Freedom of the Press and Catholic Social Thought: Reflections on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States

By Decosse, David E. | Theological Studies, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Freedom of the Press and Catholic Social Thought: Reflections on the Sexual Abuse Scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States


Decosse, David E., Theological Studies


FROM THE FIRST REPORTS in the 1980s in the National Catholic Reporter to the Pulitzer Prize-winning stories in 2002 in the Boston Globe, the free American press played a central role in uncovering the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in the United States. That role has been highly controversial within Catholicism, in part due to the explosive nature of the press's revelations of child sexual abuse and in part due to a widely discussed clash in the course of the scandal between American journalists and Catholic officials. In this article, I examine one factor that informs the background to that clash of cultures: the normative assumptions about freedom of the press in Catholic social teaching. I argue that the role of the free press in the scandal can be helpfully understood as a telling moment in the ongoing engagement of the Catholic Church with contemporary democracy. Moreover, I argue that Catholic teaching on freedom of the press can be strengthened by the development of what theologian David Hollenbach has called the mutual and reciprocal relationship of freedom and truth considered in a democratic context. (1)

In more concrete terms, my argument is that the teaching now gives insufficient attention to the press itself as an autonomous actor in civil society; that the teaching could be enriched by a more dynamic notion of freedom of speech upon which many normative assumptions of the press are founded; and that the teaching on speech and the press would benefit by the integration of concepts of democracy and identity contained in what moral philosopher Charles Taylor has called a contemporary "politics of recognition." (2) To date, the sexual abuse scandal has prompted much theological and ethical scrutiny of internal church matters like the possibility of lay governance and the management practices of bishops. By contrast, this article examines the role of the press in the unprecedented scandal as a significant instance of the external engagement of the Church with state and society. (3)

SCANDAL, PRESS, CHURCH, AND DEMOCRACY

A great deal of commentary about the clash between the secular U.S. press and the Catholic Church has issued from the sexual abuse scandal. Most of this commentary, however, has focused on matters such as the postmodern or anti-Catholic culture of the American press or the conflicting sociological motives in the face of scandal of institutions like the secular press and the Catholic Church. But I argue in this section of the article that, as insightful as much of this criticism has been, it has underestimated the political character of the clash between the press and the Church. The sources of the tension behind the clash, I believe, emerge into clearer light when the role of the press in the scandal is seen as an instance of the encounter between modern democracy and the Catholic Church. A review of the commentary on the controversy between the press and the Church is in order.

Of course, the stories on the scandal appearing in U.S. newspapers in the last 20 years could hardly, in the plain sense of things, have been more controversial. In many cities throughout the country, children had been sexually abused by priests in whose care they had been placed. Moreover, the bishops in many of these cities not only did not hold these abusive priests accountable, but they also often transferred these priests into situations where they abused children again. I know of no Catholic commentators on the American press who specifically and in sustained fashion objected, for instance, to the fact alone that the press revealed such abuse. Even the scathing criticism of the American press by the Roman Jesuit journal La Civilta Cattolica at the height of the scandal in 2002 acknowledged the "objective, grave, and dramatic facts" of the abuse and "the legitimate and rightful reaction to such phenomenon." (4)

But such acknowledgment of the abuse disclosed by the American press could not conceal an intense intra-Catholic controversy over the motives and methods of the press.

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