NY Bishops v. NYT

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New York has traditionally been a far cry from Philadelphia when it comes to relations between the Catholic Church and the media. In Philly, a line of tough archbishops has a history of squaring off with the local press; a decade ago, investigations into the spending of then Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua resulted in a notable holy war from which neither side emerged unscathed. In the Big Apple, at least since the days of Archbishop “Dagger John” Hughes and Thomas Nast, the history of church-press relations reflects the care and deference with which the Great Powers of an Establishment tend to treat each other.

If the Daily News, whose readership roots are solidly in the Catholic working class, has, in the current era, sometimes seemed like an archdiocesan daily, the New York Times has generally donned kid gloves when dealing with the city’s other great purveyor of moral suasion. In the previous phase of the scandal,
the Times was late at the party, and far more attentive to
clerical misdeeds outside than inside metropolitan New York. And when feathers got ruffled, the owlish Peter Steinfels was always on
hand to interpret the two cultures, ecclesiastical and journalistic, to
each other.

But the entente cordiale is over. Steinfels hung up his notebook at the beginning of the year, and the new Church Bigs, New York Archbishop Tim Dolan and
Brooklyn Archbishop Nick DiMarzio, lack their predecessors’ readiness to turn the other cheek, or at least to make their unhappiness known in the suites before they take to the streets. Last November, Dolan–who is closer to the scribblers of the Catholic right than is perhaps prudent–called out the Times for anti-Catholicism in an article that he posted on his blog after the newspaper declined to publish it. He was back on the case yesterday, with a (borrowed) point-by-point rebuttal of Laurie Goodstein’s article on a notorious Milwaukee pedophile priest that has drawn some responsible criticism as well as some responsible defense in Catholic quarters.

Meanwhile, DiMarzio used his homily at last night’s chrism mass to lambaste the Times as the “enemy” before assuring his audience, “Our emphasis has moved from avoiding scandal to protecting children and
so such behavior is immediately publicized, reported to the District
Attorney and not kept secret.” Good shift in emphasis, bish.

That the campaign against the world’s premiere newspaper is being conducted from Rome is clear from a lengthy critique published yesterday by Cardinal William J. Levada, who occupies Pope Benedict’s old position as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, formerly known as the Inquisition. The reason why, of course, is that it is the pope himself who is under attack. So what’s playing out on Gotham’s stage has stirred up all the old anxieties about organized American hostility toward “papists.” Or as Dolan, a church historian by training, put it:

While the report on the nauseating abuse is bitterly true, the
insinuation against Cardinal Ratzinger is not, and gives every
indication of being part of a well-oiled campaign against Pope Benedict. 

Ah, yes, those well-oiled minions of the Know-Nothing Party and the American Protective Association.

The episcopal huffing and puffing is unlikely to make much of an impression on the news media, which has bigger worries these days than an assault from bishops anxious to protect a guy who, all but the most entrenched apologists agree, needs to put his house in order fast. It’s hard to exempt from the usual slings and arrows of public life clerics who sign manifestos calling for civil disobedience (Dolan) or who electioneer in New York City’s political sandbox (DiMarzio). If they can’t take a poke from the likes of Maureen Dowd, then maybe they should find another line of work. The real question is whether the people in New York’s Catholic pews will, like the flock who heard Urban II at
Clermont in 1095, sew crosses on their windbreakers and march off at DiMarzio’s command to “besiege” the Times.

Back in 2002, when the Boston Globe began the investigative series that set in motion the crisis that continues to roll through Roman Catholicism, the newspaper’s staff fully expected an outcry from a Catholic community long habituated to defending its faith against the outside world. But, to their surprise and Cardinal Bernard Law’s dismay, it didn’t happen. The notoriously touchy Boston Irish recognized the reporting as legit, and were comfortable enough in their New England skins not to see the paper as an agent of ancient Yankee prejudice. It will be interesting to see if New York’s Catholics behave any differently. My guess is that, but for the professional Defenders of the Faith (e.g. Bill Donohue), the trumpeting of Dolan and DiMarzio will largely fall on deaf ears.