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Institutional failures of communication


Is it me or are all the recent corporate scandals starting to meld into one big current events cesspool? I can’t be the only one who sees an uncanny parallel between the Enron collapse and the Catholic church’s current scandal. Each one, an institutional failure of a mostly male-dominated, hierarchical, “don’t ask don’t tell” corporate culture. But maybe the problem is really a failure of communication: These institutional brands aren’t what they used to be. Let me try to sort this out.

Let’s see, there was Enron. Big Oil corporate culture is pretty stock in trade: Big Daddy execs making even bigger bucks than Nebuchadnezzar. Lavish travel and party perks for favored customers, corporate jets at hand to whisk executive families on fabulous vacations and so on. You know the score.

Now there is WorldCom -- Big Buzz has been busted, taking down 17,000 worker bees. How about Martha Stewart’s little insider trading etiquette problem. The only green Big Martha will talk publicly about right now is salad.

Of course there is the Catholic church. OK, Big Red is not a capitalist enterprise per se, though it retains some of the trappings of its institutional cousin: impressive real estate, a clear hierarchy of executive types who never have to carry their own briefcase, do their own laundry or clean their own bathroom, things like that.

Even communication in these kinds of institutions is corporatized. Well, we all know Martha takes the cake when it comes to glossy, on-task marketing with a mission. I haven’t seen a back copy, but I imagine that Enron and WorldCom had pretty slick newsletters, probably a cool online version, too.

The Catholic church, too, has its own network of homespun diocesan papers. They’re not usually all that glossy, though some have pretty nice graphic design and high quality reportorial style. I say reportorial style as opposed to reporting, because apparently the First Amendment doesn’t apply to diocesan papers, rendering them about as effective as corporate newsletters at revealing the truth.

That idea, by the way, isn’t really my own. The role of the diocesan newspaper in covering the whole truth of the church in the world today was discussed at a recent gathering of the Catholic Press Association. Staff writers for papers across the country attended, many venting their frustration at being expected to write from the party line and censored -- in several cases directly by their bishops -- from covering controversial topics such as women in the church, the ordination of married persons, and the entirety of the scope of the current sex abuse scandal. Freedom of inquiry and expression is not the highest value at these official mouthpieces of dioceses across our country. If that’s true, their writers -- many of whom have journalism backgrounds and a fierce commitment to the church -- function merely as cogs in the wheel of institutional marketing, expected to churn out no-brainer, feel-good articles about Catholic school kids who conduct fundraisers to buy books for kids in Africa or heartwarming stories about adoption that make everything come out rosy.

It’s not that these stories aren’t important; they are indeed a valuable part of the fabric of Catholicism today. It’s just that they’re about a yard or two short of the whole nine. I always thought Catholicism was about confronting the entire truth of living and sorting it out according to a certain set of values and beliefs. The more daring of these papers aren’t afraid to challenge readers’ comfort zones by including articles or editorials about how the principles of Catholic social teaching conflict with the prevalent secular values of capitalism, for example, or the validity of the just war theory. Why can’t most of these papers print equally true and equally challenging stories about women in ministry who reach the stained glass ceiling?

Furthermore, the church en-courages its members to listen to their vocational leanings, to use their God-given gifts and talents to be the best plumber, artist, doctor, parent -- or journalist -- that he or she can be. That means living up to the ethical and professional standards of one’s métier. A journalist who’s typing with one hand behind her back is severely limited in her capacity to write the best story she can. Catholic writers must be free to pursue the stories that are important to their readers and to the church. They are responsible for informing the Catholic public about issues that matter to the church -- especially at this time when the church seems to be so fragmented, and is showing signs of fragility as well. If there is a crack in the foundation, let’s address the problem head on and come up with solutions.

Somewhere in between, as always, the truth of the church exists. Our Catholic press should be the one to tell all the grisly and glorious truth. Hey, it might improve our brand image. And you never know, it might even increase circulation.

Kris Berggren writes from Minneapolis. She can be reached by e-mail at krisberggren@msn.com

National Catholic Reporter, August 2, 2002