Commentators criticize professor for referring to Denver archbishop as ‘pretty white’

Commentator Mark Silk and Archbishop Charles Chaput
Commentator Mark Silk and Archbishop Charles Chaput


Commentator Mark Silk’s description of Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput as "pretty white" is being described as "astonishing" and in "bad form." The Denver prelate is a registered member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi tribe, America’s first Native American archbishop, and chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on Native American Affairs.

In a blog posting on Beliefnet, Silk, a Harvard graduate and professor of religion in public life at Trinity College, criticized Archbishop Chaput's recent address to the Religion Newswriters Association held last week in Denver.

Archbishop Chaput delivered "a classic culture-war critique of the news media's coverage of religion: Journalism is composed of knowledge-class professionals who make secularist assumptions about American society that shows they are out of touch with real Americans. Coverage of Christianity in particular is negative, focused on stories about fundamentalism and decline and infighting and repression. This kind of thing was a lot more common back in the 1990s than it is today – but then, Chaput has never been known for being up to date," Silk wrote in his blog.

Chaput had based his "knowledge-class" comments on material released in 2003. 

However, Silk’s line that drew attention was his criticism: "now, it's pretty white of Chaput to include 'many bishops' on his side of the comparison – would that other members of the hierarchy did the same." 

Reacting to the controversial statement, several critics have responded in recent days.

"I know Denver's archbishop, Charles Chaput, reasonably well – well enough to expect that when he delivers a thoughtful address on how the media cover religion, he's going to provoke a strong response. Fair enough," said Bill McGurn, a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, in a posting.

"Still, it was somewhat astonishing to read a Beliefnet commentator, Mark Silk, deploying the phrase 'it's pretty white of Chaput' in a column objecting to the archbishop's remarks. Not only because it's bad form, but also because the archbishop is part Native American ... "

"Then again, maybe you have to be a professor and have gone to Harvard to write this way," McGurn added.

The editor of First Things, Joseph Bottum also commented on the remarks: "Archbishop Chaput’s talk had a number of interesting elements: the excursion into George Orwell’s career, the embrace of freedom of the press while asserting freedom of religion, the analysis of secularism as a system of thought."

"But leave all that aside and think, for a moment, just about his description of knowledge professionals and the ways in which they are lured into a sense of perfect entitlement and superior correctness. One could hardly ask for a better example than the Beliefnet column mocking Chaput as lily-white. Or than a reporter from the New York Times thinking it entirely reasonable, in a public question-and-answer period, to demand an answer to why her phone calls weren’t returned," Bottum wrote.

Mollie Hemingway, a religion journalist and contributor to reacted to Silk's column, writing: "What? What was that last line? Now, on a good day, in an intimate setting, that type of line is risky. But yikes – what was Silk thinking? The usually sarcastic saying – an unsubtle reference to white people engaging in atrocities against or oppression of non-whites, while claiming to do so in their benefit – is a biting insult with the power to offend all races."

"I can’t even imagine," Hemingway wrote, "what the media response would be if Chaput made such a scathing remark with racial connotations. I assume that Silk, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and has spent his life in journalism and the academy, either didn’t think about what he was saying or didn’t realize how the remark is taken by others. Maybe he thought Chaput’s family heritage is what makes the insult work. I don’t know. But it’s really an odd way to disagree with someone who’s calling for civility and decency in media coverage. And it probably couldn’t better prove Chaput’s point that the media has trouble with self-criticism and respect of others."

Contacted by CNA for comment, Professor Silk clarified his post: "I'm sorry to say that while I was aware that the archbishop is a Native American, I wasn't thinking about that when I used the term – but rather punning on the 'whited supulchre' quotation from Matthew. The idea was in fact to acknowledge with the off-color (as it were) reference – as I did directly by referring to other bishops – that Chaput had said something honorable: no whited supulchre. But I apologize for what clearly can be seen as a racist slur. Mea culpa. And I'll append this apology to the post."

The apology has been added at Spiritual Politics, Silk's blog on religion and American political culture.

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