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Censorship casts dark shadow over church.

The views of Benedictine Sister (and NCR columnist) Joan Chittister, it seems, are no longer "orthodox" enough to appear in a diocesan newspaper. A local theologian found them to be "theologically incorrect," so the associate publisher, over the objections of staff, killed the Chittister interview (column, page 14). That is censorship.

It matters not that Chittister was "correct" enough to have headed her religious community. It matters not that she was correct enough to have been chosen to head the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, umbrella network of U.S. women religious communities. It matters not that she is one of the most sought after U.S. Catholic speakers.

Chittister will survive. It is the Catholics of a local diocese who end up the losers.

Broader issues are involved here. Let us consider two: Catholic attitude and journalistic professionalism.

Attitude: The question comes down to whether we Catholics treat each other as thinking adults. Or not. Either we consider ourselves mutually engaged in an ongoing faith conversation, thinking and speaking, sharing and reflecting. Or not. Either we challenge each other. Or we sit back and "let Father tell us" what to think and do.

This is not to say we stop looking to our bishops as teachers. It is to point out that no single Catholic has all the answers. Our Catholic conversations, to maintain vitality, need to remain catholic.

Teaching the faith, passing it from generation to generation, is a challenging and complex matter, especially in Western society, where competing ideas and values come daily to the collective marketplace. All the more reason that Catholic ideas present themselves in open and engaging ways. The "don't think; listen to Father" variety no longer sells. Its days have passed and failure to recognize this only impedes the health and growth of the church.

Too often censorship in the name of "orthodoxy" has far less to do with gaining a greater grasp of the substance of belief than with preserving the coziness of the status quo. Welcome to the world of self-serving, small-mindedness, the intellectual "Bosnia" of religious cleansing. It is a dark place where truth-seekers roam and suspicion reigns. It is a place were speaking your mind could cost you your family's livelihood. It is a world where Christianity gets turned on its head.

If Catholic religious cleansing were the rare exception, we would somehow learn to live with its advocates, make peace with them, much as one makes peace with an eccentric uncle. There must be, we say, room at the alter for all. The problem is, however, the cleansers seldom share that view. In their eyes, "purity" is seldom ever achieved and more and more of the "unorthodox" find themselves outside the inner circle. Chittister is only the latest on a long list of victims.

Journalistic professionalism: Eventually, each Catholic bishop must choose. He must decide whether to publish a diocesan newspaper or a chancery house organ. Never the twain shall meet.

The former, the newspaper, abhors censorship of any kind. It reports and comments on the life of the church honestly and openly, blemishes and all. The bottom line is to inform readers about the church and the world in which it operates. It supplies accurate information, including the official teachings of the church.

It also provides a reflective forum for a multitude of views, including, at times, what might be perceived as dissenting views. The theory rests upon the assumption that an open flow of information is vital to the formation of sound judgment and the growth of faith.

A house organ, on the other hand, regularly censors itself. For the most part, it offers one view, the official view. Through editing decisions, it presents the church not as it is, but as one person -- most often the bishop or someone representing him -- might want it to be, cleansed of blemishes and controversy. It portrays official teachings while largely or entirely excluding other Catholic views.

Throughout the world, the peoples of struggling nations are making great sacrifices, often with their lives, to gain a free press. Without it, they know, they live in bondage. Censorship is not a small matter.

Robert G. Hoyt, NCR's first editor, working toward greater freedom for the Catholic press, wrote in 1963: "Freedom of the Catholic press is not an end in itself; it is instrumental to the freedom of the reader, without which he cannot be a responsible participant in the life of the church."

Will we take our participation seriously? Will our diocesan newspapers be allowed freedom from outside censorship? That depends on their bishops. Unfortunately, recent trends indicate freedom within the diocesan press is waning. Recently, editors who have resisted restrictions have lost their jobs.

Take the case of Joe Michael Feist, former editor in chief of thie Texas Catholic. Last January, his bishop, Charles Grahmann, told him he had one day to clean out his desk and leave.

Recalls Feist, who won the Catholic Press Association award for best columnist in 1989, and whose publication has been cited with numerous CPA awards since: "I made the effort to run a professional newspaper. If a bishop said we should have married priests, we reported it. After the bishops voted on the women's pastoral, we called around Texas to find out how they voted. If they refused to answer, we said they refused to answer."

"Some became irate," explaining they did not feel they should be held publicly accountable for their vote, Feist added.

Word came to Feist, he says, that his bishop was upset with the way he was running the paper (the bishop would not speak to him directly). He asked why and was told "he expects you to know." Grahmann has refused to comment publicly about the firing.

At the time Feist's editorship was being terminated so, too, was that of Deborah Halter, editor of the Arkansas Catholic in Little Rock. When Halter came to the paper in 1987, it did not amount to much. Since then it, too, has won a number of Catholic Press Association awards. But for Halter, that has all ended.

Her problems with her bishop escalated in November, after the Rev. Jesse Jackson came to visit a local parish, where he met with the President-elect Bill Clinton. She reported the visit in the paper and gave equal space --" to the inch" -- to protesters who gathered outside the church.

Her bishop, Andrew McDonald, came under pressure for having allowed the visit. He had given his approval, she said, but then told her to deny he ever had. She protested, but ran a retraction.

Conservatives did not like other Halter editorial decisions, including published criticisms of U.S. war efforts against Iraq, criticisms of the state's use of capital punishment and reports on women's issues and homosexuality.

Her firing has been a traumatic experience for her, Halter said. "Consider this. Your spiritual leader is telling you that you cannot tell the truth in the church's name. ... What is happening to the Catholic press is a sterling metaphor for what is happening to the Catholic consciousness. They are taking away hope ... the hope I had in my early years after the (Vatican) council, the hope in my Catholic daughter."

Diocesan spokespersons have declined to specify why Halter was fired.

Then there was the episode in Hartford, Conn., last March, when several editors and editorial writers at the Catholic Transcript resigned, protesting that the policies of Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin had compromised their journalistic integrity. Editor David M. Fortier said he quit because he no longer had "the authority to say what goes into the paper anymore."

The editors complained that Father John P. Gatzak, who was named the newspaper's executive director by the archbishop last year, had been interfering with editorial decisions, turning the newspaper "into a public relations vehicle."

Other Catholic editors have also been fired in the past year. There appears little the Catholic Press Association can do to counter the trend. A white paper on freedom and responsibility, published by the CPA this year, called for publishers (bishops) and editors to come to a mutual understanding on the mission of their publication and to work out differences through principles of conflict resolution, including establishment of an in-house board where items of concern can be brought by all sides.

Better communication is a never-ending process, but does not amount to much if bishops feel no obligation to explain why they act as they do.

Honest differences of opinion exist as to what best serves the Catholic reader. However, sooner or later we will wake up to the realization that each time a light goes out at a diocesan newspaper the house in which we all live gets darker.

A free Catholic press presents challenges to editors eager to nurture faith and Catholic values. A censored Catholic press, however, is not the answer and offers a far bleaker prospect. In the end, it represents a greater threat to an informed and living faith -- and too often it looks like this is the path we appear to be on.
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Title Annotation:Catholic press
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 28, 1993
Words:1514
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