New Catholic media, the synod and Cardinal George

By Catholic New World
Sunday, October 19, 2014

John L. Allen Jr. delivers the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Jerusalem Lecture at Northwestern University on March 6, 2012. In a recent interview with the Catholic New World Allen called Cardinal George “the American Ratzinger.” (Karen Callaway / Catholic New World)

John L. Allen Jr. is perhaps the most respected American journalist covering the Vatican and worldwide Catholic Church today. He is associate editor at the Boston Globe, where his writing is featured almost daily at, the newspaper’s new site providing coverage of all things Catholic. He also serves as senior Vatican analyst for CNN, and was for 16 years a correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. He’s the author of nine books on the Vatican and Catholic affairs, and is also a popular speaker on Catholic affairs both in the United States and internationally.

On Oct. 4, Allen gave a retreat in Glen Ellyn for Mayslake Ministries and took time out for an interview with editor Joyce Duriga.

Catholic New World: The Globe’s launched about a month ago. Can you give us an idea of how things are going?

John L. Allen Jr.: Obviously we’re still sorta figuring it out as we go along. I mean, it’s less than a month old. I think given how fully formed it looks and feels for having been around for such a short period of time it’s kind of miraculous.

My own take is clearly there are still some things we’re going to have to figure out. But the one thing that I draw satisfaction from is that a month in I think that most people would find it very difficult to tell you whether this is a liberal site or a conservative site.

That is on purpose. Believe me, that is deliberate. That’s the whole idea.

We want to be a space where everybody is welcome but we don’t want to carry water for anybody.

CNW: In your talks you’ve said how secular media often gets wrong coverage of the Catholic Church. Why?

Allen: The truth of it is, and this is not to say there aren’t some fantastically talented religion reporters out there, but I think we would all have to recognize that, in general, in the American press, religion is not really taken seriously as a news beat. It doesn’t get the same kind of attention that, say, politics or finance do — for that matter that sports and entertainment do.

Coverage tends to be episodic and therefore it’s often being done by people who have not had the opportunity to develop expertise. Therefore they can be superficial. It can be ill-informed and all of that. That’s been the case for a long time.

I think what you’ve got in Crux is a recognition that the Catholic story matters and that it’s worth trying to get it right. It’s worth investing the resources it takes to get it right. To do that you have to be covering it every day. It’s not enough to dip in and out of the store. Your eyes have to be on the story all of the time. It is a constantly moving picture.

CNW: Do you think Crux has an impact on the Catholic press in the United States?

Allen: I think on the one hand there are a lot of people in the Catholic press who are gratified by what the Boston Globe is doing because they think, “It’s about time.” Somebody realized that this is important enough that it’s worth putting your money where your mouth is.

I think probably it is also fair to say there would be some in the Catholic press who might see it as a potential competitor. I don’t really see it that way. I think that what the specialized Catholic press does and what we do — there’s overlap, obviously — but I think they’re distinct.

One of the ways they are distinct, quite honestly, is the deliberately non-partisan ethos we’re trying to achieve. You and I both know that there’s great Catholic media in the United States but they all do kind of have an ideological alignment.

We all kind of know what EWTN’s audience is, what the National Catholic Reporter’s audience is, and what America’s audience is, and what Commonweal’s audience is, and that editorial identity is part of their mission and part of what they do. That’s perfectly legitimate. It’s not as if anything is wrong with it.

We’re trying to be that place that doesn’t have an ideological alignment — that one space where all the different voices intersect and not feel they’re playing an away game.

CNW: What are your expectations from the Synod of Bishops on the Family?

Allen: This is the ninth synod of bishops I’ve covered and in virtually every case we thought we knew going in what the big story was going to be and quite often it didn’t turn out that way. That said, I do believe there will be a lively debate over the question of Communion for remarried or divorced Catholics.

In some ways you don’t really need the synod for that. We’ve been living there for the last six months. It almost feels anticlimactic now.

But you asked about expectations. First of all, let’s be clear that nothing is going to result from this synod. It’s not as if on Oct. 19 there will be a new policy on the divorced or remarried or anything else. That’s for two reasons.

One, Pope Francis has conceived this as a two-stage process. This synod is actually preparatory for the second, larger synod on the family next year in October 2015. Secondly, of course, this is a conversation. The synod has no power to do anything on its own. What it can do is make recommendations to the pope. Presumably, Francis is going to want to let both of these synods run their course before he would make any big-picture decisions.

The right way to look at the synod is: It’s the journey not the destination. What’s important about this synod isn’t its end product because there’s not really going to be an end product. What is important along the way is taking the temperature of where bishops of different parts of the world are coming from on key issues, which will give you a sense of where consensus is and where the fault lines are.

CNW: In CNW’s issue for Cardinal George’s 50th anniversary as a priest you told us he is one of your most favorite people to interview. What do you think Cardinal George’s legacy will be?

Allen: Well, first of all, I don’t think his legacy is finished yet. I think there are other chapters still to be written. That said, I think he will be remembered as the intellectual leader of the American bishops at a critical moment in their history. I think he’ll be remembered as the architect of what has become the signature social concern of the bishops at this moment in time, which is religious freedom.

And I think he’ll be remembered as the American Ratzinger [Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI].


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