Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Controlling Catholic Media

One of the notable things about Catholicism is that it has a central teaching authority such that it is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty (at least on many doctrinal topics), "The Church teaches X" or "The Church does not accept Y as true." By comparison, if you want to say something about "What Muslims believe" or "What Baptists believe" much less "What Buddhists believe", the best you can do is a cite a number of authorities and recognize what the preponderance of them appear to say. (Even this gets very tricky, as different people will have different standards as to who is an acceptable authority.)

Given this, Catholics often suggest it would be a good idea if there were more quality control over who got to go around labeling things as Catholic. Conservatives sometimes ask why it is that Notre Dame and Georgetown are still allowed to call themselves Catholic universities, and make noises that someone should "do something" about publications like Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter. On the flip side, once and a while one hears more left-leaning Catholics ask why it is that the bishops don't do something to about the largely right-leaning Catholic blogsphere, or reign in venues such as EWTN or Real Catholic TV.

Certainly, control over what is written is something with a long history in the Catholic Church. We are, after all, the ones who had The Index Of Forbidden Books for many years, and who required that authors get an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from the local bishop when publishing works.

Further, I do think that there are egregious cases (which those are will always be controversial) in which Church authorities do need to step in and state that a given work is in error on some important doctrinal issue.

However, bringing more oversight to bear does not always have the effect that those who advocate it desire. I remember a few years back when our diocese at that time announced that it would be conducting a review of religious education textbooks and approving three texts which all parishes would be expected to use in their religious education classes for children. At first there was some enthusiasm for this in conservative quarters, with people hoping this would mean that watered down texts would be banned. Instead, perhaps predictably, it was the texts from the three largest mainstream textbook publishers (the ones, perhaps coincidentally, with the resources to market most effectively to the diocesan education office) that were approved, and parishes that had been using books from Ignatius Press or the Baltimore Catechism were instructed to stop.

It strikes me that, in an imperfect world and particularly in a culture which is deeply divided over social and political issues, trying to exert strict control over what is published or broadcast under the name Catholic is probably going to result in more problems than benefits. Indeed, it may be that this is the case not only now, but at all times.

On the one hand, nearly every educated Catholic has at some point known the frustration of having a friend or family member come to one after having read some book which, "Told me all sorts of things I hadn't known about the Church before," only to find that this is because the book is simply wrong or deceptive at a number of levels. And yet, pushing for greater control will result sometimes in one interpretation or another quashing all dissent, and other times in a conflict averse middle quashing any interesting discussion by either side.

Mess and imperfect though such an approach may be, it seems like there is a great deal of practical benefit in simply allowing a very wide range of expression -- curbed by the arguments of others, even at times those in authority, when writings go astray, but with the power to silence left nearly always unused. If the frustrations of those who disagree with one claiming to speak for the Church can be great at times, the frustrations of several factions within the Church being effectively gagged at any given time would, it seems to me, be greater. And very often it would be the vocal minorities most eager for greater "quality control" who would find themselves silence.


Foxfier said...

I've got to say I've only seen folks asking that those in authority publicly point out exactly how something is wrong,, not make them shut up.

Bernard Woolley said...

Re: The Index Of Forbidden Books. I had a professor who was teaching a course on the Enlightenment. He was on the older side and he told us that Locke and Hobbes were still on the Index when he was an undergraduate. In order for him to read them he had to get faculty approval and then he would go to a designated room in the library where he would be given a copy of the books. He could only read them there and had to return the books upon completion of his studies. Looking back I wonder if he was full of it or if that really happened.

Marie said...

There's a big difference, of course, between telling someone they can't say what they want to say and telling them they can't say that you said it.

And I think the powers that be did try to crack down on EWTN at one point, putting out a competing radio network from the bishops' conference or some such thing?

Your example of the textbooks is excellent, and I think what it shows is that discernment is not bad, bad discernment is bad. The Church does need to stop allowing the people that represent her to do so in error. But it doesn't have to correct them for merely being obnoxious or distasteful. So with hymns, for example, I'd love to call for the Church to ban all hymns that make me look around for Barry Manilow. But I should only want the Church to ban hymns that use inclusive language, because that is in error. The Manilow hymns just make my teeth hurt, and my pain is something I can express but not expect a Vatican review of.

Discern what is error, address it every time, and let the rest be dealt with locally. That would be nice. Then each parish could choose from a widely diverse selection of textbooks, none of which actually teach Catholics in error.