Pictures of Pope Benedict XVI and Queen Elizabeth II together in Scotland stir spiritual whirlwinds. There’s the leader of a billion or so Roman Catholics, and there’s the leader-of-record of the Church of England, defender of the faith by inheritance from Henry VIII.
The pope acknowledged to journalists during a flight from Rome to Scotland that the Church performed badly in handling worldwide charges that priests and religious had engaged repeatedly in criminal acts of a sexual nature.
In the shared respect of their encounter, the pope tacitly recognized that a woman may be the head, perhaps figurehead, of a Christian church. Maybe he finds it awkward to ponder the sharp loss of moral authority his church feels today in many parts of the world, while defending a priesthood that celebrates maleness if not manhood.
The pope’s church understands Mary of scripture to be the mother of God and Queen of the Universe, but unqualified for priesthood.
Catholics tend to love their church the way they love their families, faithful even when in vigorous disagreement. In many years of Catholic journalism, beginning in 1958 as a freelancer for the Hawaii Catholic Herald, I did not always live up to my own ideals. I claim that much affinity with St. Paul, an early Christian journalist who famously said to the Romans, “The good which I want to do, I fail to do; but what I do is the wrong which is against my will…” [Rom. 8:19, REV]
For years most of my friends were Catholic priests and religious, and lay church staffers, and many were gay. Most, but not all, were happily avuncular with my children. One, who had baptised my child, was later accused of molesting others. A close friend in the hierarchy was mugged during a parking lot encounter with a young man, a well-known educator made passes at my son, and a bishop was accused in a paternity action. There was a time of horror when priests who were important to me and my family were painfully lost to AIDS.
Many years ago I described to a diocesan bishop some overtures from another in the hierarchy. I was alarmed in part because I knew he might be roughed up, blackmailed, arrested. He might even approach a minor, but I didn’t think he would. Responsible adults, straight or gay, do not prey on children. Sexual abuse of children and adults is observed among some heterosexual persons, some homosexual. Most people seek long-term relationships, especially in marriage.
I was managing editor of the morning newspaper in Honolulu when a long-time friend invited me to visit him, secretly, in Washington, D.C. He was Bishop (later Cardinal) Joseph Bernardin, at that time general secretary of the U.S. Catholic Conference and the National Council of Catholic Bishops.
The National Catholic News Service, now known as CNS, was a division of the Conference. It was in trouble, losing money, losing clients and losing respect. At the time it produced a daily news package, which was mimeographed and mailed to clients all over the world. Most were diocesan newspapers.
Bernardin asked another long-time friend, Fr. Thurston Davis, S.J., along with Robert Beusse, communication secretary for the Conference, to talk to me about the woes at the news service. Davis was the brilliant editor-in-chief of America magazine, a former Fordham dean. The three of us met in Beverly Hills, and soon afterward I was asked to fly evasively from Honolulu to Washington. Bernardin’s wish was that I fly directly to New York, then switch to the shuttle for the rest of the trip. Nobody was to know my destination, which turned out to be nothing less than the Watergate. Bernardin had a suite for the day, during which he asked me to resign as managing editor of The Honolulu Advertiser and take over as director and first editor-in-chief of the Catholic news service.
My charge was to reorganize the news agency, creating a wire service to replace the mail service. And simultaneously I was to balance the budget, retrieve lost clients and handle a new union contract for employees who had become demoralized by the shaky condition of the news service.
After intense negotiations I completed an agreement with Reuters to provide a leased wire available 24 hours a day to distribute news by teletype. NC correspondents were authorized to send their articles to NC from any Reuters bureau anywhere in the world, with guaranteed delivery within 20 minutes. Vatican Radio was one of the first wire service subscribers.
It was a lonely experience. I was told that I must negotiate an agreement without any counsel from Bernardin, Davis or Beusse. The Conference took a similar hands-off position in negotiating the first contract with the American Newspaper Guild, although the labor expert Msgr. George Higgins cheerfully answered my questions about Catholic teaching on labor issues.
It was a memorable moment when the wire service formally opened with a transmission of a message from Pope Paul VI in Rome to my staff and me in Washington. The pope’s words were recorded on the perforated tape used in wire transmissions in those days, then embedded in a transparent display which was presented to me by the bishops. It is now on permanent loan at the Washington headquarters of Catholic News Service, along with the St. Francis de Sales award I received from the friends and co-workers at the Catholic Press Assn.
There’s more, of course, but this is not the time to tell it. The stern little counter on my computer screen warns that I am approaching the 1,000-word mark. That’s enough for one reading, as you will certainly agree.
The communication between queen and pope in Scotland is symbolic of gains in Catholic reporting and commentary since the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, and a reminder that the Catholic church is the oldest multi-national, run by leaders drawn from a limited pool of talent which excludes ordained women. These men seldom admit their mistakes to anyone outside the confessional. The church does not exclude gays, but it affirms biblical demonizing of non-celibate homosexual persons. Thus hypocrisy serves theology. There’s an additional concern: How do journalists stumble through millions of words online, in print and even unformed — more words than anybody can read or count – and blue-pencil them into all the news that’s fit to tint?
©A. E. P. (Ed) Wall