The National Catholic Review

Yesterday, we noted that the USCCB was pushing back hard against an article published by the Catholic News Agency. In a posting at the Conference’s  Media Blog, Helen Osman charged that at least three of the quotes attributed to Cardinal Francis George in the CNA report were “fabricated,” a charge which is, in journalistic circles, the most damning of charges. (Think Janet Cooke, a name that will live in infamy so long as journalists are taught how not to ply their trade.) Later in the day, CNA replied that it was standing by its story and said that “several bishops” who had been in attendance at the USCCB meeting when Cardinal George gave his speech served as sources for their report. Who’s telling the truth?

Perhaps both, but in very different ways, and that is the bad news. Yes, Helen Osman was in the room, CNA was not, and we have no reason to doubt that the quotes she mentioned were, in fact, fabricated. Even though CNA is a tendentious and slanted media outlet, fabricating quotes goes beyond the pale. Why anyone would trust them before this is beyond me, but now their reputation is in tatters. You do not put a person’s remarks in quotes unless you know that they said it. This is reason enough for Bishop John Wester, who has a column at CNA, to disassociate himself from the organization immediately.

CNA would argue that their sources - “several bishops” - provided the quotes, leading me to think that no one at CNA ever played the game of telephone, in which a group of people sit at a table, and the leader whispers something into the ear of the person on their right. The whisper goes around the table and it is often unrecognizable by the time it gets back to the leader. The “several bishops” may have heard what they wanted to hear, that is to say, they placed their own prejudices and arguments in Cardinal George’s mouth. CNA needs to evaluate these “several bishops” as sources going forward but, arguably, the reporters and editors at CNA thought when they published their original article that the quotes were accurate.

But, here is where it gets dicey. What if the quotes are not “fabrications” and “several bishops” did tell CNA what they thought Cardinal George had said. It is one thing for Cardinal George to have difficulty with a fringe right-wing media outlet. It is a different, and larger, problem to have “several bishops” who have decided to leak to the press in order to push the USCCB towards their more conservative position. Cardinal George’s first task as leader of the USCCB is to keep the body of bishops on the same page, to keep them together and I think a case can be made that while his raw intelligence has helped, the principal reason for his success as president of the Conference is that all the bishops trust him. The question now is: Can he trust them? Why did these “several bishops” go leaking to the press after the meeting? Given the nature of the quotes, they obviously want some severe sanctions taken against the Catholic Health Association, they want some kind of showdown and, I think it is safe to venture that, not detecting sufficient movement in their direction at the USCCB meeting, they decided to take their arguments to the press. That is always and everywhere the motivating force behind leakers, to affect the outcome of an internal debate by bringing one side of a story to the outside debate.

It is not difficult to think of who these “several bishops” might be. Go ahead – you can list them. I will only call attention to one telling indication. Yesterday, the blog at the official newspaper of the diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, the Catholic Key, ran an item that questioned the veracity of Helen Osman and defended the substance of the CNA report. The editor of the Catholic Key, Mr. Jack Smith, is a man who has made it a habit of attacking Sr. Carol Keehan in the most scurrilous and unchristian manner; he is on my short list of the very few people who warrant an ad hominem attack. Perhaps Mr. Smith is on such a long leash that his master lets him publish whatever he wants, including this blog post which would seem to question the integrity not only of a staffer at the USCCB but of Cardinal George. Perhaps.

Maybe these bishops who spoke to CNA were foolish. Maybe, like many people in authority, they are susceptible to the charms of journalists and say things they shouldn’t. General Stanley McChrystal and his staff evidently fell in love with a Rolling Stone reporter and poured out their resentments, so the phenomenon is not unknown. Perhaps. But, it must be remembered that the USCCB meeting was behind closed doors and these bishops who decided to speak to CNA chose to break the confidentiality of the meeting and to make Cardinal George’s job more difficult. Evidently, some conservative bishops don’t think the Conference rules apply to them. If they are unsatisfied with the results of a meeting, they can run to CNA and make their case.

As is apparent from Cardinal George’s interview with John Allen at NCR, Cardinal George wants to mend the strains in relationship with CHA, not exacerbate them. That is what bishops do, they build up the unity of the Church not tear it apart. I suspect he gave voice to that desire at the bishops’ meetings and the bishops who want a showdown were disappointed. But, if some of his fellow bishops are willing to go behind his back to make their case, Cardinal George has a bigger problem on his hands than an errant piece of journalism. There are loose cannons among the episcopal bench, but now they are firing on their own. Whatever happened to "in all things charity"?

 

 

Comments

Michael Maiale | 6/25/2010 - 12:57am
The quotes seem pretty in-line with other comments Cardinal George has made, and even with the John Allen interview mentioned here.  Perhaps the CNA got a few words wrong, or perhaps they framed the Cardinal's words in a misleading way, but I find it hard to believe that they would have fabricated something so close to what Cardinal George has said in other circumstances.
If Ms. Osman releases transcripts of Cardinal George's comments, demonstrating that the CNA was wrong, then perhaps I'll believe her.  Also, if Cardinal George comes out himself and sets the record straight, I'll certainly believe him.  Until then, it's the word of the USCCB's communications office (which hardly has a track record for accuracy and straight-forwardness) vs. the word of the CNA, which may be agenda driven, but which doesn't have a track record of completely fabricating quotes and entire stories.
Furthermore, let's face it... for the CHA to take an open position opposing the USCCB certainly wounded Catholic unity.  The nuns at the CHA might believe that's for the better, but the Church should discuss whether that sort of conduct is appropriate.
Michael Maiale | 6/25/2010 - 12:57am
The quotes seem pretty in-line with other comments Cardinal George has made, and even with the John Allen interview mentioned here.  Perhaps the CNA got a few words wrong, or perhaps they framed the Cardinal's words in a misleading way, but I find it hard to believe that they would have fabricated something so close to what Cardinal George has said in other circumstances.
If Ms. Osman releases transcripts of Cardinal George's comments, demonstrating that the CNA was wrong, then perhaps I'll believe her.  Also, if Cardinal George comes out himself and sets the record straight, I'll certainly believe him.  Until then, it's the word of the USCCB's communications office (which hardly has a track record for accuracy and straight-forwardness) vs. the word of the CNA, which may be agenda driven, but which doesn't have a track record of completely fabricating quotes and entire stories.
Furthermore, let's face it... for the CHA to take an open position opposing the USCCB certainly wounded Catholic unity.  The nuns at the CHA might believe that's for the better, but the Church should discuss whether that sort of conduct is appropriate.
Kevin Koster | 6/24/2010 - 9:15am
I am struggling with a couple of observations in your post:
Regarding CNA.  You referred to them as a ''fringe right-wing media outlet.''  And while I'm somewhat curious as to how one earns the designation ''right wing'' and who you would include on a ''left-wing'' list, I am more struck by your use of the word ''fringe.'' I'm assuming your use of the word ''fringe'' is meant to imply irrelevance or a group not really worth attention or discussion.  According to Quantcast, a service that provides web traffic estimates, CNA receives on average 100,000 visitors a month to their website. By comparison, America Magazine receives 33,000 visitors.  Fringe?
Secondly, your last statement was, ''Whatever happened to 'in all things charity'?''  I agree that this is a good rule of life.  However, you preceded it with this statement regarding Jack Smith: ''he is on my short list of the very few people who warrant an ad hominem attack. Perhaps Mr. Smith is on such a long leash that his master lets him publish whatever he wants...''  Can you help me find the charity in your comments regarding Jack Smith?
 
3962487 | 6/23/2010 - 6:30pm
I don't think it's a surprise that bishops spoke as sources to a reporter. That's always been the case, or at least it was when I was a reporter covering the religion beat. The problem with CNA's original story was that it didn't disclose that it was based on information provided by anonymous sources. Nor does it appear from the original story  that CNA tried to get a comment from Cardinal George or his readily available spokesperson. All of this is basic journalism. If The New York Times had done this, we'd never hear the end of it from EWTN.
 
Michael Bindner | 6/23/2010 - 4:56pm
I agree with Mr. Maher that the key question is "who's in charge." Cardinal George is the rotated chair of a collegial group, not the first among equals in a national church. He is not our patriarch, so the problem is not his.

It is our problem as an entire church when bishops consider their agenda more important than seeking the Truth and providing pastoral leadership to all.

While the faithful as a whole have this problem, the USCCB is the agent which needs to solve it - at least for now. Barring that, the faithful will have to solve it by demanding change and possibly withholding or redirecting funds.
Anonymous | 6/23/2010 - 10:52am
''Cardinal George’s first task as leader of the USCCB is to keep the body of bishops on the same page, to keep them together and I think a case can be made that while his raw intelligence has helped, the principal reason for his success as president of the Conference is that all the bishops trust him.''

Who is not on the same page? This whole problem is because Sr. Carol Keehan is on a different page! She has caused this mess!

Put the blame where it belongs. Disobedience leads to a fall! We have seen this before.
Tom Maher | 6/23/2010 - 10:14am
But the central question that needs to be answered about the church in America is "Who is in charge""

As would be said in organizational management the church seems to have a "control issue" - who is in charge? Who makes the rules? Not havinga sure answer to this question is the most fundemental dysfunctional problem any organizattion can have.

Does the USCCB really have effective authority over the affairs of the church in America?

This article suggests that the USCCB is fragemnted and unable to form a consensus among its member bishops on policy and direction of the church in America. If that is so, the USCCB as a group will have a fundementl problem in being effective in dealing with most issues.

It is ironic that the particular issue the USCCB is attempting to deal with is the challenge to the the USCCB authority from ohter parts of the church where it is also fairly asked "Who is in charge of the affairs of the church in America"?

Does the church in America have dome kind of magic where the collective leadership of hundreds of bishops is an efffective? What other organization has such broad power sharing and remaing effective. If soemething goes wrong with the organization who is responsible. Seventy or eighty bishops collectively? As this article suggests who can determine the collective will of so many people from time to time, issue to issue? Do the bishops themselves really know what their fellow bishops are collectively thinking from moment to moment?

The USCCB ollective leadership seems to be not working to maintain its authority and establish firm church policy that can be realied on. The USCCB seems to havea control issue in directing the affairs of the church in America.
JUDE HUNTZ | 6/23/2010 - 9:56am
Michael, I agree that it is scurrilous and unchristian to make accusations without proof. To that end, Bishop Finn was not even present at the spring USCCB meeting in June, as he was hosting a national workshop here in Kansas City regarding the implementation of the New Missal translation for the Midwest region. You might check your facts before pointing fingers at bishops.
Gregory Popcak | 6/23/2010 - 9:56am
Michael,
Regardless of how one feels about the present kerfuffle, I have to challenge you on the absurd notion that rocking the boat is somehow uncharitable.  To be charitable is not to ''make nice.''  To be charitable is to be willing to work for the good of the people you care about and the institutions you serve-often at great personal expense. Christ came to comfort the afflicted and to affict the comfortable.  He did not come that, ''we all may be nice.''  (''Do you think I came to bring peace?''  -Lk 12:51).
Likewise, as PBXVI recently noted, ''the use of the rod can actually be a service of love.''  True, as you would appear to suggest, it would be easier if we all took the advice of that great pastoral theologian, Rodney King, and just tried to get along, but life is a little more complicated than that.  And you know what?  That's ok.
Whether one thinks this latest incident of episcopal end-running is or is not appropriate, I would recommend we all get over the tendency to confuse the muscular Christianty of the Gospels with warm, fuzzy Hallmark Jesus who glows in the dark and never had a harsh word for anyone.
Better the Church Militant than the Church Codependent.
G