Gregory Erlandson (second from left) of Our Sunday Visitor makes a point during an Oct. 16 forum of Catholic magazine and newspaper leaders on how to battle polarization in the church.


Gregory Erlandson (second from left) of Our Sunday Visitor makes a point during an Oct. 16 forum of Catholic magazine and newspaper leaders on how to battle polarization in the church.

November 3, 2014

Pope Francis' call to Christians to examine and reconsider the way they treat others brings challenges for Catholic publications in combatting polarization within the Church, said a panel of editors and publishers Oct. 16.

Although their publications represent a wide range of readers, the editors on the panel raised common problems in reporting on Pope Francis.

Too few Catholics are well enough versed in the Church's teachings to understand what he says in context, they said. As well, Americans tend to think of every issue as a win/lose proposition between two opposing sides.

The forum at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., was titled Seeking the Common Good in a Time of Polarization.

The editors of Commonweal, First Things and America magazines, and the presidents of the National Catholic Reporter (NCR) and Our Sunday Visitor (OSV) newspapers acknowledged that their publications represent a spectrum of what are perceived to be conservative and progressive approaches to Catholicism.

Caitlin Hendel, president and CEO of NCR, said she has found that "covering the Catholic Church is not that different from covering Congress . . . you're always trying to cover two sides . . . that are both trying to own the story."

That has happened with reporting on the Synod of Bishops, she said, with the two-week discussion on family life being covered as if it's a political debate.

At the synod, Hendel said, the debate became the story, yet the message Pope Francis has given over and over is that "we don't have time" to get caught up in debates.


"Francis doesn't believe in parties, he doesn't believe in the two sides," she said. "He has one message . . . mercy and service to the poor."

The publications represented have differing outlooks on the Church.

America magazine is not typically identified as falling on either extreme of a political spectrum. NCR was founded during the Second Vatican Council by journalists who wanted a stronger voice for laypeople supporting change in the Church.

Our Sunday Visitor traces its origins as a counter voice to a popular anti-Catholic publication early in the 20th century. Commonweal is a lay Catholic journal of opinion.

First Things was founded "to advance a religiously informed public philosophy for the ordering of society," as the event's program described it.

The panelists agreed that the pontificate of Pope Francis has been accepted by their readers in different ways – some with glee, some with nervousness and some with confusion.


All said that no matter how their readers react, they find that in covering Pope Francis they sometimes take criticism from their usual supporters.

R.R. Reno, editor of First Things, said he gets "pushback from some of my donors, who canceled, saying we're anti-capitalist."

The magazine was founded as the Soviet Union was crumbling but socialism still seemed a viable form of government, which alarmed its strongly capitalist founders. But the world is now different, Reno said.

"Global consensus is now in favour of what First Things was founded to argue for," he said. It seems foolish to think there isn't room for also focusing on the poor and marginalized as Pope Francis suggests.

The program's moderator, John Carr, steered the panelists to discuss what responsibility they have in fighting polarization.


Paul Baumann, editor of Commonweal, said his journal strives to give voice to a wide range of opinion, debating the pros and cons of same-sex marriage, for example.

"None of us has a corner on the truth," Baumann said. "If we're going to get to it we have to get there together."

Gregory Erlandson, president and publisher of OSV, focused on inadequate religious education as part of the problem. His publication was founded to educate Catholics about the Church, he explained and it still takes that need seriously.

"Catholic journals and periodicals are the only widespread form of faith formation in the country," Erlandson said.

Doing a better job of educating Catholics about their own Church's teachings can go a long way toward cutting down on polarization, he said.