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Free speech in the Church

"I would want to be a priest"

Free speech in the Church

by Alain Woodrow

From The Tablet, 30th June 1998, pp. 841 - 843.

Reprinted on the Internet with permission from The Tablet. Address: 1 King Street Cloisters, Clifton Walk, London W6 0QZ UK. Tel: 44-20-8748 8484; fax: 44-20-8748 1550; email: thetablet@the tablet.co.uk.

The Second Vatican Council acknowledged that lay people should have a say in the Church according to their competence. A recent conference in France found that this promise had been set aside. The Tablet’s correspondent in Paris attended the conference where he set out the journalist’s Ten Commandments.

The Dominican monastery of Sainte Marie de la Tourette in l’Arbresle, near Lyons, famous for its controversial architecture designed by Le Corbusier, was intended - in the early Fifties - to house 100 novices. Today there are only 17 friars living there permanently, the majority of whom are well over 40. Instead of selling the building as they were at first tempted to do, the Dominicans decided to open it to contemporary society. Four study centres (Centre Thomas More, Centre Albert le Grand, Espace Barthélémy de Las Casas and Espace spiritual) attract hundreds of participants each year (3,200 foreign architects visited La Tourette in 1994 alone) and this striking example of modern religious architecture has found a new lease of life.

“Free speech in the Church” was the theme chosen for one session last month organised by the Albert the Great Centre. There were to be three main speakers: Bishop Jacques Gaillot, formerly of Evreux; Christian Duquoc OP, a French theologian; and Daniel Cadrin OP, the Canadian assistant to Fr Timothy Radcliffe, the English Master of the Dominicans in Rome.

Duquoc gave two impressive papers from a theological and historical point of view. He explained how the growing conflict between the centre (Rome) and the periphery (the local Churches) is exacerbated by the prevailing culture in Western societies, where authority is considered an obstacle to freedom, and the dominant mode of thought no longer believes in “absolute” truth.

The impediment to free speech, as Duquoc sees it, stems from the bureaucratic functioning of Roman authority, whose principal aim is the self-perpetuation of the system. No longer do local hierarchies and synods act as mediators between the Roman Curia and individual Christians. Minorities are ignored and the lay faithful, who had fondly imagined that the Second Vatican Council would produce a more democratic exercise of authority, now find themselves entirely excluded from all decisions in the realm of faith, discipline or pastoral matters.

Fr Duquoc pointed out that the “conciliar revolution” is more of a myth than a reality. The expectation was that the Catholic Church would open its doors to the modern world, to the other Christian Churches, to other religions, to a plurality of Third World theologies, ushering in a new age of freedom. The hard reality is the stability of the Church as institution and a return to a centralised, authoritative government. The culprit is Vatican II itself, Duquoc suggested, for it presented the new vision of the Church as “people of God”, but failed to provide the means to realise the vision or to transform the institution. “The Council simply poured its new wine into old wineskins”, Duquoc commented wryly, “and we have seen the result.”

There is nothing new in this, he added. Throughout history, authoritarian and liberal popes have succeeded each other. In 1075 for example, Gregory VII claimed absolute power, both temporal and spiritual, maintaining that only a pope could depose a prince or a bishop. But this centralising process has been accelerated by the ubiquity of the pope (thanks to television), the building up of his personality as a charismatic, universal leader, his sole right to appoint bishops, the multiplication of Roman documents (papal encyclicals date from the sixteenth century) and the excessive role assigned to Cardinal Ratzinger, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Often the fault lies with the periphery as much as with the centre: if Rome intervenes so frequently, it is because local Churches have sought an arbiter for their quarrels. The result is a bureaucratic government of “experts”, with the local hierarchies serving simply to relay the official doctrine of the central authority.

This tendency is in sharp contradiction to the culture of the Western democracies. Here freedom of conscience is the ultimate good to be protected by a state whose laws are defined to preserve individual liberty (my liberty stops where yours begins), and which, unlike the Nazi or Communist ideologies, refuses to provide an ultimate “meaning” to life. The Western democracies do not answer existential or metaphysical questions (Who am I? What should I do?), they simply provide a climate of tolerance (for them, the supreme virtue) for the free exercise of the private beliefs of their citizens.

There are two different modes of contemporary thought: a scientific language (the earth revolves around the sun) which is rigorous and admits no contradiction, and a free, subjective language where everything: philosophy, politics, the economy, morality is open to question. Everything is “probable” but uncertain, and therefore open to discussion. Belief itself has become an opinion among others. This situation is unsatisfactory for a Church which “bears witness to a word spoken by Another”, a certain Jesus who said “I am the Way the Truth and the Life”. The Church forbids its members to define their own beliefs according to a democratic debate which is open-ended.

The second speaker, Fr Daniel Cadrin argued for a return to a greater balance between the three “voices of the Church” defined by Cardinal Newman: that of government (tradition), that of theology (reason) and that of pastoral experience (the laity). “We are witnessing a verbal inflation of the first voice, that of the Curia, which has assumed an usurped authority”, said Cadrin. “The second voice, that of the theologians, is too often stifled, whereas they should be allowed freedom of research and doctrinal pluralism. As for the third voice, that of the laity, they have no recognised forum in which to express their opinion. The promises of Vatican II have not been fulfilled.”

Travelling throughout the world as assistant to the Master of the Dominicans, Fr Cadrin has witnessed the Church at work in a number of new ways, from grass-roots communities and experimental groups to pastoral councils and feminine ministries. “The Church has passed from a situation where male clerics dominated to one where many basic structures are run by laymen and women”, he pointed out, describing a Canadian parish which is administered by a woman who preaches and baptises.

He ended his talk by defining different models at present operating in the Church. There were the traditional visible communities, governed by hierarchies which had a monopoly of power, and the bureaucratic system, based on effectiveness, profitability and head-counting; there were also sectarian-type communities created spontaneously around charismatic leaders, often in conflict with society; liberal, humanist Christian networks at the service of society; and groups which interacted with society and were constantly changing. “We should be in no hurry to imprison these tentative experiments in canon law”, concluded Fr Cadrin, “but allow them to develop freely to help the Catholic Church evolve into a more democratic institution.”

Bishop Gaillot, who had confirmed some weeks before that he would be taking part, decided to accompany the Greenpeace expedition to the South Pacific, on board Rainbow Warrior II, in protest against President Jacques Chirac’s decision to resume nuclear testing in Mururoa. Halfway through the session, he faxed a message from Roissy airport, north of Paris: “Have arrived back in France, will be with you tomorrow”. The 100 participants (twice the usual number) many of whom had come to the symposium especially to hear the deposed bishop, were overjoyed, only to have their hopes dashed once more the following morning by a second laconic message: “I regret that I will be unable to come: I have to appear on television.”

In the absence of Bishop Gaillot I was asked to step in, on the last day, to speak of my 20 years’ experience of free speech in the Church as religious correspondent of Le Monde. After suggesting that Gaillot’s “defection”, through his fascination for the media, was germane to my theme - a remark which brought both howls of protest and wild cheers - I explained how I had fought a continuous - and losing - battle with the hierarchy to make the official Church see the need for religious information to be treated like any other subject in the national “secular” press. The bishops still regard the media as an occasion for propaganda, for “preaching the message”, and see the independent journalist as a threat, at best a well-intentioned meddler, at worst a dangerous enemy. I summed up my professional experience in my own “Ten commandments of the religious journalist”.

1. Independence. Religious journalists in the secular media do not speak for the ecclesiastical institution; still less are they “apostles of truth”. The Church has its own publications for that. They are not even neutral intermediaries between the religions and their public. They are independent, professional journalists with minds of their own.

2. Competence. They are judged not by their militancy, or missionary zeal, but by their ability in their chosen field, just as political or scientific correspondents are in theirs. According to some churchmen, a religious journalist needs to be a member of the Church in order to understand it from within. But this is to imply that one must be a Communist to write about the Communist Party, or a Moonie to write about the Moon sect. At the other extreme, some church leaders prefer “theologically illiterate” journalists who will simply relay their message without intervening. What annoys the hierarchy most is an informed, articulate journalist (often an ex-seminarian or priest) who knows the subject. One needs to be competent in order to translate ecclesiastical jargon and the abstruse language of many Roman texts into words understood by the average reader.

3. Openness. Like all authoritarian and non-democratic institutions, the Catholic Church loves secrecy. Preaching virtue and claiming to be a “perfect society”, it does not like admitting its mistakes. It has only recently published its financial accounts (hence the established myth about the wealth of the Vatican) and it still draws a veil over the workings of the Curia (the appointment of bishops, the secret trials of theologians). The journalist has a duty to break down these taboos, in the interest of the Church itself For example, the recent stories of paedophile priests were for long hushed up by the authorities. In France a long battle to persuade the French bishops to open more of their annual sessions to the press has failed: they have reverted to their former practice of holding all their meetings in private.

4. Truthfulness. The argument put forward to justify secrecy is that the Church should not wash its dirty linen in public. But this means that the linen does not get washed at all. The duty of the press is to publish the truth about an institution that claims to be “an expert in humanity”. Journalists are often reproached for insisting on the negative aspects of the Church instead of singing its praises. But by their nature the media deal with the extra-ordinary: bridges that collapse, not those that stand firm, priests who marry, not those who remain faithful to their vows, bishops who are in favour of Contraception or the ordination of women not those who defend the party line. When journalists single out a controversial phrase from a sermon, they are accused of “distorting the truth”, but a newspaper, which has a limited amount of space, naturally reports the remark that stands out from a text of pious platitudes.

5. Freedom. The “freedom of speech” claimed by the journalist - both as regards the ecclesiastical institution and the newspaper editor or television boss - is not a personal privilege, but a necessary tool for doing the job, namely revealing the truth however unpalatable in the face of any pressure group, whether it be political, financial or religious. The media constitute the ‘fourth power’, indispensable in any democracy to counter the abuses of the other three (executive, legislative and judiciary). Nothing would have been known of the shady financial dealings of Bishop Marcinkus. or of the secret power of Opus Dei in the Vatican, without the tenacity of the investigative media.

6. Respect for the media. Certain church leaders, like John Paul II, Cardinal Lustiger or Jacques Gaillot, have learnt to handle mass communications to their own best advantage, but most representatives of the Church have no inkling of the demands and constraints which the media impose. It should be obvious that television is a magnifying (and distorting) glass, that a news bulletin can only accord a few seconds to a given subiect. This may be deplored but it is one of the rules of the game. Yet bishops still produce long, detailed written statements that are of no use on television. This is why bishops and other church leaders would do well to learn how to master the media, and why the religious correspondent is a necessary mediator hetween the Church and public opinion.

7. Honesty. A journalist is necessarily conditioned by age, sex, upbringing, background, political and religious opinions. These biases must he taken into account and corrected. Honesty implies verifying a fact, placing an event in its historical and geopolitical context, questioning as many witnesses as possible. In presenting a papal document, for example, one should separate fact and commentary. The document should be summarised honestly and factually, and the journalist’s personal analysis presented separately. “Facts are sacred, comment is free” is an axiom often quoted by the founder of Le Monde, Hubert BeuveMery.

8. Fairness. One should take care to give space to all the Christian Churches and to other religions. In France, after the Catholic Church which dominates the scene, the second largest religion is Islam, with its three million members. Religious reporting should include all manifestations, from the new cults to the New Age, and should not forget the increasing role of religion in many of today’s ethnic conflicts.

9. Equal-handedness. This fairness to all religions should also be shown to those marginalised and rejected by the Church. An independent newspaper should be a mouthpiece for the powerless and mute members of society. It should find space for the minority groups in the Church, the protest movements, the silenced theologian, the deposed bishop. The more the Catholic Church seeks to impose a single voice, the more the press should encourage free debate.

10. Humility. A newspaper like Le Monde is a moral authority wielding real power in society, capable of making and breaking people. The temptation is great to use this power indiscriminately and to become self-important. Religious journalists do not exercise a rival teaching authority to that of the Church. Which is why one should know when to bow out gracefully.

Alain Woodrow

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