In the Feb. 24, 1962, issue of America, the editors commended the “happy signs of a new and progressive press policy in Rome,” and argued that “a liberalized press policy at the Vatican Council” would be good news for Catholic and secular press alike.
Attentive readers of the diocesan newspapers will have noticed, in the past month or more, a perceptible improvement in both the quality and quantity of news about the Vatican Council. During January, particularly, when the Central Preparatory Commission was receiving reports, authorized stories succeeded each other in unprecedented abundance. If the releases dealt primarily with the agenda and gave no hint of the decisions reached, they were at least fairly detailed and certainly official. It is a pleasure to acknowledge—and since February is Catholic Press Month, it is appropriate to record—these happy signs of a new and progressive press policy in Rome. When the Fathers of the council meet on October 11, the newly functioning press officers will have made their shakedown cruise. The Church, the council and world opinion, we are convinced, will profit greatly if the new policy fulfills the hopes that have been placed in it.
The situation was not always so encouraging. In the first stages of the preparatory work, Archbishop Pericle Felici, general secretary of the Central Preparatory Commission, held several press conferences. But these events were singularly uninformative and unproductive. Newsmen noted that they were urged to study and write up former councils, as though the veil would remain drawn on the forthcoming council. As a result, attendance at the conferences dropped off. Catholic joumalists in Western Europe began to refer to the “Chinese Wall” around the council. Europeans recalled a statement of the former episcopal moderator of the Catholic Press Association, Most Rev. Thomas K. Gorman, of Dallas-Fort Worth, who, in another connection, once declared: “There is an Iron Curtain and there is a Bamboo Curtain. Let’s make sure we don’t have an ecclesiastical Velvet Curtain.”
In mid-1961, however, the Holy Father received the officers of the International Union of the Catholic Press and discussed the council with them for three-quarters of an hour. Then, on June 20, he told the Central Preparatory Commission: “We do not wish to neglect the journalists.” The corner had been turned in the history of the apostolate of the Catholic press.
The danger of sensational, irresponsible and politically motivated journalism ever hangs over such a world assembly as an ecumenical council. Experience has cast doubt on the belief, once favored in the Vatican, that secrecy is the best means for coping with this danger. The first Vatican Council (1869-70) provides us with useful lessons. On this question of information policy, Dom Cuthbert Butler has some valuable remarks in his two-volume study. The Vatican Council (Longmans. 1932). He notes that those who took part officially in the council (bishops, theologians, secretaries) were held by oath to secrecy. But, in fact, “the secret was badly kept.” Printers and binders had the documents in their hands. It was common knowledge that foreign diplomats could buy copies of everything printed. “The result,” writes Dom Cuthbert, “was neither secrecy nor publicity, but an atmosphere of rumor and suspicion, of stories, reports, surmises, that could be neither proved nor refuted.” Effective correction of the slanted reports could have been made only through publication, week by week, of full reports on the transactions and debates. Instead, secrecy put a premium on scoops and leaks, from which the unscrupulous were the first to profit.
A liberalized press policy at the Vatican Council is not a right extended to the Catholic press but an opportunity for it to serve the Church. To the secular press, as well, it is an opportunity to demonstrate the high ideals professed by the “Fourth Estate,” including the duty to serve the truth for itself.