If this weblog has a short list of very close friends, Rod “Crunchy Cons” Dreher would have to be near the top of the list. I feel no shame pointing people toward his work, every now and then.
Normally, you read Dreher at his own Beliefnet.com weblog or, in his day job, as a columnist and writer on the editorial pages of the Dallas Morning News. However, Rod opened a vein and wrote an unusually candid essay the other day as part of the continuing op-ed series that USA Today publishes on religion news and trends.
I point readers toward it because the topic is clearly relevant for journalists who cover religion and, even more so, for religious believers who work in journalism. The headline and read out tells you what is coming:
The details of the Catholic sex abuse scandal nearly destroyed my Christian faith. In a painful spiritual epiphany, I learned that the whole truth does not always deliver a greater good. Indeed, full transparency can harm society — and even, perhaps, our souls. But do we always have an alternative?
The column opens with a flashback into the long-standing debates — at times painful — between Dreher and the late Father Richard John Neuhaus about an important question about journalism, personal faith and the waves of clergy sexual abuse that have, for several years, rolled over the Roman Catholic Church.
Thus, the crunch passage:
The breadth and degree of the corruption within the Catholic hierarchy broke me spiritually. I lost the will to believe and became profoundly spiritually depressed. Leaving Catholicism for Eastern Orthodoxy was like an animal chewing off its own leg to get out of a trap. I don’t regret my reporting, nor do I regret my decision to leave Catholicism for Orthodoxy, where God gave me a second chance.
My mistake was to assume that I was strong enough emotionally to put analytical distance between myself and my subject. After I left Rome, I made a deliberate decision not to investigate scandal in the Orthodox Church in America (OCA), my new communion. My family and I needed a church more than I needed to crusade against ecclesial iniquity.
I felt, and still do feel, deeply conflicted about this decision. Did Jesus not say, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free”? But the truth that I helped tell about what some in the Catholic hierarchy had done to children did not set me free; in fact, it nearly destroyed my Christian faith. And yet, I could not in good conscience have remained silent. As an Orthodox Christian chastened by experience, am I behaving prudently, or am I being cowardly?
Personally, I think Dreher made a good decision — for a season. But I would hate to hear him say that his journalistic skills have no connection to his own faith and intellect, in the long run. I think that would be a loss for journalism and for the Church. I honestly believe that.
Neuhaus, however, went further, to a place that I have heard clergy in many different faith groups go. He said there are truths that the laity simply do not need to know — for good reasons. This is more than a statement that Christians are supposed to work in public relations and that’s that.
Neuhaus was raising a serious issue, which is what Dreher continues to ponder:
I do not believe Father Neuhaus was a cynic; he really did believe that there were certain things that ought to be concealed from the public for the greater good. And though it might be heresy for a journalist to say, as a matter of general principle, I agree with him.
Very few of us are purists when it comes to transparency. A society in which all secrets were known would be monstrous. The problem in the Catholic case is that bishops abused their discretion not to shield the innocent, but to protect the guilty. It was only when the details of these sordid cases came to broad public light that the Catholic bishops were shamed into serious action.
There’s more. We can also apply these questions, of course, to political reporters as they cover real-life politicians. But let’s open this up for discussion. Please focus on the journalistic issues, without turning this into a personal thread about Dreher and his relationship to Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Let’s aim wider than that, to questions that all journalists have to ask about their work.
Photo: Why is there a millstone with this post? Think about it.