A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

A question for editors: Pondering the difference between the Catholic 'church' and its 'hierarchy'

Is there a difference between the Catholic ““church and its “hierarchy”?

That’s a question that very few, if any, editors and reporters working in either the mainstream or religious press seem to have asked themselves. It’s just another of the many questions to come out of the clerical sex-abuse scandal and the downfall of now-former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick that highlighted news coverage since this summer.

It’s a question that was surfaced by Father Thomas Reese (for decades a major source in many mainstream news reports) in a recent opinion piece that ran on Religion News Service. Journalists need to think about what he’s saying, so here’s an excerpt:

I remember in the 1980s taking a tour of the House of Commons in London. The tour guide pointed to a plaque on the wall in honor of a minister “who was killed by the Irish Catholics.” Not the IRA, not the Provos, not the terrorists, but the Irish Catholics.

Today we do the same thing when we say, “Muslims are killing Christians.”

Saying that the Catholic church did not protect children is just as wrong. It was the bishops. It was the hierarchy.

We should not blame the the people of God for the sins of the hierarchy. In many other churches, the people have some say in selecting their leadership and therefore have some responsibility for their hierarchy’s actions. Not so in the Catholic Church, where new leaders are chosen by current leaders.

If the hierarchy had been open with the laity about the sex abuse crisis, if the bishops had listened to the people, we would not be in the mess we are today.

There’s a lot to unpack here. Reese has an interesting take, but one that's loaded with journalistic naivete.

When speaking of Catholicism, the term “church” does often refer to the hierarchy in references used by journalists in news accounts. In this regard, the words “church” and “hierarchy” are often interchangeable.

Catholicism is a hierarchical religion and journalists are, in most cases, not referring to the faithful when saying “the church” failed to protect children or young seminarians. It’s akin to using terms like “the people” when talking about a criminal trial and referencing “prosecutors” or “the government.” It reminds me of some of the gripes Mormons have had, and are still having, with the way the press has identified them.

Dictionaries are still of vital use.

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The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

The discussion continues: You are a pastor and a reporter calls. What do you do?

This week's "Crossroads" podcast -- recorded by telephone, with me here in Prague -- is extra long and should be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who have ever found themselves facing a journalist who is holding a pen and a notepad (or calling on the telephone).

Now, I am not saying that journalists will not be interested in this topic.

You see, this podcast is yet another response to that urgent question raised by my colleague Bobby Ross, Jr., about how pastors should or should not respond when contacted by the press. Click here to catch up on that thread.

What do reporters think when clergy refuse to talk? Do journalists understand why so many clergy are afraid of the press?

Yes, this fear does have something to do with clergy fearing that many journalists "just don't get religion." Clergy fear mistakes. They fear reporters yanking their words out of context. Hold that thought.

In this podcast, host Todd Wilken (a radio pro and a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, at the same time) and I talked about two very specific scenarios, when it comes to a reporter requesting an interview with a pastor.

Number 1: You are a minister and you return to your office and there is a message waiting for you. A journalist has called requesting an interview. The note does not include information about the subject of the story (something journalist should share right up front, in my opinion).

Do you return the call?

Well, in this case let's say that the minister KNOWS what the story is about and knows that it's about a problem that has emerged in this church, religious school, etc. Let's say a student has been disciplined and a circle of parents is mad. It's safe to assume that the parents called the newspaper or local television station.

In other words, this is a BAD news story, from the point of view of most pastors. Should ministers return these calls?

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