With Cardinal Wuerl visiting the Pope in Rome to discuss his possible resignation, I talked to religion reporter Jack Jenkins about what it’s like to cover the Catholic Church in a town where so many reporters are focused on a different font of power. Jenkins, who writes for the Religion News Service and used to cover politics and religion for Think Progress, has been reporting on the Archbishop of Washington’s role in the scandal currently consuming the Church, including last month’s bombshell grand jury report accusing Wuerl of mishandling sexual abuse cases when he served as bishop of Pittsburgh.
What makes DC the right place to cover Catholicism in the US?
We have Catholic University of America. We have Georgetown University. We have a lot of different kinds of Catholic expression here in the District of Columbia. You have Catholics on the Supreme Court. You have Catholics in the halls of power in Congress. It’s a step down from Rome for Catholicism, but if I’m covering American Catholicism, this really is where a lot of the voices get lifted up.
What’s it like to cover the Catholic hierarchy?
In many ways, the skills I learned interviewing political figures transfer, and, in many ways, the kind of political reporting we’re used to is unhelpful for covering the Catholic hierarchy. This is not an institution that’s been here for 200 years—it’s been around for centuries. It has all these different layers of complexity and tradition. How authority gets mitigated, and who answers to who, and, even if ecclesiologically someone might answer to someone else, where the power actually lies. There’s a lot of intrigue. It’s not like other traditions where there’s a structure that privileges the voting element of the laity—everyday church-goers, their opinions.
Most of the power is in the individual bishops and cardinals and priests, so that changes the way you cover a religion. What a bishop says matters quite a bit. I’m trying to flush that out in DC, where there are very influential bishops and archbishops.
What’s it like to try to get access to a cardinal?
It’s not necessarily any more or less difficult than trying to get ahold of certain politicians or organization heads. There are some people who are very responsive. I’ve interviewed Cardinal Cupich. But it’s not as easy as a small non-profit where I call and the president picks up the phone. You go through communication directors. Oftentimes you have to wait for the public statement, the same as everyone else. Veteran Catholic journalists might have existing relationships with a bishop or with an archbishop where they’ll be told things.
If you’re using American politics as your base, you need to rethink how you build sources in the Catholic Church. If you think that if you just talk to some high-level leader off-the-record long enough that you’ll suddenly get handed a story, the Church is more complicated than that. But that doesn’t mean that source-building isn’t important. It doesn’t mean that you don’t need people who are in the know to call to bounce story ideas off of, or to try to get a lay of the land for some sort of dioceses or leader that you’re not super familiar with.
That is key in this tradition. You have to have more of those “information sources,” people who can help explain things to you, because the church is so vast. It’s a billion people. Even if you think you finally have a handle on what it’s like in the Archdiocese of New York, you’re still going to need someone to help walk you through what’s happening in California and how that really connects to stuff that’s happening in India and how that might end up playing out in Chile.
Do you have any insight into how awkwardly the situation with Cardinal Wuerl has been handled? I’m thinking of the website going up defending him and then being taken down. You’ve said it’s a church with a billion members and hundreds of years of history, so it’s shocking the Church is still so bad at communications.
I will say this: I do not disagree with the statement that the Church can be awful at communications. I do not think that is unique to Catholicism. Many faith traditions fail at this on a regular basis. The awkwardness? It’s constant and profound. For abuse victims, it’s more than awkward. It’s agonizing.
But something I’ve learned—not just covering the Catholic Church, but covering faith groups and politics—is there are a lot of times where people really expect the news to break one way, in their favor, and that is not necessarily what happens. So you have a lot of conversations with frantic communication directors trying to figure out how to pivot from whatever story has come down on them. All of that is to say, I think the Catholic Church would be the first to admit that there are multiple moments in any given year in which they wish they could redo their communication strategy.
This week, Deacon James Garcia wrote a letter to Cardinal Wuerl calling on him to resign, which Garcia published online. What do you make of the fact that we’re seeing lower-ranking clergy speak out like this?
This is not something that normally happens. This is unusual and is shocking to many in the church. But this particular moment in Catholicism in the history of the United States is also very different. Before the Pennsylvania report came down and the grand jury report tracked decades of allegations of abuse by priests and allegations of a cover-up by church officials, you still had people wondering whether that was going to have an impact outside of the state of Pennsylvania.
Now we have at least seven different states launching some form of investigation or inquiry. I do think we’re in something of a sea change within the Church, where things you wouldn’t have expected [are happening]. The former Vatican Nuncio, the ambassador of the United States, Viganò wrote a letter recently alleging things about both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. We’re in a very different era, where things that would traditionally be thought of as beyond the pale within the Catholic Church are just kind of everyday news. In some ways, I suppose it mirrors American politics at that level right now.
That’s an interesting comparison, because DC is a town that understands big institutions more than most American cities. But when I think of the obvious parallel, a disgraced politician, the expectation would be for the leader to resign so that institution can quickly move past the scandal. Why that doesn’t happen within the Church?
I think you’ll get different assessments of that depending on which scholar or Catholic you’re talking to. I mean, part of it is, again, our political system is a representative democracy that turns over every two to four to eight years. The Catholic Church is not. It is around for significantly longer and retirements happen around 75 or 80. The climax of your career can be what would be the twilight of any career in politics. Popes can be and often are very old. The conventions you would use for American politics, while they can be informative for some parts of covering Catholicism, in my experience, will fall short for things like trying to do one-to-one structural comparisons.
It’s not as simple as, there’s a scandal, you have to preserve the church. I mean, we’re talking about an institution with a billion people. You don’t really have elections in the same way that we do in the US. So power is far more concentrated and far more lasting in the Catholic Church than it is in American politics.
How much of it is personal? There are, of course, examples of politicians who also refuse to step aside. If you truly believe in your holy orders, how could you step down?
I think when you concentrate power into individuals, then the personalities of those individuals are going to matter exponentially more than they do even in American politics. Because you’ve given a specific person this kind of power. That’s just the way that the church is structured itself. That means the way that they think, the way they handle themselves, the way they personally respond to a crisis will paint how the Catholic Church officially responds. That’s just not necessarily true, for other kinds of religious traditions or political institutions.
Are there things that the secular news is consistently getting wrong about what’s happening in the Church right now?
RNS covers religion as a secular institution. That having been said, secular news has gotten Catholicism and religion wrong for a long time. It’s our number one complaint. They’ll write a story about what the Pope says and not really understand what he’s saying. When you’re talking about the abuse scandal, I mean, yes, there’s an element in which it is a scandalous story. So your regular outlets will cover it voraciously because of that.
But it is also true that this is a major story that the Church has to continue to grapple and will continue to grapple with for a long time to come. I mean, is it true that the overwhelming majority of the allegations in the Pennsylvania grand jury report, is it true that most of those were way past the statute of limitations and not necessarily enforceable law? Yes. Does that mean the victims aren’t going to still call for accountability from the church? Of course they’re going to call for that.
It’s fair to say that the secular press gets a lot of things wrong covering religion. But I don’t think it’s fair to argue that this isn’t a story. This is absolutely a story and the Catholic Church is going to have to continue to face it for some time to come.
It’s important for all journalists to remember, the story of Catholicism isn’t just the powerful, it’s also the laity. For one of my first stories after the Pennsylvania story broke, I sought out people who were willing to express some sort of frustration or not with the Church. You had people who were like, “I’m not going to go anymore.” Then you had folks who still support their local parish. They called up their priests and said, “How do I give my parish money and not the hierarchy money?” They were trying to protect that local element. It’s been a while, but the last poll I saw in terms of favorability of Catholic leadership, nuns are always who people like the most. But behind nuns are their local parish priests.
I think that’s what makes this kind of story so complicated: A lot of these alleged abuses were perpetrated by local priests. That is really a hard thing for a lot of laity to grapple with, given that their local parish priests are the folks who give them pastoral care—the people who have helped bring them into different phases of their lives and have been there when tragedy has struck. Or just on a regular day when I needed someone to pray with.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.