There’s been a bit of a dust-up in South Africa: one that sees the country’s ranking prelate, Cardinal Wilfrid Fox Napier, pitted against the country’s national Catholic weekly newspaper, The Southern Cross.
The last couple of weeks have seen an interesting epistolary exchange between Cardinal Napier and The Southern Cross’s long-time editor-in-chief, Günther Simmermacher, turning largely on the question whether the bishops of South Africa ought to support the struggling paper in this time of global health crisis.
“Every time I read appeals to ‘Save The Southern Cross’,” His Eminence wrote in a letter to the editor that appeared in the April 15-21 edition, “a number of thoughts immediately come to mind.” Examples of the kind of thoughts as occur to him included: “What has The Southern Cross done for me, for the bishops, for the Church?”
The president of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference, Bishop Sithembele Sipuka of Mthatha, expressed a different view, which was also carried in the April 15 edition of the paper.
“The Southern Cross,” wrote Bishop Sipuka, “has kept us connected in faith for 100 years.” He went on to call The Southern Cross “a lighthouse” for the faithful. Those comments appeared on the front page of the April 15-21 edition of The Southern Cross. The SACBC president also particularly praised a centenary initiative, which saw the paper offer free on-line access for a limited time.
When the coronavirus crisis took hold in South Africa, The Southern Cross decided to extend its open online access for the duration of the emergency. The Southern Cross was already struggling before the coronavirus outbreak. With churches closed as part of coronavirus emergency measures in South Africa, the paper has lost basically all its points of sale.
“As a result [of the emergency measures],” Simmermacher explained in response to email queries from the Catholic Herald, “we ceased printing — for the first time in almost 100 years — and went fully digital, still producing the normal weekly.”
“In order to give readers and the Catholic community access to the newspaper,” Simmermacher said, “we decided to make the weekly edition available for free on our website, with requests for donations, even if just to cover the price.” He also told us digital subscribers receive extra premium content.
“Starting from a low digital subscriber base,” Simmermacher explained, “we basically produce a newspaper for no income other than advertising,” and are barely staying afloat. “Staff have had to make huge sacrifices,” he told us. “We don’t know whether we will survive the lockdown.”
The paper is fighting for its life – and the bishops have a big stake in it. According to Simmermacher, the SACBC has 51% ownership in founder shares of the Catholic Newspaper & Publishing Company, which publishes The Southern Cross, and are represented by three members on the board of directors: SACBC president, the secretary-general and a layperson mandated by the SACBC. “Neither entity receives any funding from the SACBC,” Simmermacher said.
Moral support, at least, has come from several quarters of South Africa, but Cardinal Napier has taken a different view – and made his complaint more specifically in his letter that appeared in the April 15th edition: “[W]hat comes to mind is the number of times that bishops are presented in unflattering terms,” His Eminence wrote.
In that regard, Cardinal Napier mentioned angry letters from readers of The Southern Cross, about which bishops – he said – are given no forewarning.
His Eminence did receive some blowback from his first letter. One reader, Gavin Samuels of Bloemfontein, wrote: “I find it wrong for a man of the cloth to say what he said, putting the livelihoods of others at stake and encouraging people not to support The Southern Cross.” Mr Samuels went on to say, “It is incomprehensible that on the front page the bishops’ conference president supports the newspaper, yet inside Cardinal Napier defames it.”
Another correspondent, Tony Meehan of Cape Town, wrote: “It is unfortunate that the cardinal feels so aggrieved.” He added: “I have personally posted a letter in the past about some ignoble conduct of the cardinal. I firmly and honestly believe what I said to be a truthful opinion to which the cardinal had full right to respond. He chose not to. Possibly, one could deduce: ‘If the cap fits, wear it!’”
“Logic,” Cardinal Napier wrote in his April 15 letter, “demands that we ask: Who in his right mind is going to support, let alone encourage, the clergy and faithful to subscribe to a publication that regularly carries negative reports about him or about bishops in general?”
Cardinal Napier also said he had given some editorial advice to Simmermacher. “I have said to the editor before: why not serialise what the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of Catholic Social Teaching say about the burning questions modern culture is throwing up at us daily?”
Cardinal Napier’s April 15 letter ran under the headline: “Why I don’t support The Southern Cross” – a headline with which he took issue in another letter that appeared in the April 22-28 issue.
“If ever I needed a reason not to support The Southern Cross,” Cardinal Napier wrote in another, which appeared in the April 22-28 edition of the paper, “it is the headline over my letter to the editor (April 15), and the editor’s comment that followed it.”
Beneath the signature line of Cardinal Napier’s April 15 letter, Simmermacher had noted the paper’s policy “to give anybody the right to respond to articles in the newspaper, particularly if they believe they were treated unfairly,” and explained that no other bishop had approached The Southern Cross with such a complaint – whether regarding treatment in the paper’s pages or editorial respect of the ius respondendi that Cardinal Napier had impugned in his own letter.
In his letter in the April 22 edition, which appeared under the headline: “SC headline and note disingenuous,” Cardinal Napier also complained that he never said he does not support The Southern Cross. That is technically true, but he certainly wondered aloud who in his right mind would support it.
Cardinal Napier further explained that he had held his peace at a recent meeting between SACBC officers and senior TSC leadership, “I reckoned it was better to say nothing than to fake an interest in something that I didn’t and indeed don’t have a passion for in its present form.”
His Eminence also proposed “the kind of things that I believe a Catholic newspaper should be doing to build up the faith at this time,” including a serialisation of teaching documents that – one supposes – the bishops themselves have already made widely available to the faithful in their charge.
“That’s the kind of Southern Cross that I could wholeheartedly support!” Cardinal Napier wrote.
His Eminence seems to take this business personally, too. “As I once said on the phone when I was enquiring why one of my letters had not been published, not knowing that it was the editor who was on the line: ‘For some reason, it seems, Günther doesn’t like me!’ I sincerely hope that your choice of headline in this instance does not bear that out!” he wrote.
The Catholic Herald asked Cardinal Napier for clarification of several points, particularly concerning the editorial treatment of his letters, his understanding of the mission of the Catholic newspaper, and his estimation of how The Southern Cross fares when measured against his vision. His Eminence preferred not to comment immediately on the issue.
Cardinal Napier explained that The Southern Cross was slated for discussion at a meeting of the SABC’s administrative board, scheduled for Monday, and that he would not answer our queries until after that meeting had taken place.
Simmermacher told the Herald that a Catholic newspaper at its core must be “at the service of evangelising, to proclaim the Gospel in the contexts of our lives and our faith today.”
“That takes many different forms,” Simmermacher said, “also reflecting the debate and scope of opinion within the Church,” adding that a newspaper accomplishes that task by engaging readers with relevant news, insightful columns and features, and through appealing images.
“Especially now,” Simmermacher said, “in this age of fake news and propaganda – even within the Church – a Catholic newspaper has to serve as a reliable curator of news,” and build community. “On that count,” he said, “The Southern Cross is one of the few places in the still very divided South African Church where all race groups and regions actually do come together.”
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