The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Friends or Foes?

image 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)

6 thoughts on “The Media and the Catholic Church in Ireland: Friends or Foes?”

  1. mmmmmmmm………………below the media radar organizations such as ST Vincent De Paul do great work in the community but the routine nature of their practice is not a ‘sexy’ subject for the media so it goes unrecognised and unreported. I wish the outright active hostility of the media would be more balanced.


  2. The term ‘media’ covers a spectrum of activities and includes the actual reporting of facts and commentary on those facts. It is often left to the public to discern the difference between the two. Fox News often says this specifically, deflecting all criticism of their commentators like Glenn Beck by saying that he is commentary and opinion, not news coverage, and that distinction is self-evident to the viewer. But is it? There’s the rub.

    The same can apply to the Irish media. It encompasses news reporting and commentary on the reported news. So, for example, RTE reports on the Murphy and the Ryan Reports, and also facilitates panel discussions on them. The panel participants are often hostile to the Church because of the subject. RTE is then accused of anti-catholic bias simply for having them on.

    I think that’s an unfair criticism. For the record, the Church has only itself to blame for its loss of credibility and the disillusionment of so many.

    I don’t recognise an ‘outright active hostility’ in the media’s coverage of the Church. If they refused to have representatives of the Church on, then maybe. As that’s not the case, When those with weak arguments start to lose a debate, they shouldn’t complain that the moderator was biased.

  3. Rodney’s comment is absolutely correct. As a ” conservative ” Catholic I have no problem with the media exposing abuses by representatives of the Catholic Church ; on the contrary, I applaud it. But there is a difference between this & the media ( particularly tax payer funded organisation’s like the BBC & RTE ; it’s slightly different for independent media outlets ; they are entitled to have an agenda of sorts ) adopting a one-sided/campaigning mode in relation to issues. This is simply journalistically unprofessional, & an abuse of taxpayers funds. This was illustrated by RTE’S appallingly unprofessional coverage of Pope Benedicts visit to the UK. An open/objective/balanced media is essential to the health of any society. However large sections of the media in the western world have been infiltrated by agenda-driven, liberal/secular fundamentalists. By coincidence, the distinguished English journalist, Peter Sissons has recently published his autobiography, ” When One Door Closes “. Mr. Sissons paints a picture of unbelievable bias/prejudice ( primarily of an anti-Christian nature ) within BBC News/Current Affairs. One does’nt have to be a committed Christian to be deeply concerned by this. As for RTE panels ; in relation to the Catholic church, it’s invariably – two/three anti-Catholic’s ; one orthodox Catholic ; one less than balanced reporter !.

  4. As regards RTE, a recent example of anti-Catholicism inherent in their way of doing things – was in their coverage of the recent death of an Irish actor, and of all the plethora of roles and appearances that this man had made, RTE chose to show a short clip on the news of him playing the part of an ex-priest helping someone who had been abused. I just tried to find the reference online but couldn’t. It might have been in the ALIVE! newspaper.

    RTE is very anti-Catholic, and they take a good kick at the Church when ever they can, under the cover of the sex abuse scandal. Look at the wonderful support they have given to the ultra-dissenting ‘Association of Catholic Priests’, for instance.

    We should not be surprised that the media, for the most part, is against the Gospel. If one looks at the agenda of the secular media, and then at Gospel values, in most cases, they are diametrically opposed: life (Babies and family, old people) vs. death (abortion, contraception, euthanasia), chastity (holy purity) vs. sexual licentiousness (pornography, fornication), etc…

  5. Quite so Martin. To redress the balance somewhat, the editor of the Irish Daily Mail recently had an excellent piece defending the Catholic Church/Priesthood ( & this man coms from a Church of Ireland background ) : he also took the Fourth Estate ( his own profession ) to task, for being so gung-ho in seeing the faults of Catholics, but being extra sensitive themselves to any kind of criticism. The problem with RTE in particular, is that only the like-minded need apply. It’s a form of incestuous journalism. No dissenters need apply. I cant understand Glady’s comment re. the Church’s not engaging with poverty, violence & reconciliation. Where I come from the Church’s ( both RC & C of I, in my parish ) are actively involved in these fields. In addition, globally both RC, C of I & other Church’s are at the coalface of third world aid. You will find very few liberal/secular anti-Catholic journalists in the aids hospices of Africa ; you will find many religious !. It’s time now to stop using the abuse scandals to attack the Church on all fronts. It was scandalous, but genuine attempts have/are being made to redress the situtation. It’s become a cynical mantra to try to prevent the Church’s involvement in the public square. Lets exercise a degree of Christian charity in this case & move on.

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