The Prairie Messenger was a regular presence in our home from the time I was a child, so when longtime family friend and editor Andrew Britz, OSB, came to my door 23 years ago asking me to become part of the staff at the paper, it felt both strange and somehow right.
The monks of St. Peter’s Abbey have been publishing a paper since 1904, but the Prairie Messenger in its present form has been around since 1923. In 94 years much has changed. And in some respects, not so much.
A few weeks ago I happened to be doing some research in papers from 1967, and discovered Letters to the Editor pages in which lively debates took up much space from week to week. The letters were in response to challenging articles and commentaries.
Our editorial policy states, “In order to reflect truly the total mystery of the church, the Prairie Messenger offers opportunity for dialogue and discussion, knowing that the Word of God can be expressed only in limited human words, which means that disagreement, dissent and diversity will accompany all human efforts to reflect the unity, the faith and the charity the Spirit offers to the people the Father calls.”
The Prairie Messenger’s reputation for opening up tough issues for discussion was evident 50 years ago (and indeed from its beginnings). This was the year before Paul VI’s controversial encyclical, Humanae Vitae, and I found it refreshing to read the discourse on birth control. Theologian Rev. Bernard Haering, CSsR, was quoted as saying, “In marriage today it is nonsense in an era of new scientific insights to insist that each conjugal act is a procreative act.” The Dutch Catechism stated that “Human procreation is not a family’s inexorable fate . . . There are — as anyone knows nowadays — several methods to achieve birth control. All methods converge in making the love relationship between man and woman possible without chance of conception.”
One year later when the encyclical came down, an overwhelming percentage of the laity rejected the decision and opted to go with conscience and lived experience instead (now said to be over 90 per cent). Even so, the issue still causes controversy.
Several years ago we got into trouble because of three articles we’d published. There had been complaints. It was disappointing, but not surprising, that in 50 years “the big three” of sex could still cause indignation: birth control, feminism, and now the treatment of gays in the church. In one case a piece deemed too feminist could have been acceptable, we were informed, had I more judiciously edited a couple of sentences. In another, a headline on the church’s treatment of gays was judged to be inflammatory. And a critical look at Humanae Vitae was not welcome, especially when it was suggested in the article that condoms can help protect against disease and women suffer when they lack access to contraception. The article didn’t comment on the fact that where family planning and contraception are available, the abortion rate goes down (Canada has one of the lower rates of abortion in the western world, and the rate has been falling steadily for the past 15 years). But you’re not supposed to say that, either. What has happened to thoughtful discourse on these vitally important issues? It appears, given the articles I discovered in this paper, that discussion was more open 50 years ago.
I wonder how many complaints constitute trouble. My guess is, not many, but the voices demanding conformity are loud. It was only one year ago that the esteemed former editor of Catholic News Service in the U.S., Tony Spence, a man who was in 2010 the recipient of the highest honour in Catholic communications, the Frances de Sales award, was forced out because of a tweet: “LGBT protections get flushed as NC governor signs bill over #bathroomwars.” A statement of support for protective measures of a marginalized group of people is not against church doctrine, yet it was deemed to be over the line. “The far right blogosphere and their troops started coming after me again and it was too much for the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops),” Spence told the National Catholic Reporter.
In summer 1967, after a few weeks of heated debate on the letters page over a controversial commentary, editor James Gray, OSB, included the following boxed comment: “A columnist’s strong personal views may clash with the views of the reader. No problem there — argue it out in the letters column, or in an equally effective essay.”
In 1989 Andrew Britz, OSB, wrote in an editorial, “Whether we like it or not, there is a great variety of opinions in the church at large. A Catholic paper must reflect this reality to its subscribers — it is the only reality there is.”
We’ve been accused of going against church doctrine, and of course we’ve made mistakes — no human institution is free of that. But Andrew Britz also made the case in 1997 that “Rome is not the whole story. We must, for instance, give solid theological weight to the church’s (lay and clerical) non-reception of many aspects of the natural law arguments against artificial contraception, to the faithful’s voting with their feet regarding the way the sacrament of reconciliation is practiced . . . and, though the jury is certainly still out, to the church’s reception of the current teaching of women and the priesthood. There is no way around the struggle. A new sensus fidelium is certainly coming to birth, not despite the struggle but precisely because of it and through it. . . . The first and last job of the bishop is to give focus to this sensus and make it at one and the same time the power of the church in the world . . .”
A church that ignores the wisdom of the faithful laity — wisdom gleaned through living in the messiness of the real world — does so at its peril. James Gray, OSB, wrote in November 1967: “Is it healthier, better for the growth of faith, that religion and religious rights and practices be forever rigid? taken for granted? never subject to growth? incapable of reflecting the culture and needs of local circumstances which themselves are changing? . . . Has unnecessary centralization of authority in ‘Roman congregations’ . . . not brought about the very complacency, the lack of vitality, that makes Christianity so superfluous and irrelevant to people living in an age that must constantly be adapting and adjusting to meet new challenges?”
Those engaged in the dialogue and discussion of 50 years ago could not have imagined the toxic environment in which debate takes place today. The advent of social media has entrenched battle lines and extreme positions are taken. The anonymity of the Internet emboldens some to resort to obscene personal attacks, and the Prairie Messenger has been on the receiving end of such attacks. Finding common ground is seen as an inconceivable compromise.
Especially in this current climate, it is vital that the Catholic press persist in its role to challenge people to think — not to tell people what to think. Dogmatic conformism, not thoughtful discussion, would be the role of the polarized blogosphere.
If any would doubt that circumstances in the church are changing, they need only absorb the words of Pope Francis from his 2013 apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel): “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security. I do not want a church concerned with being at the centre and then ends by being caught up in a web of obsessions and procedures. . . . More than by fear of going astray, my hope is that we will be moved by the fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).”
As difficult as it has been, I am proud these 23 years to have been part of the Prairie Messenger’s tradition of struggling with complex questions rather than hiding behind the illusion of simple answers. To do the latter is a disservice to the People of God.
In 1968 the monks of St. Peter’s seriously considered closing the Prairie Messenger. The financial burden had become overwhelming. Some things don’t change. This time there will be no reconsidering a difficult decision: in May 2018, with a completed Volume 95, the Prairie Messenger will close.
To me the coming year will not be a wake to mourn what is lost. We will not only honour the paper’s storied past, but will continue the faith-filled tradition of a call to renewal. It is an opportunity to celebrate the Good News, and to thank the monks of St. Peter’s Abbey for the gift of their courage and vision — a gift that has inflamed hearts with the Spirit that continues to blow across this beloved prairie.