05/01/2013 11:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Some Tips for Journalists Covering the Catholic Church (Hint: It's Complicated)

One of my journalist friends sent me John Allen's new book "The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know," evidently wanting my take on it as a Catholic. Well, I have long thought Allen among the best -- perhaps the best -- reporter about the Church, so I am not surprised that this book turns out to be one that every journalist should keep handy as a reference.

Allen is Senior Correspondent for National Catholic Reporter, which is known as an organ of progressive Catholicism, so he must have found it difficult to write about the Church's more reactionary stances. But he also is famed for his straight reporting, and in this book he presents these edicts unvarnished.

"The Catholic Church: What Everyone Needs to Know" makes clear, however, that this institution is less monolithic than it seems; no wonder the book's mantra is: "It's complicated."

For instance, everyone knows that the pope is infallible, right? Well, the author points out that infallibility is a narrow, slippery doctrine that wasn't even spelled out until the 19th century.

He also has a wonderful chapter on the grassroots groups that have had such a profound influence on the institutional Church, starting with all those religious orders, such as Mother Teresa's congregation. Also powerfully informing what it means to be Catholic have been innumerable lay organizations.

Allen cites as particularly adept at transcending ideological factions the Focolare movement, begun in 1943 by 23-year-old Chiara Lubich who, amid the bombs destroying her town of Trent, Italy, had an epiphany: that God is love, and that our call is to love.


Focolare founder Chiara Lubich as a young woman

Focolare emphasizes loving interaction with other faith traditions, and it models that dialogue within the Church as well.

Allen also complicates things when he analyzes the motives for certain Church policies, presenting social science explanations side-by-side with the traditional spiritual reasons. I find this juxtaposition appealing because that's how I tend to look at my own faith journey. A psychologist might say that I am a Catholic because, as the eldest child, I was more likely to carry on my family's belief traditions, while a sociologist might cite socialization via my Catholic extended family. For their part, the nuns who taught me in grade school said that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit. I think they all are right.

Then there's the fact that theologians have always carried on crucial dialogue with the Vatican. "Despite 2,000 years of tradition -- or because of it," writes Allen, "there's a surprisingly wide range of opinion on virtually everything ... While the basic tenets of Catholic belief may be fixed, there's always tension among theologians about how those doctrines ought to be understood and applied."

This book even complicates the heated argument between conservatives and progressives over the causes of that heinous priestly pedophilia. Citing the 2004 John Jay College of Criminal Justice study that 4 percent of U.S. priests were accused of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, he adds that "experts say that percentage is roughly similar to the incidence of abuse in the overall population." In other words, "The guilty parties are the small minority of priests who committed acts of sexual abuse," plus the scandal "that the Church hid those facts from the public and sheltered the abusers." And here we must credit the media for so ably uncovering the individual perpetrators and the near-total episcopal cover-up.

In the book I only noticed two omissions, but alas one constitutes an important, longstanding doctrine that most observers would not intuit on their own: the teaching that one's conscience is essential to one's Catholic faith.

The book also could have made clear that the most important Catholic/Christian teaching is Love: Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself -- although Allen does write, "As Pope Benedict XVI has put it, 'Christianity is not an intellectual system, a packet of dogmas, or a collection of moral teachings. Christianity is rather an encounter, a love story; it is an event.'"

But wasn't Pope Benedict often legalistic and authoritarian, notably on sex/gender issues? Yes.

As the book so rightly notes, the Catholic Church is complicated -- complicated, that is, unless we remember the call put forth by the Greatest Commandment and emphasized in turn by such leading Catholics as Chiara Lubich: the call to love.