Controlling Catholic Media
One of the notable things about Catholicism is that it has a central teaching authority such that it is possible to say with a fair degree of certainty (at least on many doctrinal topics), “The Church teaches X” or “The Church does not accept Y as true.” By comparison, if you want to say something about “What Muslims believe” or “What Baptists believe” much less “What Buddhists believe”, the best you can do is a cite a number of authorities and recognize what the preponderance of them appear to say. (Even this gets very tricky, as different people will have different standards as to who is an acceptable authority.)
Given this, Catholics often suggest it would be a good idea if there were more quality control over who got to go around labeling things as Catholic. Conservatives sometimes ask why it is that Notre Dame and Georgetown are still allowed to call themselves Catholic universities, and make noises that someone should “do something” about publications like Commonweal and National Catholic Reporter. On the flip side, once and a while one hears more left-leaning Catholics ask why it is that the bishops don’t do something to about the largely right-leaning Catholic blogsphere, or reign in venues such as EWTN or Real Catholic TV.
Certainly, control over what is written is something with a long history in the Catholic Church. We are, after all, the ones who had The Index Of Forbidden Books for many years, and who required that authors get an Imprimatur and Nihil Obstat from the local bishop when publishing works.
Further, I do think that there are egregious cases (which those are will always be controversial) in which Church authorities do need to step in and state that a given work is in error on some important doctrinal issue.
However, bringing more oversight to bear does not always have the effect that those who advocate it desire. I remember a few years back when our diocese at that time announced that it would be conducting a review of religious education textbooks and approving three texts which all parishes would be expected to use in their religious education classes for children. At first there was some enthusiasm for this in conservative quarters, with people hoping this would mean that watered down texts would be banned. Instead, perhaps predictably, it was the texts from the three largest mainstream textbook publishers (the ones, perhaps coincidentally, with the resources to market most effectively to the diocesan education office) that were approved, and parishes that had been using books from Ignatius Press or the Baltimore Catechism were instructed to stop.
It strikes me that, in an imperfect world and particularly in a culture which is deeply divided over social and political issues, trying to exert strict control over what is published or broadcast under the name Catholic is probably going to result in more problems than benefits. Indeed, it may be that this is the case not only now, but at all times.
On the one hand, nearly every educated Catholic has at some point known the frustration of having a friend or family member come to one after having read some book which, “Told me all sorts of things I hadn’t known about the Church before,” only to find that this is because the book is simply wrong or deceptive at a number of levels. And yet, pushing for greater control will result sometimes in one interpretation or another quashing all dissent, and other times in a conflict averse middle quashing any interesting discussion by either side.
Mess and imperfect though such an approach may be, it seems like there is a great deal of practical benefit in simply allowing a very wide range of expression — curbed by the arguments of others, even at times those in authority, when writings go astray, but with the power to silence left nearly always unused. If the frustrations of those who disagree with one claiming to speak for the Church can be great at times, the frustrations of several factions within the Church being effectively gagged at any given time would, it seems to me, be greater. And very often it would be the vocal minorities most eager for greater “quality control” who would find themselves silence.