The mastheads of numerous Catholic newspapers are seen in this photo illustration. CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn

Laity loses when Catholic journalism is shuttered

  • June 16, 2022

The decision of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to close the domestic operations of Catholic News Service strikes at the heart of the notion of synodality which Pope Francis is encouraging through the Catholic Church. The current reflections on synodality call the members of Christ’s Body to consider the proper way for authority in the Church to be shared.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard someone say, “The Church is not a democracy,” I might well be a wealthy man. Of course, the Church is not a liberal democracy, and one should not expect it to adopt institutions and processes similar to those of the governments of Western nations.

The Church is also not a monarchy nor is it an empire, disclaimers that one might well have made in earlier times when those were the accepted models of governance. In fact, we should make them again now. Today’s discussion on synodality is, to some extent, an attempt to move beyond those static hierarchical models whose effects still linger in the Church.

The Second Vatican Council presented an understanding of the Church which is primarily the People of God and secondarily hierarchical. More basically, the Church is a sacrament, a communion and a structure which Christ instituted to be a source of grace. Church governance then should be a communal process of attunement to the mind of Jesus.

All of this should give all People of God — bishops, priests, religious and laity — an integral role in Church governance. The Spirit’s presence abides throughout the Church, especially among those whom the world has shunted to the margins.

But if lay people are to play a role in Church governance, they need access to reliable sources of information about the Church and its interactions with the wider society. The best potential source of such information is arms-length Catholic media which report on the local, national and international Church. Ideally, such media also play a role in adult faith formation.

This well describes the role that Catholic News Service has played for more than 100 years. CNS provides Catholic media throughout the English-speaking world with sound journalism and articles which help deepen the faith of those who use these media. In an era when the Church regularly takes a pounding in mainstream media — much of it deserved and some of it ideologically skewed — CNS has been invaluable in providing Catholics with the straight goods.

On May 4, the U.S. bishops conference, which owns CNS, announced that the news agency’s U.S. operations will be closed at the end of 2022. The organization’s Rome bureau will continue to provide coverage of the Pope and the Vatican.

No reasons were given for the closure. Was CNS closed for financial reasons? Was it because the bishops do not trust journalism and journalists? Or do the bishops believe that Catholics can get all the information they need from their own press releases? I searched the bishops’ website but could find no announcement of the closure of CNS let alone an explanation for it. Is this lack of transparency how synodality is supposed to work?

The closure of CNS’ operations in the U.S. will have less effect on the remaining Catholic newspapers and other media in Canada. In recent times the Canadian government, as a condition of its grants to community and religious media, requires that 80 per cent of their content must be produced by Canadian residents or citizens. In the latter years of my term as editor of the Edmonton-based Western Catholic Reporter, that meant almost all our international news came from CNS’ Rome bureau.

Still, the closure of CNS is part of a trend across Canada and the U.S. to eliminate vehicles of Catholic journalism. Thank God for The Catholic Register. May it continue to provide vibrant coverage of the Catholic world for many decades to come. If not for The Register, I would be expressing this opinion in a blog or some other online vehicle with limited readership.

I expect that as the notion of synodality is fleshed out over the next few years, the notion of episcopal authority will not be tossed into the garbage bin. Authority protects stability and truth. But authority is not static. It requires dynamism and discernment among God’s people. The shuttering of institutions of Catholic journalism can only impair the process of discernment and make synodality more of a dream than a reality.

(Glen Argan was the Canadian representative on the Catholic Press Association-Catholic News Service liaison committee from 2010 to 2016.)

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