Friday, 18 November 2011

The death of (legitimate) debate: what has happened to The Record?

One of the sadder features of modern Church life is the suppression of legitimate debate, while at the same time giving free reign to illegitimate dissent from Church teaching and decision-making.

And on this front, I've been debating for some time saying something about the demise of the online presence of The Record, Perth's diocesan newspaper. 

The Record

The Record had, once upon a time, a very vigorous online presence, updated weekly.

Through its medium we were able to access the excellent thoroughly orthodox, thoroughly practical advice of Father Flader for example, on questions like whether or not there are people in hell.   We were able to read the excellent columns of Anthony Barich on issues of Catholic interest from across Australia and beyond.

Alas no more.

Mr Barich apparently ceased working for The Record in May this year.

And the Record's online edition, after a few splutters, has not been updated since September.

What happened in May: a casualty of the Morris affair?

I have emailed both The Record and Mr Barich for an explanation, but received no response.

So one can only speculate.

But what happened back in May?  

Could this all be due to that editorial and reporting on the Morris dismissal?

Pretty sad that articles which actually defended the Pope's decision seem to have led to the effective demise of the Record online at least, and departure of some of its key reporters. 

Some liberals did argue at the time that it is inappropriate for anyone to deviate from the line agreed by the Bishops Conference.  That's nonsense of course - Bishops Conference statements have no magisterial force beyond what any individual bishop wishes to give them in their own diocese.  And anyway, a journalist's article, even an editorial in a diocesan newspaper is not the same thing as a Pastoral Statement by a bishop!

But even if it were the case, how then can liberals justify the fact that Toowoomba Diocese website continues to feature Bishop Morris' attack on the most recent statement of the Australian bishops on the subject?  Talk about a double standard.

Official websites, diocesan newspapers and opinion

It is true of course, that official websites of dioceses, their newspapers and such like outlets do need to take particular care in the line they tread.   Few of them do of course; most, including the Canberra-Goulburn Voice for example, regularly promote at best dodgy modernist theology. 

But there is no reason, it seems to me, why they shouldn't in principle at least, have some editorial independence from their bishops, provided they stay within the bounds of orthodoxy and propriety.  And it is hard to see how an article defending the Pope, no matter how robust, could be seen as crossing this line.

Our bishops should be defending those who speak out for the Church, not penalising and suppressing them, even if they don't happen to agree with what is written.

What ever the reasons for the Record's demise, it is very sad. 

Particularly sad that this should have occurred in the archdiocese of one of Australia's better - albeit soon to retire - bishops.

But perhaps that just illustrates the depths to which the Australian Church has fallen.

We need real debate

There has, over the last year, been a marked decline in the extent of debate within the Church - Sentire Cum Ecclesia blogger David for example, has said on his blog that he was avoiding comment on the Morris issue and other sensitive debates 'on instructions'.   But do priests and laymen working in the Church have no right to have opinions - and state them on a private blog?

The hard reality is that those who stand up for orthodoxy and orthopraxis; those who pursue their canonical rights as laypeople to enjoy the patrimony of the Church continue to be denounced as 'temple police' and 'Taliban catholics' and the like. 

While those who advocate heresy and dissent are constantly lauded on Cath News, Eureka Street, and other such quasi-official outlets.

Of course, there is nothing new in all of this - consider the case of Blessed John Newman, shortlived editor of The Rambler, which fell foul of the English bishops in the nineteenth century for the crime of standing up for the rights of the laity...

Now what was all that Vatican II nonsense about the role of the laity?!


Kelly said...

Although it's sad that Mr Barich left the staff of the Record, and that they've ceased to update the website, I don't think the link you made between the two was entirely fair: the Record actually had a few good journalists move on earlier this yeat (before September, at any rate.)
And although you've said that your link between the Morris affair and Mr Barich leaving, I'm not sure that it's a fair assuption to make.

That said, I don't any assumption is a fair one to make.

mormorador said...

A problem with commentary by priests and laymen making private blog commentary is that it isnt quite private. Priests have obedience to blishops and no-public-undermining to think about. Regarding lay people, the situation is a bit greyer, but the (Americanism) of per se value of expressing "private opinions" shouldnt stand without some critical reflection.

To use your example, Sentire cum ecclesia is publically (i.e. available to any person who goes to it), identified (not anonymous, and he clearly identifies his role in the Melboune Archdiocese, and his sponsored speaking engagements). This is a public declaration. David S. can have private opinions, but his public declaration of them (on blog) combined with his declaration about his position leads to real and legitimate issues about whether people will take "The Church" to be endorsing a particular analysis or point of view provided by David. And, yes, to preempt your intelligent response, a small number of lay Catholics can be that thick.

Now this authority-jump isnt a problem for someone like you, Kate, who can work out degrees of assent with sophistication, but it does muddy things and invite misinterpreters to think that his position in the diocese lends David's opinion some sort of offical weight. In the interests of keeping the status of statements of the church as clear as possible, and to keep its officers absolutely clear of imputed misconduct, there is a general culture of reluctance to make public statements about Church matters among diocesan officials, because, as much as some diocesan officials would like to express their own personal ("private") thoughts on a blog, the greater good of keeping the Church out of day-to-day slog in political/social/religious contexts, and allowing its voice to be presented by Bishops without the interference of 'but we know from their blogs on the side' is worth more than one person's comment on this controversy or that one.

If David's employee contract with his diocese is anything like mine with mine, it will have a paragraph somewhere about the value of political neutrality, thinking carefully about making public statements (in any media) on Church or political or social matters that might be confusable with an official position of the Church, and the need for prudence on the part of Church officials/diocesan workers. The responsibility is heavy given the embarrasingly deferential authority with which anyone in any semi-official capacity can be invested by ordinary (esp. semi-superstitious ethnic) Catholics.

In writing this, Im not intending to bag David's blog, or suggest he is crossing a line, but I want to say *there is a line*, and this is something David and folks in his position have to think about that non-official-position Lay people do not. There's the reality of the Church's official positions and then there's managing misperceptions of it, and not muddying the waters. It means that David's blog isnt entirely a private matter, and he has to be prudent for the common good.

I sometimes wish I could comment on material on blogs, but do not do so, because of the value of the Church "social contract" in operation - roughly: if I don't play partisan, and make comment on a given issue Im irritated about, the gentle cultural agreement holds, and the general good of an unmuddied Catholic voice across time is better served, so I dont. Its annoying but it comes with the job. (general culture is a stupid term for something a bit more subtle, but you know what I mean. It is a bit like old public service neutrality and anonymity but more subtle).

I recognise that anonymous comments are generally unwelcome, but in light of the nature of my comment and position, Id like you to consider an exception to any rule on this.

Kate said...

Mormorador - On anonymity, I have no probem with it per se, but I want to be able to distinguish between anon1 and anon2 in the interests of facilitating discussion, and some people weren't even prepared to identify themselves in some distinguishing way. As anyone can create as many online profiles as they like, I don't see that my current policy (of requiring an access id) prevents anonymity.

On the right to comment, I don't agree that it is an americanism - for one thing it is enshrined in canon law! I take your point about David's blog identifying himself as a diocesan official and promoting diocean things on it though, that does shift the ground for him somewhat.

But assume hypothetically that he (or a priest say) didn't do this, merely used his name and a disclaimer that these were his private opinions.

It would, I think, be inappropriate for him to comment critically on his own bishop's activities, or anything directly work related. But why shouldn't he comment on a situation in another diocese that has implications for us all?

The problem with leaving it all to the bishops it seems to me is firstly that this simply smacks of clericalism, as if anyone outside the hierarchy has no legitimate view to take on the Church's operations. And in many cases, a defense of the church will be much more credible coming from someone lower down the food chain!

Secondly, bishops can be (rightly or wrongly depending on the circumstances) reluctant to criticise their fellow bishops publicly - but that doesn't mean that some things don't need to be said publicly when they are being played out in the public arena. If the well-informed laity and priests don't speak up, the ground is left to the secularists and liberals to attack the Church where we would defend it.

Thirdly, if the more orthodox amongst us, whether priests or laypeople, don't speak up (in a measured and prudent way) because of concerns over offending the hierarchy, the ground is left to the dissenters of various ilks.

Consider, for example, the spectacle of Fr Bob Maguire's use of his blog to campaign to retain his position as parish priest, and Eureka Street's ongoing attacks on Church doctrine and decisions!

I'm not suggesting that because they do it we should to. But I am suggesting that there is a dire need for the considered use of blogs and other forms of social media to help explain, promote and where necessary challenge what is happening in the Church.

Tim Wallace, associate editor said...

The reasons for the exit of two staff members, followed by the hiatus in The Record's online presence, are somewhat mundane.

Anthony Barich accepted a better-paying job, since wages at the newspaper are well below industry standards and he has a young family to support. Fellow reporter Bridget Spinks accepted a position as Archbishop Hickey's media secretary.

The Record has an effective full-time staff of about 4.5 people - far fewer than comparable publications. In recent months, in order to better fulfill our mandate, we have been required to reallocate resources to achieve some longer-term strategic objectives: namely, improving the newspaper to better serve our core audience (those who buy it) and upgrading the website to best practice, so as to better cater to an online audience.

Some of those fruits, while not yet fully ripe, can now be viewed at

You can also join our facebook page ( and twitter page (

Many thanks for your interest. Hope this sets the record straight.