Christ among the Doctors of the Law



Thursday, January 06, 2011

"No one's" comment on the National Catholic Reporter's claim that no one would comment

In their editorial announcing Sr. Carol Keehan as the National Catholic Reporter’s “Person of the Year”, the NCR editors make an astounding claim. It reads as follows (my emphasis):

“As NCR tried to report on St. Joseph’s losing its Catholic status, we sought comments from ecclesial authorities and canon lawyers. Despite copious commentary produced over several months from ethicists and moral theologians who reasoned the hospital had acted compassionately and morally, no one had much to say for the record on this latest development, beyond acknowledging Olmsted’s right to do what he thinks best in his own diocese. No one, that is, except the Catholic Health Association, led by Keehan, who supported the hospital.”

Oh really? No one among those “ecclesial authorities and canon lawyers” had much to say about this case? No one except CHA and Keehan?

Well, how about me? I had a lot to say about the Phoenix case, and said it for the record, including some of it at NCR's request! Let's back up:

On December 17 I was contacted by a writer* for NCR asking for my responses to some fair questions they had concerning a bishop’s authority over Catholic identity claims. On Dec 18, I promised to reply, and on Dec 21 (not bad, considering I was giving final exams that week) I sent NCR the following four “quotables” about episcopal authority:

hi [name of reporter]: this should get things started, if you need more, lemme know. best, edp.

We tend to think of bishops as the chief executive officers of large philanthropic corporations, and there is some truth to that perception of course. But in a much more basic sense, a bishop functions as a living principle of unity in faith and conduct. It is, first and foremost, for a bishop to decide what is consistent with the Faith, and what is at odds with it.

Bishops do not have a wide array of tools with which to defend or promoste [sic] the identity and mission of the Church in their territory, but one of the tools they do have is the power to declare what is Catholic and what is not. It is fundamental to the Church to be able to assert her own identity as she understands it, not simply as others would interpret it for her.

Of course bishops are bound to make these determinations in accord with sound teaching and established discipline, that is, the sort of constraints that rule out arbitrariness or personal pettiness. But such abuses aside, it’s up to the bishop to declare on the authenticity of the claims by individuals or groups to be Catholic.

If an individual or a group feels itself aggrieved by a bishop’s decision in their regard, canon law provides mechanisms by which the bishop’s determination can be reviewed by higher authority.

Now, those familiar with news reporting will recognize, I think, that the four “quotables” I sent to NCR are concisely and accurately formulated for journalistic purposes. My replies were timely, and I expressly offered (twice in fact) to follow-up in more detail if they wanted it. In addition, I had published two detailed blog commentaries on the Phoenix hospital case (
17 Dec, 21 Dec), and had at least five more on Sr. Margaret McBride’s situation (21 May, 1 Jun, 19 Jun, 15 Jul, 23 Dec), all of which were for the record and available to NCR "as they tried to report" on the Phoenix abortion case.

And yet NCR's editors claim that they “sought comments from ecclesial leaders and canon lawyers, [but] despite copious commentary … from ethicists and moral theologians ... no one had much to say for the record.”

As I said, simply astounding. I might not be much, but I hope I'm at least a notch above "no one".

Now, let me be clear about a few points.

1. If the editors at NCR want to give Sr. Carol Keehan their “Person of the Year” award, I wouldn’t have commented on it. Such a decision is their responsibility, not mine.

2. If NCR did not want to use my answers to their questions, that is their business, too. I have given dozens of interviews to print and broadcast media** and I understand that not every utterance from every interviewee can be used. I would not have commented had NCR simply ignored my private replies and public blogs—even if they ignored everything I had said on this case. Again, that's their call, not mine.

3. But, for NCR to claim publicly that they contacted “ecclesial leaders and canon lawyers” about the Phoenix hospital case, but, in contrast to “ethicists and moral theologians”, none of the ecclesial leaders and canon lawyers had much to say about Olmsted’s authority, beyond a platitude or two, is simply false. That claim I contest.

I’m a canon lawyer who had plenty to say about the Phoenix case, some of what I had to say was offered exclusively to NCR, and I offered to say more to them if they wanted it.

It was NCR who didn’t want to hear it. + + +

* Not John Allen, fwiw.

** A sampling would include: The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Associated Press, The Rocky Mountain News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Des Moines Register, Catholic World Report, Our Sunday Visitor, Catholic News Service, Catholic News Agency, National Catholic Register, Zenit, various Lawyers Weeklies, Slate Magazine, Crisis Magazine, Michigan Catholic, This Rock, Christifidelis, Catholic Faith & Family, Southern Cross, not counting numerous broadcast news programs and I don’t know how many blogs.