For the March 22 issue of Angelus, we interviewed Sister Norma Pimentel, MJJohn Allen, and Msgr. Eduardo Chavez — all of whom offered a glimpse at what they’ll be talking about the weekend of March 22-24. 

One of the most recognizable faces at the Religious Education Congress of the last decade has been John L. Allen Jr., founder and editor of Crux. 

The longtime Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter has established himself as the most well-known and trusted American “Vaticanista” during the Benedict XVI and Francis papacies (he reports for CNN and The Boston Globe, too). 

In addition to overseeing Crux, Allen is a frequent speaker at Catholic gatherings around the United States and abroad. Last June, Crux entered into an editorial partnership with Angelus in which they provide exclusive reporting for Angelus on a weekly basis. 

Over the past year, Allen’s job has gotten, let’s say, a bit more interesting. The reawakening sexual abuse crisis has turned the eyes of the world on Rome, where Pope Francis is facing the Catholic Church’s biggest challenge in recent memory, and perhaps, modern history. 

That may help explain the titles of Allen’s two workshops at Congress this year: “Thirsting for Justice: Global Perspectives on Clergy Abuse in the Church” and “Sign of the Times: A Review of the Worldwide Catholic Landscape.”

John, you’ve been speaking at the Congress for more than a decade. Why do you keep coming back?

For me, the Religious Education Congress is like an annual injection of adrenaline straight to the heart. Most of my time professionally is spent covering stories of scandal, controversy, and heartache, and while all those stories are fully legitimate and need to be told, collectively it can be wearying.

At the Congress, what I find is people who are fully aware those distressing stories are unfolding, but their spirits aren’t dimmed. There’s a positive energy, an excitement about the prospects for the faith that’s infectious, and looking forward to experiencing that energy each year helps get me through everything else I have to do.

You actually got your start in Catholic journalism writing for the Tidings, didn’t you? How did that happen?

My first paid writing job was for the Tidings in the 1990s. At the time, Tod Tamberg (later the  director of Media Relations for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles) was running the paper, and he had once taught at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, where I was teaching at the time. He knew I wanted to break into journalism, and the rest is history.

Since you started back in 2014, part of your Crux’s mission has been “not to lean either left or right.” In today’s polarized culture — even among Catholic media — how do you ensure that as an editor?

It’s an asymptotic goal, because one person’s balance is always another person’s bias. We can’t pretend to strict objectivity, because in journalism no decision is ever as important as which stories to cover in the first place. We make a statement simply by where we decide to invest our time and resources.

Within that, however, we strive to keep opinion out of reporting, even out of our analysis, and give people the tools to make decisions for themselves. That’s one of the reasons Crux actually doesn’t carry any opinion content — opinion is cheap and plentiful these days, but reliable information and analysis is perpetually in short supply.

You’ve been reporting on the Catholic Church for religious and secular media for more than 20 years now. What’s the biggest change you’ve seen in how Catholicism is covered since you started?

I’d say there are three big transitions relative to how the religion beat worked when I started.

First is a general observation about media culture — the pace is far more intense today, mostly because of technological change. When I started covering the Vatican, I wrote for a weekly newspaper and filed, at most, a couple of pieces a week, which meant I had time to think carefully about each and make sure the necessary homework was done. 

Now, I may write two-three pieces on an average day, as does every member of our staff. Given social media, the pressure to publish immediately is enormous, which makes quality control infinitely more complicated.

Second, the Vatican beat specifically these days features far more women than when I started. In my view that’s an enormously healthy change, both because the women doing this work are generally extremely talented, and also because they often ask different questions and see different angles on stories. (This is certainly true of Crux, since three-quarters of our Rome team are women!) 

This leads to more balanced and insightful coverage, and taken as a whole, I think it’s improved our understanding. It tracks, by the way, with a greater presence of women in the Vatican generally.

Third, however, there’s a countervailing problem of religious illiteracy, especially pronounced in the secular press but also occasionally a problem even in specialized Catholic media. 

When I started more than two decades ago, Vatican coverage was driven by journalists who grew up in and around the Church, who knew it like the back of their hand — its lore, its personalities, its quirks, its arcane rules, and on and on.

Today that’s often no longer the case, with certain towering exceptions, which means that reporters have to amass needed background in real time and under deadline pressure. Given that, the wonder probably isn’t that we sometimes get things wrong — it’s that it doesn’t happen more often.

Looking ahead, how do you think it [coverage of the Church] is going to change in the future?

Journalism has its fashions just like every other walk of life, and obviously today the trend is in the direction of alternative methods of delivering information — generally toward video and social media, away from the traditional 800-word news story. I expect that to continue, probably in unexpected ways.

However, I’m a great believer in one core principle that never changes: Content is king. No matter how information is delivered or packaged, the key is knowing something important before anyone else does, getting it right, and presenting it without fear or favor. If we keep doing that, everything else will sort itself out.

Pablo Kay is the editor of Angelus. 

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