Some commentators on this blog have complained that media coverage of the Irish Catholic Church is unfair. For them, it is as if the media is on a witch-hunt, and will not rest until the church is entirely discredited.
I don’t subscribe to that view. I think that most of the negative media coverage of the Catholic Church in Ireland has been prompted by the church’s own bad behaviour.
If it is in their power to do so, I want journalists to expose criminality and abuse in the churches, or wherever else it may be found. Those who criticise the media’s coverage of the Irish Catholic Church most likely agree with me about this.
Where we probably disagree is that I don’t think that the amorphous ‘media’ has a wider, sinister agenda in regards to the church.
But I do think that there is a definite relationship between the decline in loyalty to the institutional Catholic Church in Ireland, and the media’s increased willingness to challenge and hold the Catholic Church to account.
This relationship has been examined in detail in an article by Susie Donnelly and Tom Inglis, ‘The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Reporting Clerical Child Sex Abuse,’ published last year in the Journal of Contemporary Religion (volume 25, issue 1, January 2010, pp. 1-19).
Donnelly and Inglis ask how media coverage may have effected the Catholic Church at the level of the institutional church, and the level of the religious practices of individual Catholics.
Institutionally, they describe how the Catholic Church once held such an esteemed position in Irish society, that it could censor media coverage and use the media to inculcate Catholic values in the wider population.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century, but particularly since the 1990s, the church’s monopoly over the media began to erode. Donnelly and Inglis describe it this way (p. 2):
‘Linked to and facilitated by the state’s secular liberal-individualist social policies, the media became increasingly bold to resist and challenge the Church. They began to make the Church accountable, forcing priests and bishops to move away from a rhetoric of Catholic devotion, conviction and obedience to more rational, reasonable, and ‘media-friendly’ presentations of its teachings and policies.’
Donnelly and Inglis pay particular attention to media coverage of the cases of Bishop Eamon Casey, Fr Michael Cleary, Fr Brendan Smyth, and the Ferns Report, noting the language used in the tabloid press, such as: ‘pervert priests,’ ‘guilty sinners’ and ‘evil’ (p. 9).
Then, using data from the European Values Surveys in 1981, 1990 and 1999, they compare trends in personal religiosity and trends in institutional religiosity in Ireland, Italy, Malta and Spain.
Personal religiosity (or ‘spirituality’) was calculated on the basis of answers to these questions: do you believe in God? Do you believe in life after death? Do you believe in heaven? Do you believe in hell? Do you believe in sin?
Institutional religiosity was calculated on the basis of answers to questions about church attendance and trust in the church.
Donnelly and Inglis found that personal religiosity in Ireland stayed relatively stable over the time period, but that institutional religiosity declined sharply. They write:
‘…regardless of spirituality, Irish people’s trust in the church declined significantly during the 1990s. This is the first time that we can observe a dimension of Irish religiosity dropping below the level of religiosity in Italy and Spain. In short, by 1999, Ireland had, on average, the lowest levels of trust in the church than any of the other Catholic European countries examined.’ (p. 12)
So although trust in institutional churches is declining all over Europe, it is declining most rapidly in Ireland. And all this data was gathered between 1981 and 1999, before the more recent Ferns, Ryan and Murphy Reports caused further damage to the church.
Donnelly and Inglis admit that it is impossible to prove a straightforward cause-and-effect relationship between media coverage of the clerical sex abuse scandals, and the decline in Catholics participating in the institutional church. But they do conclude that:
‘It was through the reporting of CCSA (clerical child sexual abuse) that the media, for the first time in its history in Ireland, broke through the embargo on criticism and negative reporting, which the Catholic Church had created and developed. This development in the way in which the Church was reported upon enabled the media to replace the Church as the conscience of Irish society.’ (p. 13)
As a Christian and a citizen, I’m not entirely comfortable with the media being considered the ‘conscience’ of the society in which I live, although I must say I wouldn’t be comfortable with our institutional churches serving as that ‘conscience’ either.
There’s great potential for the media to facilitate ethical debate in our society, and it’s unfortunate that many of our churches have effectively withdrawn from this debate, discredited by their own actions.
This discrediting isn’t just a result of the sexual abuse. It’s also a result of the churches’ lack of engagement around issues of violence, reconciliation and poverty on this island.
(Image sourced on flickr photosharing, by hrh9)