Unless the media improves its basic understanding of Catholic beliefs and practices, it risks marginalizing the Church and replacing its voice in society with politics, a set of beliefs “with the same vestments, but less conscience,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput told a gathering of prominent journalists on Tuesday at the Pew Forum.
Though the Archbishop of Denver had been invited to Washington, D.C. to address the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life about the political obligations of Catholics, he began his remarks with a discussion of media coverage of the Catholic Church.
His audience consisted of several prominent journalists including Sally Quinn, Moderator of the Washington Post's “On Faith” section; Time Contributing Editor Amy Sullivan; Washington Post Politics Columnist E.J. Dionne; New York Times Washington Correspondent David Kirkpatrick; and Tony Spence, Editor-In-Chief of Catholic News Service.
“Public understanding of the Catholic role in our political process depends, in large part, on how the mainstream media frame Church-related issues,” the archbishop began.
Noting Mother Teresa’s joke that she’d rather bathe a leper than meet the press, Archbishop Chaput said many people in the Church, especially active Catholics, might feel similarly wary of the media.
“Now it turns out that I don’t feel the same way,” he told the journalists. “In my experience, dealing with the press has usually been rather enjoyable. I’ve worked with some very good journalists. I don’t think we should ever fear the truth. And I tend to like challenging questions.”
However, he said some reporters and editors have been “uniquely frustrating” because “too often they really don’t know their subject; or they dislike the influence of religion; or they have unresolved authority issues; or they resent Catholic teachings on sex; or they’d rather be covering the White House, but this is the only beat they could get.”
“I don’t expect journalists who track the Church to agree with everything she teaches. But I do think reporters should have a working knowledge of her traditions and teachings,” he commented, advocating that editors have a “basic Catholic vocabulary” to understand Catholic topics and motivations.
As an example of journalistic neglect, he said that in twenty years as a bishop, no reporter had asked him why he so often refers to the Church as “she” and “her” instead of “it.”
“I find that extremely odd, because those pronouns go straight to the heart of Catholic theology, life and identity.”
Saying that the news media “serve a vital role in American life,” he asserted that democracy depends on “the free flow of truthful and comprehensive information between the government and the governed. Public debate has little meaning when people don’t have accurate, unbiased information.”
Archbishop Chaput also declared that journalism is “a vocation, not just a job,” equal to law or medicine in dignity because of the profession’s importance to society.
“Journalists have a duty to serve the truth and the common good, not just the crowd, not just the shareholders they work for, and not just their own personal convictions,” he said.
Good reporting has “social and moral gravity,” the archbishop observed. “And thankfully, many journalists are experts in their fields. But that expertise doesn’t seem to extend to religion coverage.”
Archbishop Chaput singled out by name several journalists, praising the work of Vatican expert John Allen and Associated Press writer Eric Gorski for their “outstanding work.” He also mentioned Terry Mattingly and his colleagues at GetReligion.org before praising Vatican expert Sandro Magister and Alejandro Bermudez for offering “excellent and well informed international reporting on religious affairs.”
Yet in the opinion of many Catholics, the archbishop explained, these good journalists seem to be the exceptions.
“No serious media organization would assign a reporter to cover Wall Street if that reporter lacked a background in economics, fiscal and monetary policy, and these days, at least some expertise in Keynesian theory. But reporters who don’t know their subject and haven’t done their homework seem common in the world of religion reporting,” he commented.
Turning to the themes of his 2008 book Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Chaput reiterated that Catholics “serve Caesar best when we serve God first” by living their faith at home, at work, in public life and in the voting booth.
In his interactions with reporters about his book, the archbishop found that many hadn’t “really read it,” many lacked “even a basic understanding of Catholic identity” necessary for a “useful disagreement” and many weren’t interested in “learning what they didn’t know.”
“At the same time, some did unfortunately know what they planned to write before they walked into my office for the interview,” he commented, explaining that a bishop’s approach to politics differs from the media’s.
“Where the media see a Catholic politician, Catholic bishops see a soul. For a bishop, the question of Catholics in American public life is only secondarily about electoral politics. Really it’s a question of eschatology,” he said, explaining “eschatology” as the “last things” of heaven and hell, salvation and judgment, and the eternal consequences of present actions.
“Sometimes in reading the news, I get the impression that access to Holy Communion in the Church is like having bar privileges at the Elks’ Club,” Archbishop Chaput commented.
He explained that honest believers have never wanted to and have never been allowed to approach the Eucharist in “a state of grave sin or scandal,” as doing so commits “a kind of blasphemy against God” does violence against personal integrity and the faith of others.
Warning against the imposition of the language of “civil rights” upon Catholic practice, he said that no one has a “right” to the Eucharist and “the vanity or hurt feelings of an individual Catholic governor or senator or even a vice president do not take priority over the faith of the believing community.”
Noting that the media have no obligation to believe Catholic teaching, he said they are “certainly” obliged to “understand, respect and accurately recount” how the Church understands herself and how and why she teaches.
“Most of you came here today because you already do try to take the Catholic Church and religious issues seriously, and you do try to write with depth, integrity and a sense of context,” he stated. “I thank you for that.”
“Now please tell your friends in the newsroom to do the same,” he concluded, warning that the marginalization of religion leads politics to take its place “with the same vestments, but less conscience.”
“We need the Church to remind us of the witness of history: that human beings remain fallible; that civil power unconstrained by a reverence for God -- or at least a healthy respect for the possibility of God -- sooner or later attacks the humanity it claims to serve; and that we're all of us subject to the same excuse-making and self-delusion in our personal lives, in our public actions -- and even in the corridors of national leadership.”