In defense of balance

Mark Brumley, CEO of Ignatius Press, has weighed in on the Thomas Reese controversy. America magazine, he writes,

shouldn’t be “balanced” in the sense of inviting those who reject Catholic or Christian tenets to present their case for their positions.

By publishing, say, a pro-homosexual-marriage piece and a pro-Catholic-view-of-marriage piece side-by-side, America gives the impression that this is a subject up for legitimate debate within Catholicism and that America is the place to go to participate in that debate. . . . By publishing “name” Catholic commentators who are orthodox, America can draw attention to itself as it says, “See, we give both sides their chance” — as if on many of the issues under discussion there are two legitimate sides within the Catholic Church, when in fact there aren’t.

He discusses the matter further and concludes,

America is not or The New Republic or Fox News. It’s published by the Jesuits, a religious order of the Catholic Church. It should not be publishing articles contrary to the teaching of the Catholic Church. Period. There are plenty of other publications that do that. What we need in America is a solidly Catholic voice presenting Catholic teaching and defending it. Let the non-Catholics or the not-so-Catholics worry about giving the other side in their publications.

I take Brumley’s point, but then I’m not terribly certain what to do with it. As a Catholic, I understand — or at least I think I understand — the importance of orthodoxy. I agree with the principle that Catholic institutions and publications should be Catholic. And I do understand that a publication of the Jesuits is ultimately a publication of the Catholic Church.

But it just does not compute for me as a journalist. If a publication got carried away with Brumley’s advice, even letters to the editor would have to be massively filtered — can’t have someone offering the other side, after all.

And, no, I do not think I am caricaturing the position. Many people think that Catholic newspapers and journals should be modeled on diocesan newspapers. The church foots the bills and the content is ultimately controlled by the local hierarchy.

Here’s my problem with this model: the sex scandals in the Catholic Church. It stands to reason that a lot of reporters and editors at these journals had some evidence of the scandals way before us pew-warming types had a clue. Their business was the activities of the church, after all. But their salaries came from the church, and their papers function more like newsletters anyway, and so it was up to secular journalists and “dissenting” Catholics like the muckrakers at the National Catholic Reporter to expose some really heinous behavior by priests and church leaders.

Say what you want about the Reporter — I personally think the editors are a little bit nutty on a whole host of theological issues — what “orthodox” Catholic publication, what thundering voice of truth, has the guts to offer an invaluable service on the level of the Abuse Tracker?

Maybe they keep tabs on such things for the wrong reason. Maybe the Reporter crew wants to advance a theological agenda that many would find odious. Even granting those things, that is still no reason to write off the information they dig up as tainted and unclean.

Similarly, if America is to be a journal of opinion, it has to be lively. There has to be back-and-forth and debate and, sure, some of what is said in the process of disagreeing with one another is going to sound very unorthodox — or even un-Catholic — to a lot of readers.

I hope I’m not creating a straw man out of Brumley’s argument. If so, I invite him to beat the stuffing out of me in the comments for this post. And let’s be clear: He does have a point. I think there is a tension in any Catholic journalistic project between orthodoxy and journalism. It’s a high wire that Catholic newspapers and magazines are going to have to get better at navigating in the future.

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  • Leo White

    Perhaps it’s presenting a false dilemma to say we must choose between utterly vanilla diocesan papers and heterophile publications like the National Catholic Reporter and America. The latter sort could certainly continue to publish scandals that would tend to be glossed over by the former — even while abstaining from Cafeteria Catholicism.

  • Mark Brumley

    Some observations …

    Distinguo: publications of institutions of the Church, such as religious orders like the Jesuits and dioceses, and lay-run publications, which don’t directly represent the Church as such.

    AMERICA is a Jesuit publication and should not take stances at odds with the teaching of the Church. That was my point. That was what I was talking about, not about all Catholic journals.

    Furthermore: There is a distinction between publications furthering discussions of matters on which the teaching of the Church allows disagreement and fostering debate on matters on which all faithful Catholics should agree. There is no reason orthodoxy of doctrine can’t coincide with lively disagreement about a host of other matters and therefore no reason an orthodox Catholic publication can’t be a journal of opinion.

    The war in Iraq, for example, is a subject about which faithful Catholics can disagree. Higher or lower taxes and more or less social welfare spending are subjects on which faithful Catholics can disagree. The legitimacy of same-sex marriage and the legitimacy of abortion aren’t.

    Nor is there any reason an orthodox Catholic publication can’t be a muckraking publication, even when the muck to be raked involves clergy sexual abuse. It may be difficult, if not practically impossible, for institutional Church-related publications adequately to address such issues, but there are non-institutional orthodox publications that can do so.

    NC REPORTER has been no more vocal about the evils of clergy sexual abuse than CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT. Both are lay-run publications. NC Reporter dissents from Church teaching in many areas. CWR doesn’t.

    (Plus, CWR points to dissident moral theology and episcopal laxity as major factors accounting for the scandal, whereas the NC REPORTER has advocated the very dissenting moral theology that is part of the problem, not the solution.)

    Likewise, independent, alternative Catholic newspapers such as SAN DIEGO NEWS NOTES and the SAN FRANCISCO FAITH are hardly tamed in their zeal to expose what they regard as evils in the institutional Church by the fact that such publications are orthodox in their theological views. Far from it.

    Likewise, I don’t recall THE WANDERER or NEW OXFORD REVIEW being timid about criticizing the institutional Church.

    For the record, I don’t write off the NC REPORTER’s “information” as tainted and unclean, anymore than I dismiss the NEW YORK TIMES’ “information” as tainted and unclean.

    Information is information. Whether what is presented as information by a publication is, in fact, information is another matter. But once we’ve ascertained that what we have is information, then by golly that’s what we have.

    As for publications getting carried away with my point, well, I suppose it is problematic anytime someone gets “carried away” by a valid point, taking it to an extreme or misapplying it. So I suppose I think that Jeremy has a valid point about the dangers of institutional Church publications ignoring certain kinds of problems. I just hope no one gets carried away by the point and generalizes the difficulty as inherent in orthodox Catholic publications as such.

  • Tom R

    Isn’t there a clear difference between –

    [a] “The XY Church should change its doctrines to officially allow Z” (not proper to push at that Church’s expense, if its hierarchy has declared the matter closed for debate)

    vs –

    [b] “Z is widespread within the XY Church, even though it is officially contrary to XY doctrines, and we call upon the hierarchy to do something about it?”

    Who pays the piper, calls the tune, but they can’t stop exposure of what is (by their own standards) wrongdoing on their own watch.

  • Herb Ely

    Mark, I take your point about the legitimacy of same sex marriage and abortion not being open to debate. But then I ask “Is there room in America for a differing position on how the church ought to oppose abortion or homosexual marriage? On the whole, I think that the Bishops and the Vatican ought to leave editorial decisions to the editors. If they disagree, I’m sure that the editors will grant them space to make their own positions clear.

  • Petra

    A very complex issue. As a journalist myself, I would say that very much depends on the editor of the magazine to find a balance between being a mouthpiece of relativism and suppressing intellectual debate.

    I think there are a lot of opportunities about how to address controversial issues where the Church has a clear standing, such as abortion or euthanasia. There can be legitimate debate about the social, philosophical, etc. reasons for these phenomena, the measures in and outside of the Curch against them, etc. There can also be reports about dissent in the Church, discussion about its reasons, about countering it, about ameliorating the communication of Church positions towards the faithful, about leading the faithful to accept Church teaching in their everyday lives, etc.

    The most important thing in all these cases should be that the editors keep a clear head about the issues: they should neither be fearful about addressing controversial themes, yet they should not open up the doors for dissenting opinion presented in a way that makes it seem acceptable.

  • Mark Brumley

    Within reasonable parameters, there is clearly room for discussion and disagreement about how to deal with issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage. Someone might support an a more incremetal approach to dealing with abortion, while someone else might prefer working upfront for an all-put ban. Likewise, some people might prefer a state-by-state approach to upholding marriage as a union of a man and a women, while others might go for a constitutional amendment. Some people like Star Wars, some people like Star Trek. Some people hate both.

    As for editors writing editorial, well of course. But editors are hired by publishers. And if the editorials of a magazine or newspaper are consistently at odds with the basic philosophy or values of the publisher, how long do you think an editor will hold his job? Or are magazines and newspapers to be sheer creatures of the business cycle, so that it doesn’t matter what an editor says, so long as he generates lively debate and builds circulation?

  • Jeff Tan

    I think I’ll take Mark’s point a bit further. Since America is run by the Jesuits, let’s simplify this by pretending that this is about a group of Jesuits. How would we Catholics feel if some Jesuits started airing views dissenting from Catholic dogma (not prudential matters)? They might be airing the dissenting views in order to train the faithful in critical thinking, and show how critical thinking can demolish the arguments in those dissenting views. That’s not such a bad teaching technique.

    Now what happens if the Jesuits don’t follow through after airing the dissenting views? What if they leave their audience hanging? What if they leave it up to them to think about it and form their own judgments? Then what they end up doing is confusing the faithful and they fail to uphold their charge to spread the gospel.

    My two cents.

  • Jeff Miller

    For balance during the civil rights marches of the sixties should racists have had their opposing view written?

    When an article is written about serial murderers is an opposing view sought out in the interest of balance?

    Nobody really believes in balance on essential issues. They realize that something are outside the par. A Catholic periodical should simply be Catholic.

    If they had written editorials in relation to helping the poor would they have had opposing views with a reply written by a group who said we should just ingore the poor and let them help themselves?

  • Peter Sean Bradley


    Your post follows logically from the reasonable view that journalism has an antiseptic function by exposing corruption to the light of day. I don’t think anyone can object to that line of analysis.

    But…Catholics and the Catholic church have other principles which must be recognized, including the principle of avoiding “scandal.” “Scandal” is defined as an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter.” Catechism at para. 2284 The gravity of “scandal” can turn on “the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized.”

    So, when dealing with a tradition that has that concept, one can’t simply jump on the modern goal of journalism policy argument and ride it to its logical conclusion, as we would quite properly do with secular journalism.

  • Tom Breen

    “For balance during the civil rights marches of the sixties should racists have had their opposing view written?”

    Yes, and, in fact, the views of racists and segregationists were extensively covered during the 1960s. In fact, that’s what led to many people who were undecided about civil rights throwing their support behind desegragation; the bankruptcy of the racists’ arguments.

    The journalistic striving for balance can be taken too far, sure. But the opposite problem is that by ignoring or suppressing opposing viewpoints, you lend them a kind of perverse appeal that they wouldn’t otherwise have; we are a culture fascinated by the lure of the taboo, after all.

    This is not to say that a publication funded by a Catholic organization should feel compelled to print opinion pieces dissenting from Church doctrine; on the other hand, they shouldn’t feel compelled to avoid mentioning dissent, or covering the arguments of dissenters in articles.

    Read the early Church Fathers on heresy: Most of what we know about early heretical thought comes from the extensive passages quoted by the Fathers, who weren’t worried that mere exposure to false ideals would somehow jeopardize the orthodoxy of the faithful.

  • Mark Brumley

    Good points, Tom. Let’s be clear, though: The Church Fathers quoted heretics in order adequately to refute the heresies they espoused, not to give equal time or to generate lively discussion of them.

  • John Walter

    One of the issues at America Magazine was the climate of opinion it helped foster. Mr. Lott considers diversity of viewpoint to be a means by which journalists police the institutions upon which they report. For instance, he considers the National Catholic Reporter vital in exposing the extent of the rrecent abuse scandal. Unfortunately, it is the very heterodoxy of journalists in publications such as NCR and America that helped create that very climate of opinion in which the Catholic hierarchy tolerated sexual deviance among clergy. To laud non-orthodox periodicals for exposing sexual scandal is like lauding the fox for exposing the hole in the barnyard fence.

  • William Bloomfield

    “But it just does not compute for me as a journalist. If a publication got carried away with Brumley’s advice, even letters to the editor would have to be massively filtered — can’t have someone offering the other side, after all.”

    I don’t agree. Dissenting letters to the editor may be published, but the editor should then refute the errors of those letters.

    I am repeatedly frustrated by my diocesan newspaper’s willingness to publish dissenting letters without adequately refuting them. A good, orthodox letter will be presented right alongside one arguing for women’s ordination or contraception.

  • Jacques Crémer

    I have been reading America for 20 years; I have never felt that it has confused me about what the official position of the Church is. Yes, America does recognize the fact that some committed Catholics disagree with the magisterium, even on topics on which the magisterium feels that no disagreement is allowed, and it sometimes asks for their opinions. It does not try to be my nanny by telling me immediately after “you know you should not believe this, because this is not allowed”, but, on all the topics, it has also given more than ample space to the Church’s official position. Do the guardians of “orthodoxy” really feel so threatened that they want to suppress intelligent and respectful advocacy of dissenting views coming from within the Catholic tradition? Don’t they believe that their point of view is persuasive enough to convince without ressorting to what amounts to censorship?

  • John Walter

    “Committed Catholics” do not dissagree with the magisterium. One of the reasons committed Catholics are “committed” is because they are willing to take it on faith that what the magisterium teaches is true even when they don’t happen to understand it. The role of a teaching order is to render Catholic dogma understandable and to demonstrate that those doctrines are superior to dissenting views. If the Jesuits publish dissenting material without debunking it, then they follow policy subversive to the organization they supposedly support.

    Besides, it is the Jesuits who made a commitment some 400 odd years ago to be the “guardians of othodoxy.” All the Vatican asks is that they remain true to that commitment.

  • Mark Brumley

    Jacques writes: “Do the guardians of ‘orthodoxy’ really feel so threatened that they want to suppress intelligent and respectful advocacy of dissenting views coming from within the Catholic tradition? Don’t they believe that their point of view is persuasive enough to convince without ressorting to what amounts to censorship?”

    1) The “Guardians of Orthodoxy” shouldn’t have to pay for, publish, and otherwise lend credibility to dissent from what they think true, whether that dissent is “intelligent and respectful” or stupid and disrespectful. Nor should anyone be surprised that the Catholic Church wants publications its religious orders such as the Jesuits publish to present Catholic teaching, not the private opinions of people who reject that teaching. That’s the point.

    2) You can assert that AMERICA provided “intelligent and respectful dissent” and I can deny it. So we’re even.

    3) The “why do you feel threatened” line cuts both ways. Why are the partisans of dissent so threatened by a Catholic magazine published through an official Catholic entity actually presenting Catholic doctrine as true and that which contradicts it as false? Are they afraid they can’t win in a fair intellectual battle? Are they afraid that the intellectual elites will think them unmodish? Are they so insecure about the persuasiveness of their arguments that they to have to resort to pushing their message under the auspices of the Church with which they disagree? Why can’t they be satisfied with starting up their own publications if they want to disagree? Why do they have to corrupt existing Catholic publications and institutions, and then expect the Catholic Church gleefully to thank them for having done so and to continue to provide them a platform?

    Orthodox Catholics can pose the ad hominem questions just as well as the partisans of dissent. I don’t know that it furthers the discussion much, but it can be done.

    4) AMERICA does more than simply “recognize” that some self-identified Catholics reject teachings of the Catholic Church–CATHOLIC WORLD REPORT, THE WANDERER, and THE NATIONAL CATHOLIC REGISTER “recognize” as much. AMERICA *fosters* dissent. That’s a different proposition.

    5) Can we have a meaningful discussion without the charge of “censorship”? Does AMERICA “censor” Nazi would-be contributors or proponents of child molestation or advocates of slavery? Obviously, people who espouse those points of view are not regular contributors to AMERICA. No reasonable person would expect AMERICA to publish articles advocating positions diametrically opposed to its basic philosophy and worldview or contrary to AMERICA’s purpose in publishing. Why should the Catholic Church be expected to support publications that publish articles contrary to its teaching? Why should the Catholic Church’s unwillingness to publish such articles be considered “censorship”? Do we really have to spill any cyber ink dealing with the censorship charge? Don’t organizations have the right to have their views presented as true in publications published under their auspices without their efforts to do so being dubbed censorship? Or if a publication is going to present a range of views it dubs as reasonable, does it engage in censorship when it excludes those views it regards as unreasonable, as AMERICA magazine has done?

  • Jacques Crémer

    There are lots of issues in what Matt is saying. Let me just comment on a few of them.

    1) First, I am not asking him to pay for a magazine with which he disagrees; I am the one paying for America when I subscribe.
    2) He has a point about lending credibility, but here again the argument cuts both ways. I will come back to this below.
    3) I do not feel that the “feeling threatened” line cuts both ways. I have no problem with a publication with which I disagree calling itself Catholic, as long as it falls within a very broad definition of the Catholic tradition. To make things clearer, I disagree with much of what the New Oxford Review writes, and with much of what the National Catholic Reporter writes; I cherish the fact that they are both Catholic publications (yes, I know they are not official Church publications; I would have no problem if they were).
    4) I think that our main disagreement comes from our definition of acceptable dissent. I am sure that I will spend lots of years in purgatory, but I do not think that the fact that I disagree with, let us say, Humanae Vitae is one of them. The magisterium certainly has the right and duty to teach; I do have the duty to consider this teaching seriously. I do not have the duty to agree with all of it, and I do not believe that this disagreement in itself makes me a “bad” Catholic.
    5) I am certainly the only “cafeteria Catholic” (I would prefer the term “Big Tent”). As Andrew Greeley is fond of saying, many (most?) Catholics take the position that they can decide for themselves on many issues; they do not feel less Catholic because of it; furthermore, they are stubborn, like being Catholic, and will not go away. Because I am one of them, it is natural that I feel that we should be allowed to express our viewpoints as Catholic viewpoints.
    6) To come back to the credibility issue. There is the credibility of the individual teachings, but there is also the credibility of the Church as an institution which trusts its members to have an adult faith and to engage in honest discussions; I am afraid we are losing this battle.

  • Mark Brumley

    I don’t know what more to say except to invite those who think Jacques’ points directly respond to what I said to re-read what I wrote.