When the Media Decide
What the Church Should Teach
by James Hitchcock
In Virginia a bishop announces that those who hold office
in the Church should adhere to Catholic doctrine, and he dissolves a diocesan
committee which dissented from the Church's teaching about homosexuality.
A newspaper editor chastises the bishop and asserts that all such questions
need to be kept open.
In St. Louis the archbishop requires that the only parish that owns its
own property, independent of the archdiocese, should cease that arrangement.
The media scold the archbishop for "legalism" and "rigidity."
In New Jersey a girl with celiac disease cannot digest Communion hosts
made from wheat. The diocese suggests that she receive Communion by sipping
from the chalice or receiving a tiny piece of the sacred host. Her mother
asks the Church to authorize hosts made from rice flour, and the media
make it a major issue.
Also in St. Louis the archbishop receives the vows of several women who
have committed themselves to live as consecrated virgins. This event,
seemingly quite minor amidst the day's news, merits a front-page article
in the local newspaper, setting the stage for a cartoon ridiculing the
A syndicated national columnist who is not a Catholic wants to "send
the Vatican hearing aids" because a recent Vatican letter fails to
endorse the complete feminist agenda. We are so used to these media blitzes
that we scarcely think twice about them, but in reality they involve something
quite troubling. Although in each case those who criticize the Church
do so in the name of "freedom," their own agenda is actually
a threat to religious liberty.
There is much controversy over the policy of some bishops that pro-abortion
politicians should not receive Communion. Here there is an at least apparent
excuse for the media 's interest - the claim that bishops should not "interfere"
in politics. But the other side is the refusal to acknowledge that the
Church has the right, indeed the obligation, to set its own conditions
The Catholic Church holds that women cannot be validly ordained to the
priesthood, that homosexual activity is morally wrong, and that valid
Communion hosts must be made from wheat flour, to take three of the currently
disputed issues. But in effect the critics of those positions, even if
they are not Catholic, claim the right to determine who should be admitted
to Communion, who should be ordained, what kind of Communion hosts we
should use, and what kind of sexual activity is moral. Ownership of parish
property is not a matter of doctrine, but it is basic to the Catholic
governing structure, and those who think the St. Louis parish should keep
its property are in effect claiming that we should be congregationalists.
The fact that some of those who criticize the Church are Catholics does
not change the situation. The Church has always arrived at its teachings
through hierarchical authority - popes and general councils - not by popular
vote, and dissident Catholics are simply demanding that the Church undergo
At work here is the self-defined "enlightened" class who claim
the right to judge other people's beliefs, even when they do not understand
those beliefs, a claim which clearly contradicts the same enlightened
class's constant sermons about "respect" and "understanding,"
Their favorite cause is "sexual freedom," and nothing sets off
their alarm bells faster than the suggestion that chastity may have some
value, hence the attention to consecrated virgins. Religious believers
are continually accused of trying to impose their beliefs on others, which
in reality means resisting having secular beliefs imposed on them.
A recent article relates how "Wiccans" - self-described witches
- are now demanding and receiving respect in society. I assume the reporter
is not a wiccan, but the article was elaborately respectful and it is
inconceivable that any mainstream media organ would criticize something
like Wicca, no matter how absurd some of its beliefs might be.
The enlightened class obviously does not understand Catholic teachings
about many things, nor does it wish to, and it gives itself license to
trash those teachings. Ellen Goodman thinks the Vatican needs a hearing
aid because the pope does not listen to her, not that she needs to listen.
If consecrated virginity, or the required use of wheaten bread, were beliefs
of a Native American tribe, the enlightened class would be very severe
in cautioning us to respect precisely what we do not understand, and to
learn from it.
There is an important issue of religious freedom here.
Some legal commentators have pointed out that it is not entirely clear
whether religious liberty as such exists any more, or whether freedom
of belief and worship are forms of freedom of expression. If there is
such a thing as religious liberty, then it must apply to churches as a
whole, not just to individuals. But that is precisely what the enlightened
class now denies.
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor
of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary
Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. He is the author
of several books, including The Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular
Humanism?, and Years of Crisis: Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court
was recently published by Princeton University Press.
He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals, including
Catholic World Report.
This article originally appeared on September 6, 2004 on the Women
for Faith & Family website. It is reprinted by permission of the author.