When I was editor of the diocesan paper in St. Louis, my office had a statue of St. Francis DeSales, Bishop of Geneva, and Doctor of the Church. Francis died in 1622. He is regarded as a patron of journalists and of the Catholic Press. His feast day is January 24, and has been observed by the Vatican for many years as World Communications Day. Again this year, the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI has used the occasion to give a message to us on Social Communications.
The Forty-Seventh World Communications Day Message is entitled “Social Networks: Portals of Truth and Faith; New Spaces for Evangelization.” Here the Pope speaks about the opportunities for evangelization made possible through social media. He also addresses the moral responsibility we have to use these media in respectful ways. For nearly a half-century these messages have affirmed the value of modern communication in the presentation of the Gospel.
The Church’s Canon law places on the local bishop a particular responsibility to use the media effectively in the work of the Gospel, and to call the media to fidelity in the use of means of social communications.
Canon 747: “It is the obligation and inherent right of the Church, … to preach the Gospel to all people, using for this purpose even its own means of social communication; for it is to the Church that Christ the Lord entrusted the deposit of faith, so that by the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it might conscientiously guard revealed truth, more intimately penetrate it, and faithfully proclaim and expound it.”
Canon 761: “While pride of place must always be given to preaching and catechetical instruction, all the available means of proclaiming Christian doctrine are to be used, … (including) the printed word and other means of social communication.”
Canon 831: “The Christian faithful are not, unless there is a just and reasonable cause, to write in newspapers, pamphlets or periodicals which clearly are accustomed to attack the Catholic religion or good morals.”
Canon 804: “The formation and education provided … through the means of social communication, is subject to the authority of the Church. It is for the Bishop’s Conference to issue general norms concerning this field of activity and for the Diocesan Bishop to regulate and watch over it.”
There is a Canon that deals with the abuse of the media, under the section of the Code – “Offences against Religion and the Unity of the Church.”
Canon 1369: “A person is to be punished with a just penalty, who, at a public event or assembly, or in a published writing, or by otherwise using the means of social communication, utters blasphemy, or gravely harms public morals, or rails at or excites hatred of or contempt for religion or the Church.”
I am very proud of the work of our diocesan Catholic paper, The Catholic Key, our writers, and all involved with its production for the conscientious manner in which they use the paper to teach Catholic doctrine, to provide trustworthy reflections on issues that take place in our culture, and to provide stories of apostolic life and work – particularly from our local diocese – that inspire us to live our Catholic faith more fully.
Similarly, the apostolate of Catholic Radio has blossomed locally. KEXS, 1090 AM, Catholic radio has helped Catholics to know and live their faith. Catholic radio is enjoyed by non-Catholics and has been the cause of many coming to the Faith and entering the Church.
In a different way, I am sorry to say, my attention has been drawn once again to the National Catholic Reporter, a newspaper with headquarters in this Diocese. I have received letters and other complaints about NCR from the beginning of my time here. In the last months I have been deluged with emails and other correspondence from Catholics concerned about the editorial stances of the Reporter: officially condemning Church teaching on the ordination of women, insistent undermining of Church teaching on artificial contraception and sexual morality in general, lionizing dissident theologies while rejecting established Magisterial teaching, and a litany of other issues.
My predecessor bishops have taken different approaches to the challenge. Bishop Charles Helmsing in October of 1968 issued a condemnation of the National Catholic Reporter and asked the publishers to remove the name “Catholic” from their title – to no avail. From my perspective, NCR’s positions against authentic Church teaching and leadership have not changed trajectory in the intervening decades.
When early in my tenure I requested that the paper submit their bona fides as a Catholic media outlet in accord with the expectations of Church law, they declined to participate indicating that they considered themselves an “independent newspaper which commented on ‘things Catholic.’” At other times, correspondence has seemed to reach a dead end.
In light of the number of recent expressions of concern, I have a responsibility as the local bishop to instruct the Faithful about the problematic nature of this media source which bears the name “Catholic.” While I remain open to substantive and respectful discussion with the legitimate representatives of NCR, I find that my ability to influence the National Catholic Reporter toward fidelity to the Church seems limited to the supernatural level. For this we pray: St. Francis DeSales, intercede for us.