Award-winning Catholic journalist looks at Pope Francis, U.S. politics
By Charles C. Camosy
September 08, 2018
[Editor’s Note: Melinda Henneberger is an editorial writer and columnist for the Kansas City Star and monthly columnist for USA Today. A graduate of Notre Name, she used to cover Catholic issues for the New York Times from Rome. Earlier this year, she won the prestigious Scripps Howard Award. She spoke to Charles Camosy about her views on Pope Francis and his attempts to reform the Church.]
Camosy: Many Catholics who pay attention to news and politics remember your work from Politics Daily, the Washington Post, and Bloomberg News. But maybe less people know that you used to work for the New York Times covering a lot of Catholic news out of Rome. Given your experience of how things worked then, and having had more than six years of Pope Francis, how do you think his attempts to reform the institutional Church have gone thus far?
Henneberger: Until recently, I would have given a nice mixed answer. But in the current context, the ship is on fire and sinking while the captain chooses this of all moments to stay silent, the crew argues on like nothing has changed and the passengers are jumping into the lifeboats; bye!
I’ve been very supportive of Francis, but doesn’t he have anyone around him who will tell him how serious this crisis is? Bottom line, the last three popes and who knows how many before that have failed to protect children. They haven’t seen how central a failing that’s been, either, or why if the Church can’t get that right, nothing and I mean nothing else matters.
Who do they think is going to take them seriously on the dignity and worth of unborn children given their demonstrably cavalier attitude towards the already born children they’ve so routinely treated as non-people?
You’ve spoken out boldly about your own experience of sexual violence-and on sexual violence in other contexts as well. The Church again finds itself at another sex abuse crossroads, and your recent column about this was-no surprise-quite bold. I agree with so much of what you said and share in the horror Catholics across the country feel. But I also see a golden opportunity for the Church to continue to change in its response to this. Given the Church’s historically glacial pace of change, perhaps future Catholics will look back at the responses to Vatican II and the sex abuse crises as catalysts of lightning-fast changes - perhaps especially when it comes to the role of lay people in the Church. Do you share any sense that good may come from this?
Well my friend Robby George says, in other contexts, that he’s seen how the story ends and good wins.
But right here and right now I’m tired of the Eucharist being used as a reason to excuse the inexcusable. Is Christ OK with having his real presence used as a kind of spiritual honey trap by men who protected their own power while saying all the right words about the powerless?
What I’ve kept thinking about is what if instead of going back 70 years in Pennsylvania, we’d gone back 170 years, or 300 or 700, anywhere in the global Church? If what we’d have found is exactly the same, then something was set up wrong. But just keep right on arguing right-versus-left guys.
You fairly recently moved from covering national politics in Washington, D.C. to covering more local politics in Kansas City. How has this move gone for you?
Funny thing: All politics is local, but to a greater extent all the time, all local politics is national too, complete with consultants who give the standard terrible advice. We could have made a fortune telling people to say nothing they actually think. Which works remarkably well - for the consultants.
Even though I loaded up my car and left D.C. the day before Trump’s inauguration, I’m glad to be covering the story from here. And between former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens and now the tariffs hitting the Midwest and the toss-up Missouri Senate race and the toss-up Kansas congressional race, there’s been no shortage of news.
I hear quite a bit about how local journalism is in trouble. And while that seems undeniably true in some circumstances, from the outside at least it appears that your own Kansas City Star is thriving. What’s your take on the state of local journalism in the United States?
The reporting being done here is so impressive; my colleagues do serious accountability journalism and were Pulitzer finalists this year for a series on the lack of transparency in Kansas government.
But the business of local journalism is in deep trouble. There has been no “Trump bump” in local news. Sometimes people tell me they stopped taking the paper because it’s gotten so thin, and I say it’s gotten so thin because you stopped taking the paper. Seriously, if you want to support our watchdog role in democracy, subscribe to a local newspaper. In most communities without one, or one that’s been gutted, officials are just not being held accountable.
I need to ask you about some local politics that have important U.S. national implications. Senator Claire McCaskill (a convert to Catholicism) is in a huge battle to keep her Missouri seat, an important one for Democrats, just as a row is developing within the Missouri Democratic party about whether or not to allow people with different opinions on abortion. We at Democrats for Life were so hopeful about an initial vote to include conscience language in the party platform welcoming pro-lifers, but are now so disappointed that local party chair Stephen Webber unilaterally decided to kick pro-lifers out of the party. Missouri used to be a battleground state; can the local Democratic party succeed without being open to pro-lifers? What implications might this problem have for the national party?
Well I obviously thought the state party made a mistake in taking back their mild statement that pro-lifers were welcome in the party; that they felt they had to do so was a sad statement in itself.
How much it will hurt them, I don’t know, but it can’t help, can it? And if the future of the republic is really at stake in November, this is maybe not a good time to be making people who actually want to vote with you feel unwelcome?
As for the Senate race, given the demographics of the state, which went for Trump by just shy of 20 points, I’d probably give the edge to Josh Hawley, who refuses to say he disagrees with the president about anything at all, though he and Trump are from very different corners of the GOP jungle. Hawley is Missouri’s Attorney General, smart and well-spoken, went to Stanford and Yale Law, clerked for Justice Roberts, worked at Wilmer Hale and is running…against the elites!
Republicans I ask often say they’ve never heard of him, but that ‘R’ after his name is all a lot of people need to see, while her vote on Kavanaugh is going to hurt her either way. And yet…McCaskill works very hard, is great on the stump, and even those who disagree with her tend to like her personally. It’s a good match-up is all I can say.