A newspaper known for unflinching coverage of the Catholic church scandal was rebuked by a bishop in its own backyard after calling for his ouster in a battle that illustrates tensions between U.S. bishops and groups that call themselves Catholic but aren't sanctioned by the church.
The National Catholic Reporter, an independent Kansas City, Mo.-based weekly, called for Bishop Robert Finn's removal or resignation in September, after he was convicted of failing to report suspected child abuse.
Finn, leader of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, later wrote in an editorial in his own diocesan newspaper that parishioner anger is growing over the NCR's challenges to Catholic orthodoxy on topics ranging from the ordination of women to contraception.
In the last several years, church leaders have been trying to shore up the religious identity and mission of organizations that call themselves Catholic, including trying to bar groups from saying they have ties with the church if bishops believe the organizations stray from church teaching. Conflict over the issue intensified in the 2008 presidential election, when some Catholic advocacy groups backed Barack Obama despite his support for abortion rights.
Finn, who declined to be interviewed by The Associated Press, wrote in his editorial that a local bishop first asked the paper to remove Catholic from its name in 1968 — "to no avail."
"In light of the number of recent expressions of concern, I have a responsibility as the local bishop to instruct the Faithful about the problematic nature of this media source which bears the name 'Catholic,'" Finn wrote in The Catholic Key. "While I remain open to substantive and respectful discussion with the legitimate representatives of NCR, I find that my ability to influence the National Catholic Reporter toward fidelity to the Church seems limited to the supernatural level."
Thomas Groome, professor of religious education at Boston College, said he was surprised Finn was "picking such a public fight." Finn is the highest-ranking U.S. church official convicted of a crime related to the sex abuse scandal. The misdemeanor charge stemmed from the case of an area priest who pleaded guilty in August to producing child pornography. Finn and other church officials knew about photos on the priest's computer six months before they turned him in.
Groome said the Catholic Church benefits from publications such as the National Catholic Reporter.
"There are all kinds of ways the church's position has evolved, and if that's to happen you need publications like the NCR that raises critical issues, controversial issues, and I think it does that respectfully with a sense of faithfulness to the church's core teaching," he said.
NCR, founded in Kansas City in 1964, has been widely lauded for its coverage of the church and garnered widespread recognition for its reporting on child sex abuse in the 1980s. The newspaper, which has a circulation of about 35,000 and is available online, has won several awards from the Catholic Press Association, including for general excellence for 13 straight years. The CPA, while independent, works closely with church hierarchy, according to Timothy Walter, CPA's executive director.
"We don't present official teaching, and we don't pretend to," said the newspaper's editor, Dennis Coday. "What we do is report on what's happening in the church. And part of what's happening is dissent and questioning, and that's what we report about. And that's why we remain Catholic and continue to call ourselves Catholic."
Coday said the question for the paper is: "Are we upholding the deepest values set out in the Gospel, the message Jesus preached?"
Finn is not alone in complaining about NCR, which has also called for the church to reverse its teaching on women's ordination and supported re-examining the church's approaches to contraception and sexuality.
Canon lawyer Edward Peters, the Vatican's expert witness in U.S. sex abuse lawsuits and an adviser to the Vatican's highest court, said in a recent blog post that Finn was "too kind" in his remarks about NCR and noted that other groups have stopped using "Catholic" in their names.
Peters said the newspaper has carried on "a steady tirade against ecclesiastical authority in general, and against numerous Church teachings in particular, for several decades."
"But the last few years have seen a shrillness that should discomfort even its dwindling number of friends," Peters wrote.
The tension between NCR and Finn likely won't resolve easily because it's tied to an ongoing battle over authority in the church, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University.
"The vision of the Vatican and the hierarchy is that the Catholic media should support and ... promote the positions taken by the hierarchy," said Reese, who was removed from his position as editor of the Jesuit magazine America in 2005 after it published stories on topics including gay marriage.
"But you know," Reese said, "many people in the Catholic media think that they should also criticize those positions or be a forum where there can be discussion and argument and dialogue on issues facing the church."