Sunday, January 16, 2005

Karl Keating: Crisis Magazine in Crisis?

In his January 5, 2005 edition of his email newsletter, Catholic Answers' apologist Karl Keating expressed his concern with "politics and the Catholic magazine"; more specifically, Crisis magazine, and what he perceives as a dangerous preoccupation with political matters.

According to Keating:

"Catholicism in Crisis" ran articles about Catholicism in crisis. The 1986 name change did not see a major change in focus. Two decades ago the magazine was mainly a vehicle for the critique of the wider, secular culture, secondarily an analyzer of the way that culture impacted the Church (for the worse, mostly). There were articles that were overtly political, but they were the exception.

About a decade ago the emphasis changed. The magazine moved from South Bend to Washington, and Deal Hudson became involved in Republican politics, which meant Crisis also became involved in Republican politics. . . .

While welcoming the general idea of a liason from Catholics to the Bush administration, Keating also wondered: "should the liaison be the head of a Catholic magazine that might need to editorialize against Administration policies?" As Keating expected, the move provoked accusations of partisanship and accusations that Crisis was merely "a Republican house organ" -- a charge that Crisis itself bolstered ("I can't recall anything in the magazine that criticized the Bush Administration but plenty that criticized its opponents").

The problem was compounded last year after the National Catholic Reporter ran an investigative report -- or what I thought to be a clear case of attack-dog journalism -- about Deal Hudson's involvement in a sexual affair as a professor at Fordham University. Although the incident occurred over a decade ago, the scandal it caused was enough to prompt Deal's resignation as liason to the White House and ultimately to relenquish his position at the magazine.

Keating goes on to voice his criticism of an article "Biting the Bullet: Military Conscription and the Price of Citizenship", by Francis X. Maier, former editor of the National Catholic Register. For Keating, Maier's assertion that "America was an empire in denial" was a poignant example of Crisis went wrong, and why he considers it now to be not so much a distinctly Catholic magazine as a kind of "National Review with a largely Catholic authorship":

What especially bothered me about the article is that there is nothing particularly Catholic in endorsing imperial designs, and there is nothing particularly Catholic in universal conscription. Granted, a Catholic can be for them and still be a Catholic in good standing--but a good Catholic also can be against them. My own position is against having America be an empire and against conscription. You may differ. Fine. Let's agree to disagree.

But why should a Catholic magazine come down so strongly in favor not just of the draft but of a wider, universal conscription to various forms of social service? Why should it go further and implicitly endorse imperial designs? And why should it neglect to run simultaneously an article opposing both positions? There is no Catholic dog in this fight. If the Church permits good Catholics to take one side or the other, isn't there an imprudence in pushing only one side?

. . . I wince when I see "Crisis" endorse a position where no position needed to be endorsed and where faithful, orthodox Catholics are free to disagree. I winced when the magazine moved to Washington and changed its focus from culture mixed with some politics to politics mixed with some culture. I think it was an imprudent geographic move that, as I feared, has resulted in too much trucking with the political establishment.

Keating's criticisms of Crisis is appropriate and necessary, and there is much in Crisis's choice of articles that merit his remarks. On Amy Welborn's Open Book, several commentators expressed their suprise that Keating neglected to mention the cover story for Crisis October 2004: "The Case for American Empire", a bombastic article by H.W. Crocker III with the opening assertion that "every Catholic should by rights be an imperialist." (Readers might recognize Crocker as the author of Triumph: The Power and Glory of the Catholic Church, which I read last year and gave a mixed review. I'm not really a fan of Crocker's writing and find it rather offputting. Fortunately, most contributions to Crisis are more substantial and consideraly less obnoxious).

While I like the idea of those in the White House reading Crisis alongside the National Review and The Weekly Standard, I share Keating's concern about the dangers raised by the chief liason between Catholics and the White House being at the same time the publisher of a prominent Catholic magazine. It's a very precarious position to be in -- especially if, like Hudson, you're involved in the "culture war" against sexual immorality with a skeleton in your closet.

Nevertheless, I'd dispute Keating's presentation of Crisis as a magazine overly preoccupied with politics. Despite it's occasionally questionable choice in articles, or one-sided presentation of positions which allow for a diversity of Catholic opinion (such as U.S. foreign policy), I find it to be overall a very well-rounded Catholic periodical with a broad selection of subjects and contributors -- politics and morality, yes, but a great deal more. Consider the chief stories over the past year alone:

Not to mention the film reviews by Terry Teachout, Robert R. Reilly's regular column on classical music (an education in itself), columns by Fr. James Schall, Fr. George W. Rutler, and now Thomas Howard (a great addition!), and the contributions on faith and public life by solid Catholic bishops (Archbishop John J. Myers and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput).

It is to be expected that Crisis will focus on subjects of a political and moral nature, especially at a time when the public's attention is focused on legislation concerning key moral issues such as abortion, stem-cell research, gay marriage, and euthanasia.

Despite Keating's valid concerns, however, it seems to me that Crisis has nevertheless held to a pretty balanced diet of subjects. In fact, as much as I enjoy reading National Review, Weekly Standard and Commentary, I've found Crisis' diversity a welcome respite from the political chatter. And under the helm of newly-established editor Brian Saint-Paul, I hope that it will stay its course.

A good compliment to First Things (still my favorite), and a necessary counter to the decidely more liberal views of Commonweal.

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