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The Vocation of a Catholic Journalist: An Interview with Philip F. Lawler

Valerie Schmalz

June 7, 2005

Philip F. Lawler is Editor of
Catholic World News and Catholic World Report.

Born and raised in the Boston area, he attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism.

Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees, and a candidate for the U.S. Senate.

As a journalist, Lawler has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. Since 1993, Phil Lawler has been the editor of
Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over one hundred newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.’s Valerie Schmalz recently spoke with Lawler about his work as a journalist and editor and the unique challenges faced by Catholic journalists.

Schmalz: What do you feel is your vocation as a journalist and an editor of a Catholic publication and a Catholic news website?

Simply to be honest. 

I firmly believe that the truth, when it is fully known, will prove the wisdom of Catholicism. So I do my best to cover news accurately, without worrying about the "spin." 

Actually, the first obligation of any journalist is to be read. If no one reads your stories, it doesn't matter what they say. So it's very important to put the news in a lively, appealing form, so that people will find it attractive. 

Schmalz: Catholic World Report (CWR) and Catholic World News (CWN) have both made names for themselves as being willing to criticize the Church for its policies and to criticize the actions of certain Church figures. Many Catholic publications are unwilling to do that because they feel it undermines the Church. You have a different perspective. Can you explain that?

Again, I'm confident in the truth. As St. Augustine said, "God does not need my lie." The Church is in the business of proclaiming the truth, and if we're not truthful in the way we convey in-house news, then how can people be confident in the way we preach the Gospel? 

And what is it that is being undermined when we expose some unfortunate truths about the state of Catholicism? Is it the Church, the Body of Christ? Or is it the corruption that tarnishes the Church? It is my love for the Church that compels me to speak out when I think someone is harming the faith. 

Schmalz: The tendency of our country and our world to move away from the values embraced by the Catholic Church is a troubling one. How do you see the role of your publications in bringing people back to the Church? Do you see CWR and CWN as having a role in Pope John Paul II's "new evangelization"?

CWR and CWN engage in a form of secondary evangelization. We're not often proclaiming the Gospel directly; we're certainly not preaching. But we are carrying news about the people who are preaching, and whose voices are often not heard elsewhere in the media. I hope that we accomplish something by our editorials, in which we are forthrightly trying to persuade readers. But in the long run it might be much more important that we offer a forum in which ideas can be presented, which would not otherwise be given that sort of exposure. 

(By the way, I never use the word "values" to express beliefs or principles. "Values" are relative; solid principles are not.)

Schmalz: What is the background you bring to your vocation as a Catholic journalist?

I didn't set out to be a Catholic journalist. My education was in political theory, and my first jobs were in public policy, as a conservative activist in Washington. In the early 1980s, when I began writing newspaper columns, my favorite topic was supply-side economics. But I also wrote a bit for Catholic publications, and editors kept asking me to write again. I suppose, as an aspiring economist, I could say that I obeyed the voice of the marketplace; I wrote for the publications that wanted my stories. 

Another factor that took my career in an unexpected direction was the debate in 1983 about the "peace pastoral" – the U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on nuclear weapons. That just happened to be a topic on which I was reasonably well informed, and when I joined in the debate I realized that there were very few people taking the same position. There was a huge vacuum: very few people were defending conservative principles in the Catholic press and in other Catholic circles. I began receiving quite a few invitations to speak to various groups, and when I did the reaction was tremendously supportive; people would thank me for being involved, say that I was expressing their views, and – most important – tell me that they hadn't heard anyone else say the same things in public. 

Schmalz: What are the core points or values for a Catholic journalist to keep in mind, whether he or she is in secular or religious media?

The most important point is honesty. Accurate reporting is far more valuable than opinion, and it's even more persuasive, because if you can explain the facts in a logical fashion, you're already more than halfway toward influencing the reader's opinions. Good reporting is also hard work; it can be tedious and frustrating. It's very easy, if you're not dedicated to your work, to slack off and rehash the same facts that are already available in a dozen other publications. The extra effort makes journalism come alive, and it also makes the journalist's work worthy of a Christian professional.

Another important consideration is the dignity of the people who are the subjects of a story. People do have some rights: to privacy, and to preserve their reputations. There's a lot of sensationalism in journalism today, particularly in the tabloids and the televison newscasts. Although I'm dedicated in principle to reporting accurately, and letting the facts speak for themselves, I also believe that there are times when exposing the facts can serve no purpose except to damage someone's reputation.

A good reporter generally knows – or at least strongly suspects – a good deal more than he writes. You write only what you know – what you can demonstrate to the reader – and what's useful to read. 

Schmalz: What would you say are the key issues to watch in the next decade?

In the realm of public affairs, I think there will be two dominant issues, both of them broad and complex.

First is the conflict that Pope John Paul described so well as a clash between the culture of life and the culture of death. It's very visible in the debates on abortion and euthanasia. It's not quite so visible, but the same principles are at issue, in debates on contraception, divorce, homosexuality, and stem-cell research. The momentum in this argument is very strongly against us. If you think about how far we have come – in the wrong direction – over the past thirty years, it's frightening to think where we might be another thirty years into the future, if we cannot derail this ugly locomotive.

Second is the global conflict between militant Islam, which is on the rise, and the Western world – what might once have been called the Christian world. In Europe particularly we are witnessing the collapse of a way of life. The European Union is endangered not by threats from outside, but by exhaustion from within. It's actually, I think, a process quite similar to the collapse of Soviet Communism. The system is breaking down because no one really believes in the system any longer. It is – again Pope John Paul was a superb diagnostician – a crisis of faith. The countries of Europe have different national interests, and they can unite in a single political entity only if there is something that binds them together: some shared cultural heritage. But that cultural heritage is undeniably Christian – that's a historical fact – and Christianity is the one influence that today's European political leaders want to keep out of the public debate. 

Here in the U.S. we can see the same process at work. It may be less advanced, because we're still a church-going people. Still there is a steady, growing pressure to make religion a strictly private affair– to push the faith out of public discourse. That's why I think it's so terribly important for Catholics to find a distinctive public voice, and why I consider my own work so important.

Valerie Schmalz is a writer for IgnatiusInsight. She worked as a reporter and editor for The Associated Press, and in print and broadcast media for ten years. She holds a BA in Government from University of San Francisco and a Master of Science from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. She is the former director of Birthright of San Francisco. Valerie and her wonderful husband have four children.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved