The American Catholic bishops are killing Catholic News Service, one of their most successful national programs. Founded in 1921, CNS is the AP for Catholic news, providing copies to Catholic publications across the country and around the world.
In a 2021 meeting with CNS reporters in Rome, Pope Francis told them that “over the past hundred years, Catholic News Service has made an invaluable contribution to the English-speaking world through its coverage of the mission of the Church to proclaim the Gospel and to witness to the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.”
CNS’s New York and DC offices will close by the end of the year. Its Rome office will continue, but who knows for how long. Stories from his Rome office will be made freely available to all U.S. dioceses.
Although part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, CNS is staffed by professional reporters who report the news using the highest journalistic standards. It’s old-fashioned journalism that gives the news without opinion. If you want to know what is happening in the Catholic Church, you read CNS.
Over the years, to keep up with church news, I have always read stories written by Jerry Filteau, John Thavis, and other outstanding CNS reporters. The stories of its reporters were supplemented by articles by journalists from diocesan newspapers deemed to be of national interest.
The volume of its coverage is impressive. In the third week of May this year, he published about 75 stories, as well as Spanish translations of some plays.
You can still find coverage of bishop appointments and deaths, meetings and statements of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and Church political activities on abortion, immigration, poverty, health care, racism and other public policies. It also covered the work of Catholic education, Catholic health care and Catholic charities. Catholic involvement in ecumenical and interreligious activities has also drawn attention, along with the words and actions of the Pope and the Vatican.
As a scholar, I have found his archives extremely useful in writing my books on the American bishops and the Vatican. In the pre-internet days, I spent countless hours going through records to familiarize myself with the history of the institutions and people I studied.
With much of his archive online today, researching a subject or person is much easier. When a reporter asks to interview me about a bishop or topic, I often go to the CNS online archives and do a word search. By the time I’m interviewed, I’ve become an instant expert capable of impressing any reporter on a subject I knew little about hours earlier.
When the CNS closes, I hope these archives will be open to the public. Today, it is only open to subscribers.
The CNS has always had its detractors among the bishops. Some did not understand that good journalism required reporting bad news as well as good news about the church. These bishops did not like the CNS’s coverage of the sexual abuse crisis or disagreements in the church. They didn’t want to cover up theologians or other people who disagreed with the bishops or the pope.
These bishops wanted a propaganda agency, not a media. They put the CNS on the defensive by complaining about specific journalists and reports. They have lobbied for budget cuts, which has led to major layoffs in the past. This year’s decision is quite simply the deathblow for an institution that has been slowly bleeding itself.
In the past, the CNS received a large part of its funding from diocesan newspapers subscribing to its service. When these newspapers closed, the CNS lost this source of revenue and became more dependent on the USCCB. Many bishops are reluctant to fund a national program as they suffer from sexual abuse payments, COVID-19 and reduced income. Even moderate bishops without diocesan papers did not want to give their limited money to the CNS.
On the other hand, many conservative bishops love Mother Angelica’s media empire, which now includes EWTN, the National Catholic Register (not to be confused with the National Catholic Reporter), and the Catholic News Agency, or CNA. When cable companies offered free time on an ecumenical channel to bishops, they turned it down because they feared it would compete with EWTN.
Many bishops love EWTN more than their own child, CNS, even though EWTN commentators freely criticize bishops who do not reflect their conservative views – and, of course, Francis is not above criticism.
Many liberals classify media giant EWTN in the Fox News category of Catholicism, and it certainly has a conservative bent.
In the past, Mother Angelica was uncritical in her coverage of the conservative views of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, but ignored these popes when pushing Catholic social teaching and social justice. Her comments often went beyond pious reflections to rants against what she disliked about liberals. Today, Raymond Arroyo, news director and anchor on EWTN, skips the piety and dives straight into Fox and Republican talking points on the culture wars.
CNA provides the most direct competition to CNS in news coverage. While diocesan newspapers and websites have to pay for CNS, CNA is free and has already replaced CNS in many Catholic publications and websites. When CNS dies, CNA will be the only Catholic news service available.
The quality of ANC varies. When he does direct news, it can be informative. I check CNA every day and find a story or two to read. When he posts comments, it’s one-sided conservatism.
Many Catholics don’t realize how much of their news about the church comes from the CNS. They don’t understand that much of the news they read at the National Catholic Reporter, Crux, America, their diocesan newspapers and other Catholic media comes from the CNS.
In the first three weeks of May, for example, the National Catholic Reporter published 44 articles on CNS, Crux published 33 articles and America published 17 articles. Additionally, CNS was the source of dozens of news photos used in Catholic publications.
While the bishops keep CNS reporters in Rome, that is not where the greatest need is. America, the National Catholic Reporter, Crux, La Croix International, The Tablet of London and other Catholic publications also have excellent reporters in Rome, as does Religion News Service. While I am glad the Rome bureau will continue, it is Catholic news coverage in the United States that will suffer the most from the CNS closure.
Catholic publications should hire additional journalists, which they cannot afford, to replace the articles they currently receive from the CNS. Could CNS subscribers pool their resources to hire two or three reporters to cover Catholic news? Are there any foundations and donors willing to fund this?
At RNS, we of course hope that the sad demise of CNS will encourage more Catholic publications to turn to RNS for their articles. Some Catholic publications, such as the National Catholic Reporter, Crux and America, already have subscriptions. But RNS covers news from all religious denominations and should considerably strengthen its Catholic coverage to replace CNS. Are there any foundations and donors willing to fund this?
The disappearance of the CNS illustrates the more general problem of the Catholic Church operating at the national level through the episcopal conferences. The church has strong structures that can work at the parish, diocesan and Vatican level, but the national entities are weak because each bishop wants a veto over anything he doesn’t like and the Vatican fears that national entities strong do not challenge its authority.
The rise of the EWTN empire is also a challenge for Catholic progressives. Why are they unable to manage and finance an equivalent media empire?
May God bless all CNS journalists who over the years have dedicated their lives to the church. They did a wonderful job of which they can be proud. It’s sad to see them go.