blame only on the other faction. Both are trying to use news reports to promote their agenda. Nobody ever seems to ask how the Church can be dominated by liberals (the conservative allegation) and conservatives (the liberal allegation) at the same time. But this is the world of CSI—Catholic “Scandal” Instigation.
The most common form works in reaction to the major news coverage. The media reports on something happening in the Church with only superficial interpretation at best (usually, it’s completely uninformed speculation). We get a soundbite quote from someone in the Church which is aimed at either promoting a futile hope in the Church changing her teaching or at casting a member of the Church or Church teaching in a negative light. Members of the CSI immediately jump on the story assuming it is true as written. The Church is attacked for being either terribly heartless or terribly lenient. Bishops and even the Pope gets attacked if the story gives the CSI member a negative feeling.
We can consider the first year of Pope Francis. The media was taking soundbites from interviews or Church documents with no reference to why the Pope said or wrote such things. Unlike previous pontificates where such soundbites were used to show the Popes in a negative light, these were used to make it seem like the Pope was willing to change Church teaching from “X is forbidden” to “X is allowed.” Those who wanted to believe it rejoiced. Those who didn’t want to believe it, but did so anyway, reacted with horror. The internet spilled over with some Catholics denouncing the Pope as a heretic while others, long dissenting, portrayed themselves as being right all the time while the Church "finally caught up with the times” while the bishops were “in opposition” to the Pope.
The problem was, nobody actually asked the question of “Did the Pope actually say that in the first place?” Once a full transcript or the actual Papal document was released, it turned out that while the line existed, it was in the middle of a paragraph that was demonstrating fully orthodox Catholic teaching. Of course, once the correct context was released, the people who supported the alleged new teaching ignored this context and continued to repeat the original out of context story, while those who opposed it either pretended the whole affair never happened or else made it seem as if their overreaction was the Pope’s fault (Two common retorts: “Every time the Pope speaks, the Vatican has to do damage control!” and “The Pope needs to speak more clearly!”).
Another way is to take a negative story about the Church and make it sound like the bishop is guilty of supporting something monstrous. Two examples recently were:
- To take an incident in San Francisco and make it seem like Archbishop Cordileone was directly responsible for deliberately turning water on the homeless (the accusation of it being deliberate based solely on the claim of an anonymous report), never considering the possibility that auxiliary bishop William Justice (who made the decision) was telling the truth and had installed an ineffective system for washing hazardous waste out from corners and doorways.
- To take a case in New Jersey was put on paid leave while an investigation took place over a public statement made on Facebook that could have been seen as misrepresenting Church teaching and make it seem as if Bishop Paul Bootkowski was firing because of her defending the Christian understanding of marriage while ignoring the fact that the first half of her statement was problematic and ignoring the fact that she wasn’t fired. (In fact, she’s been reinstated).
In both cases, the bishops were essentially slandered/libeled and both were accused of bad will and acting against the teaching of the Church. In neither case does evidence exist for the accusations. But the attacks live on and the Church is undermined.
In this, I was struck by something written by Fr. Alban Butler in his Lives of the Saints concerning Pope Leo the Great:
St. Leo laid down this important maxim for the rule of his conduct, never to give any decision, especially to the prejudice of another, before he had examined into the affair with great caution and exactness, and most carefully taken all informations possible.
[Alban Butler, The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs and Other Principal Saints, vol. 2 (New York: P. J. Kenedy, 1903), 66.]
It makes me wonder why people continue to do this. When it comes to making a decision about doing right and wrong, why do we continue to assume we have all the facts before assuming the worst? We have seen often enough that the media, for whatever reason (ignorance or malice), constantly gets the reports wrong that we ought to beware of trusting the media in reporting on the Church at all. But people keep falling for it.
It seems to me that the problem is that people are willing to believe the worst about those they dislike or distrust. Conservatives mistrust the Pope and many bishops as sympathizing with liberalism, willing to undermine the Church. Liberals dislike the Church teachings on sexual morality and believe those who support it must be cold hearted and capable of cruelty (It should be noted that there seems to be a growing recognition that the Pope is not going to change doctrine and a gradual disillusionment with him). Both seem willing to undermine those in the Church who seem openly against their views.
We need to beware of the danger of jumping rashly on a news report. Nowadays, it’s all about being the first to report a breaking story. Reporters with little to no knowledge about the teachings of the Church can easily misinterpret the nuances of a Papal statement and report something wildly inaccurate. But we who are Catholic do not have the excuse of not knowing. We know that the Church teaching requires our assent. We trust that the Church is protected by God. Yet we continue to trust uninformed sources and let them form our opinions on the Church.
That has to stop. We have an obligation to think and assess before speaking. We’re not doing it. That failure is undermining of trust in the Church. Our first task is to give a favorable interpretation if possible. If not possible, we are to ask the one we are scandalized by for how they understand their own statement. Only then does correction take place—but even then with humility and love.