What with the woes besetting the newspaper industry, any gathering of journalists these days is likely to be a gloomy affair. But the Vatican’s recent international congress of Catholic journalists, by every account, was marked by a decidedly mixed mood, with sober reflection on the problems now facing Christian media throughout the world mingling with strong and reasonable hope for the future of the Catholic press.


Convened in early October by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli, president of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, the congress heard speakers describing the steady hail of bad news now battering both traditional secular and Catholic media, according to reporters who were there. Operating budgets continue to shrink due to steep declines in both paid circulation and advertising income. The upward-trending migration of former print-media readers to the various news and opinion platforms offered by the Internet and cable television is another threat.

But the Catholic press is also afflicted by some issues peculiar to itself. Greg Erlandson, president of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing in the United States, said that Catholic publishing suffers because Catholics today know less about what their religion teaches and understands about human and divine life. There is “a growing distrust of institutions” and, as a consequence, there is “a resulting decline in Catholic identity.” Speakers said the culminating blow to the trust many had in the Catholic Church and its media has been what Archbishop Celli called the “difficult and painful” sexual and other abuse cases that have rocked the Church from the local parish level up to the Vatican itself.

Catholicism, however, encourages believers to see the blessing inherent in even dark and heart-breaking moments. One of those moments, at least for Catholic publishing, is now. For Archbishop Celli, the abuse cases, horrible as they are, could lead “the entire believing community to a greater commitment to following the Lord and placing itself at the service of humanity with an even greater witness of life capable of demonstrating what we bear in our hearts.” By means of this renewed program of mission, and through effective recommitment to factual rigour and honesty, the Catholic press can restore the Church’s damaged credibility.

This welcome burden falls on reporters, who have the job of being first-on-the-scene eyewitnesses of the events of the day, and of the personalities who are shaping these events. Despite the profound technological changes now taking place in the information society, “the principles of journalism haven’t changed,” Amy Mitchell, vice-director of the Pew Research Centre’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, told the congress. “The ideas of verification, authentication, of being transparent with your readers or listeners about the information you know, the information you don’t know, about where you’re coming from, the influences you have — all of those remain constant.”

But responsibility for cogent journalism also falls on the shoulders of the columnists, commentators, editors and others who attempt to make sense of things within the framework of Catholic thought. “Of no less importance (than reporting),” Archbishop Celli said, is “the role that the Catholic press has within the Church because it can be a privileged instrument in the not easy task of promoting and nourishing an intellectual understanding of the faith.”

Keeping these values alive in the contemporary world is a tall order, especially in a time of financial uncertainty and widespread scepticism about the institutions of social democracy, including the traditional secular and Church media. Nobody at this conference, to my knowledge, doubted the difficulty of doing so. But the viability of the Catholic press in contemporary Canadian and Western society largely depends on meeting that order fully — and never forgetting the God for whom Catholic journalists are doing it.

The enduring task of the Catholic press, Benedict XVI told participants in the congress, is “to help modern man to turn to Christ, the one Saviour, and to keep the flame of hope alight in the world, so as worthily to live today and adequately to build the future.”

Cardinal Newman’s intellectual integrity inspires us today

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It’s called the dies natalis — the day of birth. For saints it refers to their birthday in heaven or, in the eyes of the world, the day of their death upon Earth.

When assigning feast days to saints, the Church usually chooses the dies natalis; for example, the feast day of soon-to-be canonized Brother André is Jan. 6, the day of his death in 1937, even though that day is also the great solemn feast of the Epiphany of the Lord.

A Noble Debate over a Nobel Prize

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Science and Religion collide a lot these days, though clearly the tension between what Stephen Jay Gould referred to, as the Two Non-Overlapping Magisteriums, has existed for centuries. When the collisions occur it is the result of conflicting values as well as on theological grounds. This was made abundantly clear this week with the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Medicine to Dr. Robert Evans, one of the co-creators of In Vitro Fertilization. On the one hand reaction around the world seemed of a note, sheer excitement and congratulation. On the other hand, Catholic teachings and the ‘wisdom’ of the Nobel Committee slammed into each other. The Church’s clear stance on IVF and Robert Evans socialist politics have both long been rumoured to being behind what many expected to be a much earlier awarding of the prize.

Clearly the Church is not indifferent to the pain experienced by couples incapable of conception but as the International Federation of Catholic Medical Association made clear “As Catholic doctors," we at FIAMC "recognize that pain that infertility brings to a couple, but equally we believe that the research and treatment methods needed to solve the problems of infertility have to be conducted within an ethical framework which respects the special dignity of the human embryo, which is no different from that of a mature adult with a brilliant mind."

None of this can be discussed without reference to the growing number of cases involving ‘mix-ups’, mistakes or possibly worse when it comes to the identity of the babies born of IVF. Recent Canadian cases are making news in Ottawa, and the problem is clearly not confined to individual doctors or to Canada and the ethical problems of IVF are compounded by this growing list of ‘mistakes’.

Nor as even the Indian newspaper The Hindu reports are the problems as simple as any of can imagine, “the widespread use of such methods has created new ethical issues. For example, ‘rent-a-womb tourism' has become a thriving business in India, with wealthy couples from abroad paying poor women large sums of money to carry IVF embryos to full term.”

As this report from ABC news makes clear that Catholics are not alone in considering the Nobel winning tachnology to be a win win: “The bewildering array of options due to the IVF revolution -- from the morality of making "designer babies" to exploitation of poor women as surrogate mothers -- has created much concern and many debates among secular ethicists as well.”

Arthur Caplan, a noted American Bioethicist told the Washington Post "In exploring the fundamental mechanisms of how human reproduction actually works, Edwards unleashed a social, ethical and cultural tsunami that he could not have predicted and I don't think anyone at the time could have anticipated. It opened so many doors that I'm not sure we even fully appreciate it today."

Add me to the anybody-but-Ford slate

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Toronto mayoral hopeful Rob Ford first appeared on my political radar screen late last spring, when I chaired an all-candidates meeting on the topic of architecture and urban design. Held at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the session was sponsored by the Pug Awards people, who celebrate artistic achievement in our city’s built form.

Ford’s performance that evening was remarkable. While the other candidates at least took stabs at the questions I asked about urban planning and the quality of the city’s architectural environment, Ford ignored both the questions and every attempt on my part to get him to answer them. Instead, he relentlessly repeated the mantra that has characterized his whole campaign: cut costs, cut staff, cut the size of city council — cut, cut, cut.

Benedict’s UK shows how far Church has come in dealing with abuse

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It used to be the only news. Apparently it is now old news. But there was something new when Pope Benedict XVI visited Britain.

The issue is sexual abuse by priests. In the run up to the papal visit to the United States in April 2008, it dominated the commentary. What would the Pope do? What would the Pope say? The Holy Father addressed the issue forthrightly on the plane en route, spoke about it a half dozen times in his formal addresses, and then met with a group of victims in a private, prayerful and emotional meeting. He did the same thing in Australia later that summer. His approach was well received by most.

He came so Britons might hear the Gospel

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LONDON, ENGLAND - As per usual, it went better than expected. For veterans of papal travel, the routine is now well known. In advance of one of Pope Benedict’s trips, there is much wringing of hands about how badly things will go, how difficult things will be, how hostile a particular country is. Then the Pope arrives with his shy gestures and kindly manners, no one is frightened and everything is pronounced a success.

The predictable protests

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Papal tours too often become occasions for anti-Catholic and other anti-religious forces to find a friendly microphone. Before the visit to Britain even began there were indications that a hostile reception might await Pope Benedict. There was even half-serious talk of arresting him for “complicity” in the sex abuse scandal.

Veni Vidi Vici? Benedict in Britain

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Every event needs a narrative, and this is oh so true of Pope Benedict XVI’s just completed State visit to Great Britain. Prior to the trip, the buzz was about cost, security, protests and anger. During the trip, the buzz was about attendance at Papal masses, outings, ceremonies and the protests outside, inside and about. Now that the trip is done, the buzz centres on what he accomplished, how and whether the entire exercise was worth the effort? Or as Time Magazine put it, “The Pope vs. Britain’s Secularists: Who Won? Notorious British M.P. George Galloway thinks he has it down and declares that the Pope’s critics and much of the coverage were straight out of another time, when even being Catholic was a treasonous offence, “Pope Bashers are Throwback to 1605”. Dominic Lawson, writing in the Independent takes a different tack and places the credit with the Pope instead of the blame with the critics, noting, “I suspect it is precisely the unpolitical nature of Pope Benedict that gives him a certain popular appeal”. Lawson, a leading British journalist concluded his piece by observing “Humility is perhaps the most difficult of all the virtues; the smuggest among the Pope's secular critics could learn from his example.” David Willey in a blog on the BBC site believes that the entire Vatican is heaving a sigh of relief at a trip well executed and euphoria over besting all expectations and even hopes in “Pope’s Visit is deemed to Challenge Stereotypes”. Paddy Agnew in the Irish Times concurs with Willey’s sentiment noting, “there’s no disguising the Holy See’s satisfaction about the trip". Publications as far away as New Zealand couldn’t help but share in the growing international consensus with a report entitled “ Pope Succeeds in UK Charm Offensive”. Even Prime Minister David Cameron heaped praise on the Pontiff and his visit, noting that the Pope had ‘challenged Britain to sit up and think about the role of religion in society”. Anne Applebaum writing in the Washington Post adds an interesting layer of reflection on Cameron’s sentiment in a thoughtful piece “Anger over papal visit shows religious freedom is alive and well in Britain” which actually does a nice job putting much of the coverage into an interesting perspective.

Stand-offs, Echoes, Assertions: Benedict XVI, John F. Kennedy, Stephen Hawking

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Arguably everything in the news the past few weeks has been about the key importance of tolerance and freedom, especially religious tolerance and freedom. Three different moments capture a sense of the forces at work.

 

Benedict XVI’s visit to the United Kingdom, which started on Thursday, provoked numerous reflections on the nature of anti-Pope bigotry and it’s deeper uglier anti-Catholic bigotry on the part of Brits and throughout the world. In the first day alone, Benedict made clear that despite the criticism, he was intent on fighting back the tide of secularism and insisting on the need for religious liberty. In his first sermon, the Pope, as is his wont, delved into history for evidence of the evil that can flow from the desire to kill off God and Religion. He was referring to Nazism but it seemed to require a media interpretation to calm the secularists. But as is often the case, the reality of a Papal visit can soothe and charm, though of course the jury is still out.

 

The Papal visit, and its attendant arguments about ‘extreme’ atheism and religious liberty comes in the same week as the 50th anniversary of a critical talk given by John F. Kennedy while running for President. It’s difficult to imagine now, but in that campaign the idea that a Catholic might be President was the subject of bitter debate. And the young candidate traveled to a meeting of the Greater Houston Ministerial Association where he delivered a plea and forged an argument about religious tolerance, liberty and the distinctions between “rendering unto Caesar and rendering unto God”. By all accounts it defused the issue and made his Presidency possible. But while possibly creating the space for Catholics in politics, the long-term result may have been to render Catholic values in politics difficult, or so argues Archbishop Chaput of Denver and a former Communications officer with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

 

Stephen Hawking creates the third corner of this triangle of tolerance and liberty. The physicist made news this month with the assertions in his new book of the ‘non-necessity of God’ in the creation of the universe. This is a shift from his thinking as expressed in early works. Hawking used to believe the universe needed a prime mover but now believes the Universe came into existence on its own. The list of people unimpressed is extensive and includes philosophers, a Jesuit Physicist and thinker, columnists and theologians. The intriguing think about Hawking and the God issue is the ease with which much of the media assumed that if Hawking says so then it must be so. The reality is that an assertion by Hawking that God didn’t exist is still an assertion, not a fact, which takes us back to the ideas of religious freedoms, religious tolerance and the dangers of extreme atheism.

Sacred masterpieces can help broaden a Catholic's faith

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My usual reason for going to Venice has to do with contemporary culture. I went there last month, for example, to write about the 12th Biennale of Architecture for a Canadian magazine. The famous show (which runs until late November) is a fascinating survey of the things advanced architects, artists and theorists in many countries are thinking about these days, and I’m glad I was able to take it in.

But before I left for Venice, I made up my mind to do more than keep my nose to the architectural grindstone — to take some time off, that is, and revisit some old acquaintances among the religious canvases and murals that grace the island city’s churches, historic charitable foundations (called “scuoli”) and public buildings.

A convert priest gave Catholic Church confidence

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A country pastor from Wolfe Island doesn’t get to offer the Holy Mass in the private chapel of the archbishop of New York without good reason. On Sept. 8, I had the best reason of all — to give thanks to God for a great priest, valued mentor and dear friend, who became Catholic on that very spot.

Richard John Neuhaus, who died in January 2009, was received into full communion with the Catholic Church on the Feast of the Nativity of Mary (Sept. 8, 1990) 20 years ago by the then-archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor. Richard would be ordained a priest by Cardinal O’Connor a year later.