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The Vocation of a Catholic Journalist: An Interview with Philip F. Lawler
| June 7, 2005
F. Lawler is Editor of Catholic World
News and Catholic
Born and raised in the Boston area, he attended Harvard College, graduating
with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy
at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism.
Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director
of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based
in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees, and a
candidate for the U.S. Senate.
As a journalist, Lawler has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In
1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan
newspaper. Since 1993, Phil Lawler has been the editor of Catholic
World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996,
recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic
World News: the first online Catholic news service.
Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics. His
essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over one hundred
newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street
Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.
Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven
IgnatiusInsight.coms Valerie Schmalz recently spoke with Lawler about
his work as a journalist and editor and the unique challenges faced by Catholic
Schmalz: What do you feel is your vocation as a journalist and an editor
of a Catholic publication and a Catholic news website?
Lawler: Simply to be honest.
I firmly believe that the truth, when it is fully known, will prove the
wisdom of Catholicism. So I do my best to cover news accurately, without
worrying about the "spin."
Actually, the first obligation of any journalist is to be read. If no one
reads your stories, it doesn't matter what they say. So it's very important
to put the news in a lively, appealing form, so that people will find it
Schmalz: Catholic World Report (CWR) and Catholic World News
(CWN) have both made names for themselves as being willing to criticize
the Church for its policies and to criticize the actions of certain Church
figures. Many Catholic publications are unwilling to do that because they
feel it undermines the Church. You have a different perspective. Can you
Lawler: Again, I'm confident in the truth. As St. Augustine said, "God
does not need my lie." The Church is in the business of proclaiming the
truth, and if we're not truthful in the way we convey in-house news, then
how can people be confident in the way we preach the Gospel?
And what is it that is being undermined when we expose some unfortunate
truths about the state of Catholicism? Is it the Church, the Body of Christ?
Or is it the corruption that tarnishes the Church? It is my love for the
Church that compels me to speak out when I think someone is harming the
Schmalz: The tendency of our country and our world to move away from the
values embraced by the Catholic Church is a troubling one. How do you see
the role of your publications in bringing people back to the Church? Do
you see CWR and CWN as having a role in Pope John Paul II's "new evangelization"?
Lawler: CWR and CWN engage in a form of secondary evangelization. We're
not often proclaiming the Gospel directly; we're certainly not preaching.
But we are carrying news about the people who are preaching, and
whose voices are often not heard elsewhere in the media. I hope that we
accomplish something by our editorials, in which we are forthrightly trying
to persuade readers. But in the long run it might be much more important
that we offer a forum in which ideas can be presented, which would not otherwise
be given that sort of exposure.
(By the way, I never use the word "values" to express beliefs or principles.
"Values" are relative; solid principles are not.)
Schmalz: What is the background you bring to your vocation as a Catholic
Lawler: I didn't set out to be a Catholic journalist. My education was
in political theory, and my first jobs were in public policy, as a conservative
activist in Washington. In the early 1980s, when I began writing newspaper
columns, my favorite topic was supply-side economics. But I also wrote a
bit for Catholic publications, and editors kept asking me to write again.
I suppose, as an aspiring economist, I could say that I obeyed the voice
of the marketplace; I wrote for the publications that wanted my stories.
Another factor that took my career in an unexpected direction was the debate
in 1983 about the "peace pastoral" the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter
on nuclear weapons. That just happened to be a topic on which I was reasonably
well informed, and when I joined in the debate I realized that there were
very few people taking the same position. There was a huge vacuum: very
few people were defending conservative principles in the Catholic press
and in other Catholic circles. I began receiving quite a few invitations
to speak to various groups, and when I did the reaction was tremendously
supportive; people would thank me for being involved, say that I was expressing
their views, and most important tell me that they hadn't heard
anyone else say the same things in public.
Schmalz: What are the core points or values for a Catholic journalist to
keep in mind, whether he or she is in secular or religious media?
Lawler: The most important point is honesty. Accurate reporting is far
more valuable than opinion, and it's even more persuasive, because if you
can explain the facts in a logical fashion, you're already more than halfway
toward influencing the reader's opinions. Good reporting is also hard work;
it can be tedious and frustrating. It's very easy, if you're not dedicated
to your work, to slack off and rehash the same facts that are already available
in a dozen other publications. The extra effort makes journalism come alive,
and it also makes the journalist's work worthy of a Christian professional.
Another important consideration is the dignity of the people who are the
subjects of a story. People do have some rights: to privacy, and to preserve
their reputations. There's a lot of sensationalism in journalism today,
particularly in the tabloids and the televison newscasts. Although I'm dedicated
in principle to reporting accurately, and letting the facts speak for themselves,
I also believe that there are times when exposing the facts can serve no
purpose except to damage someone's reputation.
A good reporter generally knows or at least strongly suspects
a good deal more than he writes. You write only what you know what
you can demonstrate to the reader and what's useful to read.
Schmalz: What would you say are the key issues to watch in the next decade?
Lawler: In the realm of public affairs, I think there will be two dominant
issues, both of them broad and complex.
First is the conflict that Pope John Paul described so well as a clash between
the culture of life and the culture of death. It's very visible in the debates
on abortion and euthanasia. It's not quite so visible, but the same principles
are at issue, in debates on contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and stem-cell
research. The momentum in this argument is very strongly against us. If
you think about how far we have come in the wrong direction
over the past thirty years, it's frightening to think where we might be
another thirty years into the future, if we cannot derail this ugly locomotive.
Second is the global conflict between militant Islam, which is on the rise,
and the Western world what might once have been called the Christian
world. In Europe particularly we are witnessing the collapse of a way of
life. The European Union is endangered not by threats from outside, but
by exhaustion from within. It's actually, I think, a process quite similar
to the collapse of Soviet Communism. The system is breaking down because
no one really believes in the system any longer. It is again Pope
John Paul was a superb diagnostician a crisis of faith. The countries
of Europe have different national interests, and they can unite in a single
political entity only if there is something that binds them together: some
shared cultural heritage. But that cultural heritage is undeniably Christian
that's a historical fact and Christianity is the one influence
that today's European political leaders want to keep out of the public debate.
Here in the U.S. we can see the same process at work. It may be less advanced,
because we're still a church-going people. Still there is a steady, growing
pressure to make religion a strictly private affair to push the faith
out of public discourse. That's why I think it's so terribly important for
Catholics to find a distinctive public voice, and why I consider my own
work so important.
Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight.
She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print
and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University
of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service
at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San
Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.
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