There are some promising signs that Cath News, Australia's online news headline service provided by Church Resources (a semi-official organisation supported by the Bishops' Conference), is being brought under some greater degree of control. But still quite a way to go...
The problem with Cath News....
Regular readers will be aware that one of my ongoing bugbears is that, rather than fulfilling its stated mission of 'proclaiming the Gospel and building community', it regularly promotes dissenting perspectives, both directly through its selection of news items and comments on posts, and indirectly in what it doesn't report.
When a Melbourne priest publicly dissented on women's ordination recently, for example, not only did it get two separate news items (both relatively sympathetic to the priest), but the priest himself and other dissenters (including religious holding key positions in some dioceses) were allowed to post in the combox to further advance their case and register support for it.
So I was pleased to read in The Age that another item (in a whingeing piece from its author), a link to a dissenting piece from the Swag, the Australian Council of Priests' disgracefully heretical rag, was quickly pulled on advice.
Cath News - with the notable exception of its blog - does seem to have made a bit more of an effort recently. Only one or two of its 'opinion' pieces (and I'm thinking here particularly of Paul Collins' last offering on which I blogged here) in December were outright heretical, a considerable improvement on past performance!
Still, it really isn't good enough for a quasi-official organ of the Church to be continuing to subvert Church teachings.
Debate vs 'bullying'
Now I'm not suggesting Cath News shouldn't report genuine news (even that unfavourable to the Church) or informed opinion.
We need to know what is being said in the secular media. There are legitimate areas for debate on Church matters, particularly when it comes to matters of pastoral prudence. There are areas of theology which are open to debate by those who actually understand the basics of the subject. And there is plenty of room for good apologetics to explain the Church's positions.
But the default claim of 'bullying' levelled by the dissenting (fortunately retired) priest in the Age today, and echoed whenever anyone stands up for truth and proper limits to discussion, simply doesn't stand up, and should be ignored.
The bottom line is that if you want to claim to be a Catholic - or a 'Cath News' service - you have to work within the Church's framework. Inventing your own and pining it to the metaphorical door of your Church internet site, is called protestantism.
Towards greater transparency
Catholic Resources, the organisation behind Cath News, has, in an admirable move to improve transparency, actually put out an Annual Report.
Now I don't want to be too critical, because it is a positive step, and first attempts are what they are! Still, while it's certainly interesting reading, on the whole it looks more like a glitzy PR exercize in self-justification than actual accountability.
After reading it I remain completely unclear on just how its Cath News component is funded for example - does the revenue from online ads cover the salaries of those involved?
And just what is the exact relationship of Church Resources to the Bishops' Conference? That there is one is made clear, but its nature and any financial contributions are completely unclear in references to Archbishop Hart's advisory position and Fr Lucas' (the ACBC Secretary) role as 'special counsel'.
I'd also like to see some accounting on substance - of how good a job they actually did in catching key and providing alerts to news stories for example.
Above all, I really do think Church Resources needs to lose the air of smug superiority exemplified by this paragraph from the report on Cath News:
"The CathNews website now exceeds 200,000 clicks a month; the Subscriber base, thanks to some strategies including a 'friend get friend' campaign reached 20,800 at the end of June, 2010. The Subscribers represent a wide range of people and interests within the Catholic community. Among them is the renowned soprano, Joan Garden, who responded to a CathNews survey this year. When asked how the service could be bettered, she asked : "Good Lord! How could CathNews be improved?' That endorsement reflects the views of many of the dedicated Subscriber base."
So what can be done?
Cath News is on break at the moment, so its a good time, perhaps, to put some suggestions for them to consider.
The first issue seems to be the composition of the Board of Church Resources (presumably appointed by the bishops?). There is a lot of financial expertise amongst its members, and some PR expertise - but, based on the biographies of members at least, no theologians. Surely at least one might be appropriate?
The second issue relates to the skills of the staff - do Ms Hogan and her colleagues actually have a sufficient grounding in theology and commitment to orthodoxy to really understand what is and isn't acceptable? On the evidence of the last year, I would suggest not. So hire someone qualified to help (I'm available!).
Thirdly, when there are news stories that need to be covered that dissent from doctrine, make an effort to include links to stories that put dissent into a proper catholic perspective. On the woman priest question, for example, Pope John Paul II's Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, or any number of blog presentations of the arguments.
Fourthly, another rethink of the comments posting policy is surely needed. In particular, if people want to simply dissent from Church teaching, as opposed to genuinely seek to understand or even to promote it, their posts should be rejected! There are plenty of other public and acatholic spaces for them to vent in.
I'd also like to see a serious rethink of the no anonymous posters policy. There was something splendidly ironic in Ms Hogan's last reflection on this subject in which she claimed that knowing someone's name is necessary in order to "reveal what their agendas might be", even while noting that the policy has seen one regular liberal and one conservative poster off the boards. Just what other agendas does Ms Hogan think might emerge other than those that they had presumably been consistently advocating? Conspiracy theories indeed! And if the issue is civility, why not simply reject any posts that make ad hominem attacks as opposed to addressing the issues?
Finally, while Cath News has made an effort to appear to be 'balanced' in some areas, there is a lot more that could be done in this direction, particularly in relation to opinion pieces and the Cath blog. Let me recommend some good aggregation sources for a more diverse range of opinion pieces on Church matters: