Is Cardinal Dolan’s Pro-Life Piece More Evidence of Pro-Catholic Bias from RNS Publisher?

After credible allegations that Religion News Service publisher and CEO Tom Gallagher demonstrated favoritism toward the Catholic Church, you might expect RNS to lay low, for a while at least, in its coverage of Catholicism. If you did, I hope you didn’t place any big bets on it.

“Staffers tell me that [Tom] Gallagher’s behavior was part of a pattern, with Gallagher repeatedly attempting to influence the site’s coverage of Catholicism,” wrote Sarah Jones, in her April 27 report in the New Republic on the “Implosion of Religion News Service.” According to the reporting of both Jones and the Columbia Journalism Review’s Stephanie Russell-Kraft, some of the more egregious instances of Gallagher’s editorial meddling, which played a significant role in the firing of respected editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky and the subsequent resignations of veteran reporters Kimberly Winston and Lauren Markoe, focused on the institutional Catholic Church.

Corroborated by emails and testimony from both current and former staff, notable examples include: siding with the Chicago archdiocese’s complaints over his own staff’s reporting; the issuance of an unusually large number of free press releases to Catholic organizations (over the strenuous objection of RNS’ then-marketing director); and directly pushing coverage of Catholic stories—including to the the former editor-in-chief, whose “news judgement” was ultimately questioned for, as Jones wrote, “rejecting Gallagher’s ideas.”

Given the scrutiny and incriminating details it’s all the more curious to look into a short op-ed RNS posted on June 8 in response to a piece by its own columnist, Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest. In it, Cardinal Timothy Dolan argued against the columnist’s suggestion, in the wake of the vote in Ireland, that the U.S. “pro-life” movement should accept the fact of legal abortion and instead to turn its efforts toward reduction.

The Cardinal, who is chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, offers the perspective, arguments, and framing of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Which is to say that it essentially amounts to a position statement from a well-organized and well-funded sectarian group.

Dolan’s piece is clearly identified as an op-ed, so whether one agrees with him or not is beside the point. Anti-choice Catholics are free to argue goals and strategies, and a religion publication is free to host parts of that conversation. This is about context and consistency. It’s about the fact that Dolan’s piece is, in more than one way, suggestive of the very favoritism that Jones and Russell-Kraft document.

First off, there’s history here between Rev. Reese and the Catholic hierarchy. Reese was once the editor of America, the highly regarded Jesuit magazine, until he was forced to resign due to pressure from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, then run by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict XVI). Although Reese told RD that he welcomes Dolan’s response and sees nothing out of the ordinary in the publication of it, it’s not unreasonable to see red flags when the Catholic hierarchy is given space to rebut the words of a Catholic priest columnist who’s been a thorn in the side of the Catholic hierarchy for quite some time.

The decision to publish the piece is even more troubling as Dolan’s casual relationship with evidence suggests that the editorial process, even for an op-ed, could have been more critical. Here are a few problems that jump out:

  • A Knights of Columbus-funded poll, cited to dispute Rev. Reese’s assertion that opinion in the United States is moving toward support for reproductive rights, does not support the cardinal’s objections. Instead, even accepting its arbitrary delineations, it actually shows that the percentage of respondents who “want significant restrictions on abortion” is the second lowest of the 13 such polls over the past decade.
  • Dolan repeats the misleading line that contraception “can be medically harmful to women,” linking to a USCCB fact sheet. But as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has noted, the risk of harm due to contraceptives is even lower than that of common over-the-counter medications like Tylenol or aspirin.
  • Dolan again turns to his anti-choice talking points (another USCCB fact sheet) to argue that the availability of contraception doesn’t decrease abortions. But the scant data that do support this view are deeply limited, as even William Saletan pointed out several years ago on Slate, and as Reese notes in his response to the cardinal.
  • Dolan proposes that “some contraceptive drugs and devices may work by preventing the newly conceived embryo from implanting in the womb and surviving,” which would be considered an abortifacient by the Catholic Church. But the claim conflates abortion, or the termination of a pregnancy (which can only occur after successful implantation in the uterus), and contraception, or the prevention of both fertilization and pregnancy. The Cardinal links, yet again, to USCCB literature, but the facts simply aren’t there. On the question of whether contraceptives do what Cardinal Dolan claims, the science is conclusive: they don’t.

It isn’t uncommon for an op-ed to be especially friendly toward the writer’s opinion or project—that is, after all, the point—but the problem here is that Dolan’s opinion is supported by distorted information

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Dolan’s byline includes his title of “Cardinal,” unlike the RNS byline of any other ordained author we could locate in the RNS archives. That includes Rev. Reese, the priest-columnist who authored the piece Dolan’s responding to; Jeffrey Salkin (a rabbi and RNS columnist himself); G. Jeffrey MacDonald, a UCC minister and interim editor-in-chief of RNS; and Mitchell T. Rozanski, the Bishop of Springfield, MA. Even a 2016 commentary from Barack Obama excludes the “president” honorific.

Given the prior reporting, the unusual byline choice and Gallagher’s prior acquaintance with Cardinal Dolan, one wonders whether publishing an op-ed comprised of USCCB talking points is confirmation of the favoritism of RNS’ CEO and publisher or whether it was simply an anomaly wholly unrelated to Gallagher’s presence or influence. RD reached out to RNS’s editor-in-chief, G. Jeffrey MacDonald, as well as to Tom Gallagher for comment but, as of publication, there has been no response from either. RNS columnist Rev. Reese told RD that MacDonald had informed him that the op-ed was unsolicited and that MacDonald had published it without talking to Gallagher.

Whatever the case, it’s doubtful that Gallagher is terribly concerned given his recent mockery of the bias allegations. In a midnight tweet from a dinner hosted by the Path to Peace Foundation (an organization affiliated with the Catholic Church), Gallagher holds a highball glass and jokes that his embrace of Catholic journalist David Gibson “obviously shows my Catholic bias”:

Of course we can’t be naive about the relationship between journalist and subject. We all have relationships and commitments that present challenges to the standards that most journalists are keenly aware of. We’re human. But when you’re the publisher of a news service that is, as a recent fundraising email claims, “devoted to unbiased, nonsectarian coverage of religion,” and when your background is so thoroughly sectarian—including a role in the canonization of Saint “Mother” Teresa and a pastoral trip to Iraqi Kurdistan with Cardinal Timothy Dolan—it’s vitally important that you provide no reason for anyone to believe that you favor one group over another. 

To reiterate: the Catholic Church has as much right to engage in the public conversation as anyone, and as a service that delivers religion news, RNS has the right to publish whatever religious commentary it wishes to. But when credible allegations have been made about the organization’s deference toward the Catholic Church leading to the departure of three veteran journalists, it’s difficult to read a regurgitation of the U.S. Bishops’ position on reproductive rights as anything other than confirmation of those allegations. Given that concerns over the financial viability of religion journalism are what apparently drove the decision to hire someone with a Wall Street pedigree like Gallagher, RNS may want to tread carefully. Losing RNS would be a tremendous blow to the landscape of religion journalism.