Reporting on the Catholic Church

The complainant, Eduardo Fonseca, felt that CBC’s coverage of the Catholic Church focused far too much on the negatives and ignored all its good works during the recent resignation of Pope Benedict and the election of his successor. He thought the attention on the challenges was a deliberate choice to reinforce a secular and critical view of the church and its teachings. The review explores whether the choice of coverage was valid, and what constitutes balance and fairness.


From the time Pope Benedict XVI resigned at the end of February 2013 to the election of Pope Francis on March 13, CBC provided extensive coverage of the events at the Vatican as well as many of the issues and challenges facing the Church. The National featured a lot of the reports and Peter Mansbridge, anchor of the program and CBC’s chief correspondent, provided much of the coverage from Rome.

You felt that the coverage was unrelentingly negative. You characterized the work as “the constant attack of Peter Mansbridge on the Catholic Church.” You acknowledged the Church did face some serious issues, but there needed to be some balance. Without it, the coverage “has an intention to create hatred towards the Church”:

“It is known that the Church has problems, which need to be addressed, but it is also the largest charity organization in the world attending billions of people in the world through their orphanages, hospitals, geriatric care centres and many others. However, all he says is mentioning that the Church is all scandals and problems, without even spending one minute telling the public of all the good that the church does, as (if) it was nonexistent.”

You thought that the media, and CBC in particular, focused on the fact that there were people within the Church who “were caught in sin and in crime” and who tainted the Church, to justify “their position against the teachings.” “However, that does not give the media the right (to) use this as ‘the image’ of the Church.”

You also felt that because Mr. Mansbridge kept asking questions about the need for change on Church teachings on issues like contraception and abortion, there was an implicit message that current Church positions are wrong and change is necessary:

“The Church will and cannot change its opinion and standings, otherwise there will be no Church. Every time he was asking a question the tone was that the Church should change to accommodate the desires of the society and not the other way around, creating a sense on (or instigating) the public to believe that the Church views and teachings are wrong.”


The Executive Producer of The National, Mark Harrison, described the scope and scale of The National’s coverage and said that it covered many aspects of Benedict XVI’s papacy and that not all of it was negative:

“From the shocking news of Pope Benedict’s resignation early that February 11 morning to well after the puff of smoke signaling the election of Pope Francis almost a month later, CBC News on radio and television programs and online carried a stream of reports, stories, interviews, retrospectives and analyses. In addition to our correspondents’ reports from Rome, London, Ottawa, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Dublin, La Motte and Toronto, CBC News brought Canadians the views of scores of people, including many Church officials from here and around the world.

We looked back at Pope Benedict’s outstanding career, his intellectual brilliance, his doctrinal discipline that brought the church back toward orthodoxy, and his sure-footed defence of the Church’s traditional teachings on social issues”.

He further suggested that there are some challenging issues facing the Church: there were a number of scandals during the eight years of Benedict’s papacy, church attendance is down in Europe and North America and there is concern that some of the Church’s teachings are out of sync with contemporary life. He said that “Any fair assessment of the Church today would include some mention of these salient issues, too,” and that is why it featured prominently in The National’s coverage.

He pointed out that it is the news media’s job to cover these issues, but that doesn’t mean the news media is biased or unfair or has one particular point of view on the issues:

“But it is important to distinguish here between news and how the media covers the news. The widespread sexual abuse scandal, the cover-ups, and high level corruption in the Church are all newsworthy because they are of interest to Canadians. They are also stories that reflect negatively on the Church and Church officials. But while they may be seen as being critical of the Church – an “attack”, to use your word – they are not an attack by the news media. The message may be seen as critical, the messenger should not be. Indeed, viewers have every reason to expect reports of those issues to be fair, accurate and balanced. And I believe they were.”


The election of a new pope usually attracts a great deal of media attention. The conclave of March 2013 provided even more drama than usual because it was the result of a resignation, not the death of a pope. CBC, along with many media organizations, devoted a lot of attention to the resignation of Benedict XVI and the reasons behind it, and continued to focus on the story right up to the election of Francis.

The elements that generally exist in news stories are its novelty, its impact, its timeliness, its prominence and the degree of conflict. The role of journalists is to verify the facts, provide perspectives and to reflect the views of a variety of people who are either actors in the event or those who might experience the impact of it. The drama surrounding the election of a pope and the issues facing the modern church make it a compelling story with many of the elements that define news.

CBC News chose to provide context to the story by focusing on many of the issues challenging the Church, and the Vatican as the institution that governs it. In January 2012, there had been a scandal when leaked documents purported to expose corruption and power struggles in the Vatican. The Pope commissioned an inquiry led by Cardinal Julian Herranz. There was speculation that the conclusions of that inquiry, which are still secret, contributed to Benedict’s decision to resign.

There were stories, including in some fairly conservative Italian publications, that there were problems of corruption and governance in the administration of the Vatican. And then days before the Cardinals were to convene to choose a new pope, British Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned in the face of accusations he had sexually harassed seminarians in the 1980s. He denied the allegations and they are unproven, but he resigned because he thought his presence at the conclave would be too much of a distraction. The issue of sexual abuse and the Church’s handling of it continues to be a contentious issue. It is against this backdrop CBC framed its coverage. The pope is the spiritual leader of the church, but he is also the leader of a vast organization centred in the Vatican.

There were two main themes to The National’s coverage, aside from the obvious horse race coverage of who will be pope. The themes were around the governance and openness of the Vatican, and the challenge of the Church’s relevance in a modern world. It is a fact that attendance in North America and Europe is declining, and that in Brazil, one of the largest Catholic nations in the world, the number of Catholics is declining and the number of evangelical Christians is increasing. It is a fact too that in the less developed countries of the world, the church is growing. These facts were repeated many times and in many ways throughout the coverage.

If this is the frame CBC News used for its coverage, it still had an obligation to provide balanced and fair coverage from a variety of points of view. CBC Journalistic policy on balance states:

We contribute to informed debate on issues that matter to Canadians by reflecting a diversity of opinion. Our content on all platforms presents a wide range of subject matter and views.

On issues of controversy, we ensure that divergent views are reflected respectfully, taking into account their relevance to the debate and how widely held these views are. We also ensure that they are represented over a reasonable period of time.

There are two issues to consider: were the themes The National focused on an accurate reflection of the issues facing the Church, or did the reporters and editors impose their view of things. After the new pope was elected Father Thomas Rosica, a founder of Salt and Light Catholic Media Organization, told Peter Mansbridge: “And I wonder in choosing him (Benedict), are the cardinals not telling us there are some main issues that surfaced at the congregation meetings that need to be addressed: governance, administration, disconnect, how to connect the local churches back again with Rome? So I think…he’s going to bring us competence and expertise in how to address certain situations and he will build on what Benedict did in bringing us to Jesus.”

The programming presented a range of Catholic voices, from lapsed Catholics to abuse survivors to prominent clergy. As you yourself note, the issues raised are valid ones. To achieve balance and fairness, it required different perspectives on how those issues might be solved, or how relevant they are, not necessarily by featuring stories about the good the church does. There were Catholics interviewed who felt church teachings had to adapt, and others who, like you, believe that those teachings are immutable. In continuing to explore those issues from different perspectives, The National was not implying they must change but reflected the views of many North American Catholics that they should.

With access to a range of Catholic theologians and officials, it made sense to revisit this range of concerns and issues. Mr. Mansbridge presented a three part interview with Cardinal Marc Ouellet, considered a contender going into the conclave, to explore his views of the challenges facing the church and the direction he might see it going to address those challenges. It was a unique opportunity to hear from a senior church official and one who might have led it. It is reasonable that Mr. Mansbridge would ask the hard questions, and that he would seek clarification of the Cardinal’s position. He asked, “Does the Church have to change?” I did not think he was saying it must. He was asking in a direct way what Cardinal Ouellet thought of that position. I heard it as an exploration of what the Church might do given this difficult reality. The interview was respectful. Cardinal Ouellet was able to articulate his positions and to provide some perspective on what he sees as the issues; he told Mr. Mansbridge that the social issues he raised are secondary to some of the fundamental issues of faith, providing an alternate perspective to those who advocate greater change:

Would you agree? I mean, is there a need for something like that, you know, a Vatican Three, something where the cardinals gather together and talk about a new era for this Church?

Yeah. I think that at this time we need to listen carefully to each other. You know, the cardinals in these next 15 days, and together I think that we will see better what is the future of the Church and who can be the leader for this. When I was telling you about the focus on God and the relationship to God and so to Jesus Christ, so I am talking of new evangelization, of convening, you know, human beings to… not to live as if God did not exist. You know, this is a great drama of our times, you know, to live without God. And so this is the awareness of the Church and we have to respond to the need of people and they need the Creator, they need this relationship. It is vital, you know, for family life, for social life, for fraternity, for peace.

Well, I guess what I was getting at—and I think you've answered it for me, but let me just try it from a different tack. One of the things that was happening in those early '60s, there was dramatic change going on within the world and especially in the West. Now today you have, you know, kind of drifting apart of Church teachings and social reality on a number of fronts.


Now the issue is: Do these need to come back closer together and how do you get them closer together? Does the Church have to change?


Or do you have to bring people back to basics? And it seems to me what you're suggesting is the latter.

Uh-huh. Yes.

No movement on some of the big social issues of our time, whether it's the role of women in Church, gay marriage, abortion, celibacy of priests?

I think…

No change there?

Yeah. Obviously these questions are… have their importance, but it is secondary, you know, and it has been always secondary but it is always brought to the focus, you know, by… I would say by the atmosphere, by the society, and it has to be taken into account. I think on women there is much more to do.

The two month intense coverage had a limited focus. And while coverage leading up to the conclave featured various aspects of church life, the focus did shift with the election of Cardinal Bergoglio as the new pope. There was considerable attention paid to his work with the poor. Adrienne Arsenault’s segments from Buenos Aires reflected the preoccupation with addressing poverty and helping the most vulnerable members of society. The very choice of the name Francis led to references to the work of St. Francis of Assisi, and by extension the church, to the good works it does.

I note that over the years, where appropriate and in covering a range of social issues, Catholic institutions and clergy have been shown working with poor and disadvantaged people. Over this past Easter, The National featured a segment about a London, Ontario priest whose work it was to reach out to young men to consider a vocation for the priesthood. These are other dimensions of church activity. You are right that more often the focus is on conflict and potential wrong doing, but that is the nature of news.

I can understand that by sheer repetition and the fact that the coverage kept coming back to these core issues, you would feel that this was negative coverage of the Church. The issues raised were all in the public interest. There were a variety of perspectives and points of view reflected in the exploration of the issue, and consequently there was no violation of CBC policy.

Esther Enkin
CBC Ombudsman