The Catholic Church, the Press and Me

By Carroll, James | Nieman Reports, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

The Catholic Church, the Press and Me


Carroll, James, Nieman Reports


One of the most important religious experiences I have had as a Roman Catholic was the result of the work of a reporter. I am thinking of a man who wrote under the name "Xavier Rynne," and of the series of dispatches he filed to The New Yorker between 1962 and 1965. They were titled simply, in the style of that magazine, "Letter From Vatican City." Their subject was The Vatican Council, then in session.

The Roman Catholic Church claims to be--and for its members is--different from every other human institution. When Jesus said, "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them," he planted the seed of an idea that grew into a theology that understands the Church itself as The Mystical Body of Christ. The Church itself, that is, is a living sacrament of God's loving presence in the world.

The trouble with this theology, of course, is that, whatever its mystical character, the Church is also a human institution, with the usual tendencies toward power-grabbing and self-deception. Often, over the centuries, Church leaders have hidden their failures, disguised their limits and expanded their worldly power by an inappropriate exploitation of the Church's spiritual meaning. In fact, Pope John XXIII convened the Vatican Council precisely to end a period of such abuse.

Xavier Rynne's reports from Rome were breathtaking for American Catholics and others exactly because they laid bare the human--read, political--character of the bishops' deliberations. The Vatican, like every power center, was rife with intrigue, wheeling and dealing. pork-barrelling, backbiting between factions and electioneering--but such activity had rarely ever been reported openly. The back rooms may have been filled with incense instead of smoke, but the bishops and Cardinals, in trading votes and committee appointments, behaved like old-time pols.

Pious religious reporters and cowed secular ones were accustomed to covering such Church events as if they were the direct work of the Holy Spirit. To report not only the Church's shortcomings, but even its ordinariness, was seen as an act of disloyalty for the Catholic press, and an act of ancient anti-Catholicism for the secular press. Xavier Rynne understood as a reporter that the truth itself must be his only value; as a believer he understood--and helped me understand--that if God does live in the Church, it is precisely in its humaness. What else does the Christian belief mean that God became one of us? The theological revolution of the Vatican Council amounted to a return to the idea that, because of the Incarnation, the sinful character of the Church is not a secret to be covered up at all costs. That the Church is limited and all too human means that limited and all too human people like me can be at home in it.

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