On January 25, two lightning rods of controversy in the Roman Catholic Church community clashed when Kansas City’s Bishop Robert Finn publicly denounced the locally-based National Catholic Reporter.
Back in the fall of 2012, Bishop Finn, who’s the head of the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese, was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse, and the Reporter called for his resignation. Now, the Bishop says the paper’s anti-Church editorials have gone too far, and the Reporter should stop calling itself “Catholic.” This week, Alex Smith spoke with the National Catholic Reporter’s editor about the controversy and about covering a beat that doesn’t always welcome a critical eye.
In the mid-‘60s, The National Catholic Reporter broke away from the local diocese paper and established itself as an objective, independent newspaper reporting on the Catholic world. The Reporter quickly drew criticism from the Church for its coverage of civil rights issues as well as its critical editorials and investigative reporting. In 1967, the Reporter published leaked documents from the Vatican describing an internal debate over birth control. They revealed that the majority of the Pope’s theologians believed the church should change its teachings. The National Catholic Reporter editor Dennis Coday believes this was a great moment for the paper.
“It was a watershed in Catholic journalism,” says Coday, “Because it was an internal document, and it revealed the debate that was going on. And it was something that had not been seen in the Catholic Church before, even with all the reporting that had gone on in the religious press and secular press from the Vatican council, which was extensive at that time period. This was a new level. This had brought it to a new level.”
A year later, when the Pope upheld the rejection of birth control, the National Catholic Reporter issued an editorial criticizing the decision. The local Bishop, Charles Helmsing, was not pleased.
“Bishop Helmsing condemned the paper, asked us to remove ‘Catholic’ from the name,” explains Coday. “That was reported very extensively within the Reporter. The letter from Helmsing was printed in full. There was response back from the Board of Directors, who acknowledged the letter and studied it seriously, but after that study said that we are an independent publication. We’re not an official organ of the Church. And so, therefore, we don’t need to follow the guidelines he had spelled out. And therefore we could still remain ‘Catholic” in that sense.”
In recent years, the National Catholic Reporter has continued to raise the ire of the Church and many followers. Especially in the past year, the National Catholic Reporter’s editorials have hit on some of the Catholic world’s most controversial topics. In the spring, the paper endorsed an Australian Bishop’s call for the Church to reexamine its teachings on sexuality. In a November editorial, the paper called for the ordination of women. Most significantly, at least to local Catholics, is the editorial the paper published about Bishop Finn himself.
“In September, we called for Robert Finn to resign as bishop of Kansas City – St. Joseph. And that was because in mid-September, he was convicted of a criminal misdemeanor charge of failing to report suspected child abuse. [The] State of Missouri calls him a mandatory reporter, and he did not fulfill that duty in the case of Father Shawn Ratigan. Besides violating civil law - and he’s on plea bargain deals in Jackson County and Clay County – besides violating that civil law, he also violated church law, what’s commonly called the Dallas charter, which spells out how bishops are supposed to handle sex abuse cases. He’s in violation of that, because of failure to report. And so because of those reasons, that’s why we called for his resignation.”
Finn Addresses National Catholic Reporter
In his recent column, Bishop Robert Finn said the Reporter has been a long-standing source of frustration for the Church, and he repeated Helmsing’s request that the paper stop identifying as “Catholic.” Dennis Coday acknowledges that previous local bishops have often disagreed with the Reporter, but says they’ve treated the paper with a reluctant acceptance. Bishops who followed Helmsing agreed to interviews, and one even blessed the paper’s offices. But Finn, who became Bishop in 2005, returned to the hardline stance that Helmsing voiced in ’68 and took his concerns to the paper’s then-publisher, Sister Rita Larivee.
“Bishop Finn came in. He had conversations with Sister Rita where he raised a question about the use of ‘Catholic’ in our name. And Sister Rita just reiterated the history that we have. Our current publisher, Tom Fox, once received a letter expression concern, and Tom invited the Bishop in for a discussion and conversation, and, as far as I know, that never happened.”
Shortly after becoming Bishop, Finn also requested that the paper submit its bona fides to affirm its accordance with Catholic Law. In his recent editorial, he cites Canon Law as it applies to journalism. Law 831 states, “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.” But Coday says that, since the paper is not part of Church, these kinds of Laws don’t apply.
“No, because there’s also a long history of freedom of the press within the church, although it’s not clearly understood. And I think we exercise that freedom as a media outlet, as any media outlet would have.”
Finns says the paper undermines church teachings and lionizes dissident theologies. Coday responds that the paper is not activist and has no anti-Church agenda. It simply addresses issues as they arise in the church.
“We report stories that come to us. And the Catholic Church right now is in a very newsworthy situation. I guess I could say it that way. There’s a lot of turmoil in the Church right now, and that is reflected in our pages.”
The Reporter Today
The Reporter currently has a circulation of about 35,000, and its website receives about 300,000 unique visitors a month. Despite being one of the biggest national Catholic news outlets, the Reporter is not so popular with many dioceses. Coday says some bishops have standing orders forbidding diocese employees from speaking with the paper. While the relationship with Bishop Finn has complicated things for the paper, conflict with the church is nothing new.
“I take the analogy of the local daily newspaper or radio station that reports on city hall, and the mayor’s got his finger in the till. You know there’s gonna be resistance there. The mayor’s gonna have his own supporters that are gonna be denigrating the paper and the media coverage and saying it’s unfair. Same thing happens with us. If we report on a bishop, the bishop has his own supporters, and they’re gonna be saying that we’re unfair, or that we’re biased. Or that we’re pushing our own agenda. Or, because we’re a church publication, we’re violating Church law. And I think that’s silly. That’s nonsense. Especially in the United States, with a long tradition of press freedom. That’s what we do: we take the tools of journalism, and we use that to shine light into the Catholic Church. That’s our mission. That’s our mandate. And that’s what we do.”
Editor Dennis Coday says the National Catholic Reporter has no plans to change its name or its mission.
Bishop Robert Finn and the Kansas City – St. Joseph diocese declined to the interview for this story.
You can read Bishop Finn's column in the Catholic Key.
The National Catholic Reporter's publisher, Thomas Fox, responded in the National Catholic Reporter.