There are many features of Catholicism in the United States that set it apart from Catholic life in the other countries of the world.
One is the vast network of nongovernment-supported schools, colleges and universities. By and large, they are good schools; some are better than good; and a few have attained national and even international stature.
Another is the extensive network of weekly newspapers, magazines and journals. One has only to page through the annual Catholic Press Directory to appreciate its diversity and scope.
It's more difficult, however, to render an opinion about the quality of the Catholic press in the United States than it is to render a judgment about the quality of Catholic schools, colleges and universities.
In the case of Catholic higher education, there are accreditation reports and comparative ratings in books and magazines, such as the annual review of colleges and universities in U.S. News & World Report.
Some Catholic publications are very good. Many are ordinary. But one has the impression that too many are poor. If we had, proportionally, as many below-standard Catholic schools as we have inferior Catholic newspapers, the intellectual and professional status of the American Catholic laity would be considerably less exalted than it is.
Why the difference between Catholic education, especially higher education, and the Catholic press?
Catholic colleges and universities are, for the most part, free institutions, administered and staffed by people who have passed the test of peer review.
Institutionally, our colleges and universities are autonomous, that is, not controlled by outside ecclesiastical authorities, and their faculties are protected by academic freedom, that is, not subject to reprisal for occasionally expressing ideas at variance with ecclesiastical authorities.
That is not the case with much of the Catholic press, particularly diocesan newspapers and newsletters. The expression of opinion, whether in editorials or columns, is in too many instances controlled, at least indirectly, by the views of the publisher, namely, the local bishop.
The censorship is rarely overt. Picking up on a variety of signals, editors develop a feel for what might be "too controversial," and so they engage in self-censorship.
The self-censorship doesn't stop with editorials and columns, however. Even the choice and treatment of news stories are …