.- 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 âwith the same vestments, but less conscience,â 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 âOn Faithâ 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.
âPublic understanding of the Catholic role in our political process depends, in large part, on how the mainstream media frame Church-related issues,â the archbishop began.
Noting Mother Teresaâs joke that sheâd 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.
âNow it turns out that I donât feel the same way,â he told the journalists. âIn my experience, dealing with the press has usually been rather enjoyable. Iâve worked with some very good journalists. I donât think we should ever fear the truth. And I tend to like challenging questions.â
However, he said some reporters and editors have been âuniquely frustratingâ because âtoo often they really donât know their subject; or they dislike the influence of religion; or they have unresolved authority issues; or they resent Catholic teachings on sex; or theyâd rather be covering the White House, but this is the only beat they could get.â
âI donât 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,â he commented, advocating that editors have a âbasic Catholic vocabularyâ 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 âsheâ and âherâ instead of âit.â
âI find that extremely odd, because those pronouns go straight to the heart of Catholic theology, life and identity.â
Saying that the news media âserve a vital role in American life,â he asserted that democracy depends on âthe free flow of truthful and comprehensive information between the government and the governed. Public debate has little meaning when people donât have accurate, unbiased information.â
Archbishop Chaput also declared that journalism is âa vocation, not just a job,â equal to law or medicine in dignity because of the professionâs importance to society.
âJournalists 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,â he said.
Good reporting has âsocial and moral gravity,â the archbishop observed. âAnd thankfully, many journalists are experts in their fields. But that expertise doesnât seem to extend to religion coverage.â
Archbishop Chaput singled out by name several journalists, praising the work of Vatican expert John Allen and Associated Press writer Eric Gorski for their âoutstanding work.â He also mentioned Terry Mattingly and his colleagues at GetReligion.org before praising Vatican expert Sandro Magister and Alejandro Bermudez for offering âexcellent and well informed international reporting on religious affairs.â
Yet in the opinion of many Catholics, the archbishop explained, these good journalists seem to be the exceptions.
âNo 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 donât know their subject and havenât done their homework seem common in the world of religion reporting,â he commented.
Turning to the themes of his 2008 book Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Chaput reiterated that Catholics âserve Caesar best when we serve God firstâ 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 hadnât âreally read it,â many lacked âeven a basic understanding of Catholic identityâ necessary for a âuseful disagreementâ and many werenât interested in âlearning what they didnât know.â
âAt the same time, some did unfortunately know what they planned to write before they walked into my office for the interview,â he commented, explaining that a bishopâs approach to politics differs from the mediaâs.
âWhere 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 itâs a question of eschatology,â he said, explaining âeschatologyâ as the âlast thingsâ of heaven and hell, salvation and judgment, and the eternal consequences of present actions.
âSometimes in reading the news, I get the impression that access to Holy Communion in the Church is like having bar privileges at the Elksâ Club,â Archbishop Chaput commented.
He explained that honest believers have never wanted to and have never been allowed to approach the Eucharist in âa state of grave sin or scandal,â as doing so commits âa kind of blasphemy against Godâ does violence against personal integrity and the faith of others.
Warning against the imposition of the language of âcivil rightsâ upon Catholic practice, he said that no one has a ârightâ to the Eucharist and âthe 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.â
Noting that the media have no obligation to believe Catholic teaching, he said they are âcertainlyâ obliged to âunderstand, respect and accurately recountâ how the Church understands herself and how and why she teaches.
âMost 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,â he stated. âI thank you for that.â
âNow please tell your friends in the newsroom to do the same,â he concluded, warning that the marginalization of religion leads politics to take its place âwith the same vestments, but less conscience.â
âWe 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.â