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HomeArticleFrancis X. Maier: Catholic journalists called to report the truth with ‘a consuming passion for excellence’

Francis X. Maier: Catholic journalists called to report the truth with ‘a consuming passion for excellence’

Francis X. Maier: Catholic journalists called to report the truth with ‘a consuming passion for excellence’

Catholic journalists are called to report the truth with “a consuming passion for excellence,” veteran journalist and scholar Francis X. Maier says. / Shutterstock

By Francis X. Maier

Washington, D.C. Newsroom, Jan 12, 2022 / 15:08 pm (CNA).

Editor’s note: Francis X. Maier is the 2020-22 senior research associate at Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government, and a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The following is the text of a speech he delivered via videoconference to the staff of EWTN News on Jan. 12, 2022. A portion of this text appeared previously in The Catholic Thing and is used with permission.

Books have been written — some of them good — about our current shift from a print-based culture to more image-based media and their consequences. But until we’re all telepaths, and probably even then, we’ll still use words.

Language has power. Words matter. They can express beauty and truth. Or they can lie and mislead by disguising a person’s real agenda. This is why we’re uneasy when we hear words like equity, tolerance, diversity, and inclusion used so compulsively today. They often have a political subtext that’s not entirely innocent. And we can say the same about the word “insurrection.” Last year’s January 6 Capitol riot was stupid and ugly and destructive. But it was not — contrary to Speaker Pelosi — an “insurrection.” The Paris Commune of 1871 was an insurrection. The Capitol turmoil of 2021 was a riot.

So again, words matter. And I want to begin our discussion tonight with a few thoughts on two very similar words: loyalty and fidelity. In everyday speech we use these words interchangeably. And that makes sense, because their meanings are closely related. But they’re not quite the same. Their etymologies differ.

Loyalty has its origin, through Old French, in the Latin words lex and legalitas. In modern French, lex and legalitas become the word loi meaning law, which informs the French word for loyalty, loyauté. Fidelity has its roots in the Latin words fidere, meaning to trust, and fides, meaning faith. The goddess Fides was one of the earliest Roman divinities. She was the guardian of good faith, trust, and honesty — especially in marriage.

My point is simply this. Loyalty often suggests a relationship of contract. In a contract, we agree on a mutually useful arrangement. If you do this, I will do that, and we’ll both benefit. And as long as we both honor the agreed-upon terms, in the agreed ways, for the agreed amount of time, the contract endures. Fidelity is a different creature. Fidelity suggests a relationship of covenant. Contracts have sunset and escape clauses. Covenants don’t. Both words imply duty, but not quite the same kind.

I’m loyal to my country and my employer. They have a rightful claim on my time, attention, and service. But their claim is limited. It’s also subject to change. I’m faithful to my wife. Her claim on my life is permanent. It’s also a blank check. And so is my claim on her. This is why the word “fidelity” has a gravity — an intimate, flesh and blood resonance — that loyalty sometimes lacks. Fidelity demands everything from us: all we’ve got, and the very best we’ve got, all the time, despite whatever surprises or new conditions develop in the relationship.

Covenant is the nature of our relationship with God and his Church. It’s a relationship first of love, and only second as a matter of obligation. And therefore it calls us to the virtue we know as fidelity. Every Christian vocation involves the same substance of covenantal love, each in its own way. When the early Jesuits gave their lives to missionary service ad majorem Dei gloriam — “For the greater glory of God” — it was an expression of love, a free gift of themselves, the whole self, regardless of the cost.

That’s exactly the spirit each of us should bring to the vocation of journalism, and especially Catholic journalism — a love for truth, and a love for the Truth. Which means a zeal for communicating Jesus Christ and his Church to the world, and doing it with a consuming passion for excellence.

From time to time, a young person asks me whether and how to become a Catholic journalist. I always give the same answer: There’s good news and bad news. Being German-Irish and melancholic by nature, I give the bad news first:

1. The Catholic audience is shrinking. This impacts material resources.

2. Many of those folks who remain are aging out or not well formed in the sacramental imagination and intellectual substance of the Church.

3. Mainstream media are hostile; they not only change what we think but how we think.

4. Government is increasingly unfriendly.

5. Our economy and political system simultaneously encourage self-absorption and dependency; the ironic result is a widespread a sense of isolation and powerlessness.

6. Church leadership, with various exceptions, is weak. American Catholics have operated on the wrong premises for 50+ years: Assimilation has led to authentic Catholic life being digested by secular culture, and now to being eliminated from influence like waste in an organic system. We’re not simply post Protestant but post Calvinist. America has Calvinist roots, and as the Yale historian Carlos Eire argues in Reformations: Calvinism cauterized the supernatural imagination (eliminating purgatory, the communion of saints, sacraments, relics) and radically reoriented religion to the concerns and material results of this world. In so doing, it unwittingly set the stage — a kind of halfway house — for secularization and unbelief.

7. The result of all of the above is an atmosphere of conflict and decline resulting in acedia. Beauty, peace, hope, joy: These are often absent from the Church and her religious life — which can then make the God-question seem sclerotic and irrelevant.

Now here’s the good news:

1. Much of the bad news is actually good news in the same way that cold showers are unpleasant but effective medicine for drunks. The humbling of the American Catholic experience is good because its fruit has been inadequate. U.S. Catholic life has produced plenty of outstanding men, women, and achievements, including saints, but also — at least in the past seven decades — quite a few frauds, fellow travelers, and cowards.

2. As the business guru Peter Drucker liked to say: Every success bears the seeds of failure because it so easily engenders overconfidence. But the inverse is also true. Every failure bears the seeds of success if we learn the right lessons from failing. One lesson we might profitably consider is this: We need to love the best virtues of our country, but we don’t ultimately fit here. Our home and final fidelity lie elsewhere.

3. Our current circumstances are difficult, but they’re hardly a shock. They were predicted with astonishing accuracy by Joseph Ratzinger more than half a century ago. The Church of the foreseeable future will be smaller. But she will also be more vigorous, pure, and authentic, and ready to grow again when the delusions and false premises of our culture result in its failure. Faith has fertility, and therefore a future. Unbelief — or rather the self-deception of unbelief, which really means a belief in the wrong things, since we all believe in something — is a sterile womb and a dead future.

4. Conflict is not always bad; some of it is holy and good. It produces clarity; clarity reveals truth; and the truth makes us free. Not comfortable, but free. It forces us to choose where we place our loyalty and to face who and what we really are.

5. Scripture wasn’t kidding: Where evil abounds, grace and goodness abound more. Thousands of good people are doing extraordinary things that secular culture ignores. A core Catholic audience persists that’s thirsty for good writing, clear thinking, true information, and encouragement. Renewal begins there. It’s happened a hundred times before in the history of the Church. And it will happen again in God’s time. But he works through the courage and talent of people exactly like you and me.

As for the why and how of the Catholic journalist …

Regarding the why: All of us have a hunger to understand the meaning of our lives. The Catholic faith is true in its explanation of reality, and thus satisfying on a visceral level. American liberal culture is based on the fiction that we can create and recreate ourselves; that freedom demands the rejection of binding moral frameworks and obligating universal truths. But most people – for very good reasons — can’t handle the impossible task of creating and sustaining their own meaning. This creates anxiety. Which then requires anesthetics. Which then creates a culture of dependence and slavery. The Catholic faith is a message of liberation, hope and meaning; a realistic message because it accounts for human sin and provides a means of redemption and reconciliation. Communicating that message is holy and healing work.

Regarding the how: Christianity is relational. It has doctrines, structures, and approved practices. And these are important. But they’re also secondary because Christian faith is not an “ideology.” It’s a daily relationship with Jesus Christ, and most people meet Jesus Christ through his presence in the lives of other people. Some persons do think their way into the Church through intellectual conversion — e.g., Edith Stein, among others — but most people have an encounter with God through the example or witness of another person. And that experience of goodness or love changes the way they see the world.

This is why stories are often more powerful than arguments. People love stories; we learn as we’re informed or entertained. And this is the meat of good writing, both fiction and non-fiction. Good journalism is an exercise in non-fiction. It involves the full, fair, meticulous, and truthful transmission of facts, even when we don’t like those facts; even when the facts are ugly and humiliate us. But how we recognize those facts, understand them, and explain their meaning is shaped, in large part, by what we already believe.

St. Augustine’s great line — crede ut intelligas, “believe, so that you may understand”— applies to an atheist like Richard Dawkins just us much as to any pope. Mr. Dawkins is a believer, whether he admits it or not. His particular version of a church is the cult of scientism. And scientism is not science. Science is a set of tools and a method of acquiring certain kinds — not all kinds, but certain kinds — of knowledge. Scientism is something quite different. It’s a body of belief with imperial, and fundamentally dishonest, pretensions. Real science can’t disprove the existence of God any more than philosophy or theology can prove it.

My point is this: There are non-theists, and anti-theists, but there are no non-believers. Every journalist in a CNN, Fox, or Washington Post newsroom assumes certain premises about life that can’t finally be proven. We all do it; it’s a natural human behavior. This involves an act of faith, even if we choose to disguise it or call it something else. We then build a rational understanding of the world based on that foundation of belief. And that foundation then shapes how we think and act. If we’re journalists, it influences how we report and what we report. Some beliefs support an architecture of dignity, life, and hope. And others, no matter how appealing or progressive they might seem, ultimately don’t.

Christian belief is the foundation for a life that means something beyond the cramped little creature we call the self. This is why Catholic art, music, and literature have such enduring and formative power. It’s also why every Catholic journalist should have a strong grasp of Catholic history and literature. Things like Hubert Jedin’s brilliant history of the Council of Trent. Or Georges Bernanos’ great essay, “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Therese.” Or Graham Greene’s superb short story, “The Hint of An Explanation.” Or Tolkien’s wonderful little novella, “Leaf by Niggle.” None of these different texts counts as journalism. But they feed the Catholic memory and imagination. They nourish a spirit and a mental framework that help us make sense of the world in our own work of reporting and editing.

Read. Read. Read with a critical eye. But read everything — Catholic and not Catholic. Some of the deepest influences on my own adult thought haven’t been Christian or even religious, but I’ve read them through a Catholic lens learned from others and then refined on my own. Read for technique (Ernest Hemingway; Neil Postman; even gifted lunatics like Terry Southern). Read for content (Ratzinger, Wojtyla, Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Josef Pieper, Eric Voegelin, Leszek Kolakowski, Christopher Lasch, Roger Scruton, Pierre Manent, George Parkin Grant).

By the way, if you haven’t read Josef Pieper’s little book Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, do it now. Do it this week. It’s an essential text. He describes the political manipulation of words as “the degeneration of language into an instrument of rape.”

Compare journalistic styles and editing strengths: NY Times vs. LA Times vs. Wall Street Journal. Study what gets reported, and how. Study where it gets reported in the body of a publication or website, and with what kind of headline. And notice what gets omitted. An experienced editor can lie without ever speaking a word, just by deleting certain details in a story. A veteran reporter can tell the truth, the whole truth, just by including some relevant context.

Build your vocabulary but commit to simplicity. Be ruthless editing your own material. Burn George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” into your brain. And for sanity’s sake: Stay away from Twitter. At least until you learn how to think and express yourself like a human adult. Twitter fuels conflict. It breeds imprudence and stupid, venomous commentary. We’re already drowning in both.

Finally, and maybe most demandingly: Try to assume the best in others. Critique issues and behaviors, not persons. The spoken word can often be ignored or forgotten.

The written word is forever.

I’ll close with just a few personal thoughts.

For 32 years, starting when I was a young and very green editor, I had four small frames on my office wall. Each frame held a quotation; one from Solzhenitsyn, another from Léon Bloy, another from François Mauriac. I read them every morning when I arrived, during the day between tasks, and every night before leaving for home. They were the pillars that supported my day.

The fourth and final frame on my wall held some words from that great Chinese theologian whose regime has been so politely reconsidered in the last couple of years by the Holy See: Mao Zedong. Mao was a murderous thug, not a saint. Nobody’s perfect. But as a strategist, he had few peers. And for Christians with a very long tradition of spiritual warfare, his words deserve some thought: “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive factor; it is people, not things, that are decisive.”

On that at least, Mao was exactly right: People, not things, are decisive.

We influence the course of the world through our impact on other people. I edited the National Catholic Register for 15 years. I loved the job. It remains one of the great satisfactions of my life. And it was fantastic fun, because nothing in human experience — no issue in science, technology, education, politics, war and peace, religion, or the economy — is alien to the Catholic faith. The Church doesn’t have the answer to every problem. But she does have the wisdom, experience, and moral vocabulary to guide us in finding the answer that best serves both God and human dignity.

Whatever the Register accomplished, though — and I think we managed to do some wonderful things — flowed from the passion and excellence of its staff and contributors. The real joy of those Register years was the people I worked with — helping them grow, learning from them, watching them succeed, and building friendships that have lasted three and four decades.

When times are tough for the Church, as they are now, it’s easy to doubt the mission and effectiveness of Catholic journalism. But that’s a mistake. And C.S. Lewis tells us why. Lewis said that all nations and civilizations, no matter how great they are, sooner or later die. But the human soul — every human soul — is immortal, and therefore infinitely precious. When we help to save one soul, we help to save the world.

When I edited the Register, our weekly circulation averaged, in the early years, around 50,000. Maybe 25,000 people each week opened the paper. Maybe 10,000 browsed a few articles. Maybe 5,000 actually read and considered the content. Maybe as few as 500 had their mind enriched, or their heart touched, or their day redeemed in some serious way by what we published. But that’s 500 persons who would carry what they read into eternity with them. And that’s pretty good results for a week’s labor.

Never doubt the importance of your work. The vocation of a Catholic journalist is to tell the truth; to bring hope; and to sustain faith. The Church and her people — and through them, the world — urgently need all three.

So we arrive at two final thoughts.

The philosopher Leszek Kolakowski began his adult life as a Marxist intellectual in Communist Poland and ended as an admirer of John Paul II at the University of Chicago in the United States. He was never a Christian, but over time he became more and more sympathetic to the importance of religious faith. He once said that, “When a culture loses its sacred sense, it loses all sense” and thus it ends up, inevitably, in “disastrous despair.” He added that “[Today’s] utopian faith in man’s self-inventive capabilities, the utopian hope of unlimited perfection, may be the most efficient instrument of suicide human culture has ever invented.”

J.R.R. Tolkien would agree. We live in an age of men with mechanical minds and clockwork hearts; an age, in Tolkien’s view, “of improved means to deteriorated ends.”

“The Gospels,” wrote Tolkien, “contain a fairy story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy stories.” But this story, he said, this one unexpected, undeserved, spectacular story, is neither a fable nor a legend. It has flesh and blood, hunger and thirst, happiness, and suffering; it really happened; it entered the everyday, material world. “The Birth of Christ,” Tolkien wrote, “is the eucatastrophe” — the great and jubilant ending — “of Man’s history … This story begins and ends in joy. It has pre-eminently the ‘inner consistency of reality.’” This story, said Tolkien, “is supreme, and it is true.”

And that story, I’d suggest, is worth giving our talents, our passions, and our lives to — as believers, and as journalists.

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