Everyone knows there are two sides to every story. In the case of Fr. Michael Pfleger, there is his side and the side of Chicago Cardinal Francis George. Yet reporters so far have tilted almost exclusively toward the former. That's a problem. Both Chicago papers ran fine stories about the controversy from Pfleger's side. In The Chicago Tribune, reporters Manya Brachear and Margaret Ramirez got revealing quotes from the priest's supporters, such as this one:
Rev. Bill Stenzel, pastor of St. Bede the Venerable, was ordained with Pfleger in 1975. He recalls Pfleger's unconventional zeal even then.
"He was the guy who gave me a hunger for the people," Stenzel said. "What I saw was a man deeply in love with the people he served. He instilled that hunger in me as a seminarian. . . . He's responded to his call from God as he has perceived it. That's what we're all called to do. We're here to discern and live where the discernment takes us and let the chips fall."
Brachear and Ramirez followed that quote with another revealing one -- some of the priest's parishioners would follow him if he left the parish:
St. Sabina member Ernestine Jackson, 38, said Tuesday that she would stay at St. Sabina if Pfleger did not return but that if he started his own church, she would follow him.
"I just want to cry," she said. "Father Pfleger has changed my life around and the way I believe in God and Jesus."
In the Chicago Sun-Times, reporter Cathleen Falsani scored an exclusive interview with the controversial priest. Falsani's story underlined the fact that, far from being given a breather, Pfleger is in clerical limbo:
"I'm going to buy a bed and get some furniture from the church basement and move into an apartment in the neighborhood," a deflated-sounding Pfleger told me, while the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ where Pfleger made the fiery statements late last month that got him into this latest donnybrook with the cardinal, waited to take him to a late dinner. "I'm trying to find out what [George] means by 'a couple of weeks.' There's no timeline. There's no date. Give me a time. It just says a couple of weeks. I don't know . . . "
So reporters excelled at covering the controversy from Pfleger's side of things. They told us about the priest's love for his people, the devotion he inspires from them, and his exile.
Yet reporters have failed to cover the controversy from the archdiocese's side. Besides providing the cardinal's statement, journalists have not explained what prompted the cardinal's decision. Pfleger's remarks at Trinity United, after all, are not exactly the first time he has stirred up the pot. As Falsani explained,
Pfleger has been arrested several dozen times over the years for civil disobedience. He's taken on drug dealers, big alcohol companies, the tobacco industry, Jerry Springer, the gun lobby, and gun-toting gang-bangers from his own back yard. He's also run afoul of three archbishops of Chicago, beginning with Cardinal John Cody, who ordained him in 1975, and who threatened to can him in 1981 when Pfleger adopted the first of his two now-grown sons.
After learning that Pfleger had adopted children, my jaw dropped. Is there a precedent in the Catholic Church for this sort of thing? I certainly have never heard of one.
In my view, the lack of coverage about the archdiocese's side of things has begged too many questions. Why would the Cardinal discipline Fleger now? Was Fleger's speech the last straw or has the archdiocese been overrun with too many complaints about the politically active priest?
Now maybe no one from the archdiocese was willing to speak with reporters. But journalists could have found some local professors or experts to help explain the Cardinal's decision.
It might be tempting to think of my criticism as fair but largely beside the point. Yet do reporters think that l'affaire Pfleger is the last time that Catholic Church officials will shape this election, even in this case to prevent one of their priests from intervening in it? Why Catholic prelates act or don't act will be a part of the story.