This week’s comments on the subject of priestly celibacy by the soon-to-be Secretary of State of His Holiness, Archbishop Pietro Parolin, are neither as alarming nor surprising as some reports make out. From a brief glance the interview in question, the Archbishop simply restates that priestly celibacy is a matter of discipline, not doctrine (which we already know), that it is something that is therefore not beyond discussion (has it ever actually been?), and that any discussion needs to be within the historical/theological perspective and authentic teaching of the Catholic Church. In other words, celibacy has been an intrinsic part of the ministerial priesthood since at least the fourth century, and for good reason; let’s start from there with our suppositions, rather than from contemporary secular notions that wish to push for the middle ground.
Certainly the example of Protestant denominations in the West cannot inspire the hope that a relaxation of the discipline of clerical celibacy would reverse the decline in vocations to the priesthood. Numbers, age, and general suitability for ministry, are all factors for consideration. The average age in Anglican theological formation in England, for example, is around 40. We’re appointing seminary rectors and bishops almost that age.
But my concern here is not any attempt to reignite tired debates about celibacy (by the way, when was the last time a priest in his 20s or 30s was interviewed about what he thinks on the subject?). I am more concerned by the reactions to this and other debates in the religious press, and the authenticity and reliability of responses from Catholic sources of news.
Over the past few years, I have maintained good relationships with a number of Catholic news outlets in the UK and continental Europe. I have, on the whole, been very seriously impressed by their coverage of Church matters and their extensive attempts to really represent the Church. Some recent cases, however, have caused me to feel uneasy.
The media coverage of Archbishop Parolin’s comments are an example of a very real and serious problem, which I believe is now firmly established in mainstream and religious press. My concern is this: too often we hear from non-Catholic journalists, working for a Catholic media outlet, quoted as an authentic and representative voice of Catholic perspective. Too often, I would suggest, having a Catholic employer leads a non-Catholic journalist to be given a platform to speak as if they are able to accurately and even-handedly comment on an issue that deals directly with Church teaching.
My concern does not, of course, mean that a non-Catholic cannot or should not contribute to discussions in the public square about Catholic issues. I welcome and encourage the contributions of those who do so whilst being respectful of the Church and of her faithful. I am worried, however, about the non-Catholic “Joseph Bloggs, Deputy Editor of The Catholic Newspaper” being given column inches (or pixels, or airtime) to give their perspective, as if it were somehow representative, or carries some sort of imprimatur from either the institution of the Church or her faithful.
To be sure, this situation also arises with Catholic journalists or publications who wish to add a particular gloss on Church teaching or create an unhealthy sensationalism about every comment on certain issues, no matter the reality of context. This, too, happens more often that it should. Perhaps the introduction of the .catholic domains will iron that out.
In those circumstances where mainstream media request a perspective from a Catholic publication, it would be sensible for them to ascertain if the quote is actually from a practicing Catholic, and honest for the person in question to make that clear. There is not just a moral responsibility on the editors, here, but also – as a matter of professional integrity – individual journalists themselves.
Finally, we might also reflect that those who work for Catholic media outlets – sometimes having moved to live in a predominately Catholic environment to do so – and who have chosen to retain their original faith affiliation, must (logically) have a dispute with one or more areas of Church teaching. They have a right to this that I would seek to defend in every way possible, but it is not insignificant. When comment is to be made about an issue concerning Church teaching, rather than (for example) simply reporting an event, it is only right that an honesty about the source of the commentary underpins their actual words.
I honestly believe that it is a great strength that Catholic press and media have the input of non-Catholic journalists. It is not something to cover up or be shy about admitting. By contrast, many non-Catholic ecclesiastical media outlets, certainly from my own Anglican experience, don’t give anything like comparable time or space to Catholic journalists. But as a matter of professional integrity, and in fairness to the reader and the context, we really should insist on Catholic comment being exactly that, and not – at worst – a wolf in sheep’s clothing (cf. Mt 7:15).