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Catholic Media Watch

Too much of the view from Rome

by Michael Mullins

Around 250,000 Catholics worldwide get most of their news about the Church not from any local source, but directly from Rome, through the daily email from the Zenit news agency [www.zenit.org], which carries the banner description: the world seen from Rome.

This is significant both geographically and theologically.

There's no doubt that Zenit is conservative, and unrepresentative of the Church as a whole. Its founder and head is Spanish journalist Jesus Colina, who receives substantial support from the Legionaries of Christ religious order, which is hardly known in Australia but has a rapidly expanding profile in Rome and elsewhere. Their version of Catholicism is often characterised as militaristic. They're special favourites of Pope John Paul II, who assured them in 2001: Know that the Pope is close to you.

As a publication, Zenit gets top billing in the loyalty to the Magisterium ratings at www.catholicculture.org (formerly petersnet.net), excelling in all four Fidelity categories: orthodoxy, obedience, fortitude and prudence.

But Zenit's conservatism is not the point. After all, what would you expect from Rome? To give due credit, the descriptor "the world seen from Rome" functions as a disclaimer, pointedly suggesting that the world can and should also be seen from other places, including your local diocese.

This is about the tension between the authority of Rome and that of the local bishop, which is of course one of the most characteristic hallmarks of the Catholic Church.

It's clear that the balance has shifted towards Rome under Pope John Paul II. But what's not widely recognised is that the reason is not necessarily meglomania on the part of the cardinals in Rome. Even Cardinal Ratzinger admitted, in surprise remarks to journalists following the funeral of former Vienna Cardinal Franz König earlier this year, that there have been times when the Vatican has intervened too much in the affairs of a local church.

In reality the shift has more to do with globalisation and, in the case of communications, the advent of the Internet. As recently as a decade ago, technology required international content to be relayed through local media channels. But now we're just as likely to hear a message directly from its source, even if that's on the other side of the world. In other words, in the past we invariably learned about what the Pope said from our local Catholic newspapers, but now we often get it direct from Rome by reading our daily Zenit email.

Indeed some prefer Rome's version, and this undermines the authority of the local bishops. A recent testimonial from an Australian family thanks Zenit for its "great assistance to those of the catholic family distanced from the reality and truth of the Catholic faith". The writer goes on to complain that "the local 'catholic' media is selective and often biased in its reporting particularly about teaching from the Vatican". By catholic media, they mean papers like The Catholic Weekly and Kairos, which can be relied upon to reflect the views of their proprietors, Cardinal George Pell and Archbishop Denis Hart respectively.

The Chinese Government tackles problems caused by globalisation and the Internet by blocking websites. I'm not suggesting that Australian bishops should try the same - even if it were possible - in order to prevent more loss of their authority to Rome. But it might help.

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