Pfleger: Pol or priest?

pflegerABC News billed it as an exclusive. More than two weeks after being suspended for making fun of Hillary Clinton from the pulpit, Father Michael Pfleger discussed his return to active ministry. Here is how Jonann Brady of ABC News began her story:

In an exclusive interview, Pfleger told "Good Morning America" that he does not "apologize for being passionate, I don't apologize for being free."

"But I apologize when my passion or my freeness and my flawedness of character get in the way of a content which is much more important to me," he told "GMA's" Robin Roberts.

Though Pfleger promised church leaders he would not speak about the candidates again by name, he insisted he would still talk about politics.

"The church has to be the one to be the voice of conscience to the world and can't be afraid to be that," he said. "It has to speak to politics and the policies and the politicians and to raise those questions, or we're not faithful to what our mission is. "

Later in the story, Brady filled readers in about Pfleger's activities and background:

In his sermon on June 22 called "Ain't Nothing Like a Comeback," Pfleger told his parishioners at St. Sabina's Catholic Church that he would not "run and hide, nor allow them to cause me to 'play it safe' or become silent."

"We still have an unequal justice system -- we still have more people of color in poverty, in jail, in poor education systems, a lack of health care. All those statistics will tell us that we have not come as far as we've liked to come," said Pfleger.

Pfleger has been the leader of the predominantly black church since 1981. He has been described as "extremely Afro-centric," and has called the controversial former pastor at Trinity Church, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, a "friend, mentor and hero."

The two passages apply more to a liberal politician than a Catholic priest. Readers were told of Pfleger's view of politics and political activities but not his non-political pastoral activities.

Brady was not the only reporter who portrayed Pfleger almost exclusively in political terms. So too did Cathleen Falsani, a columnist for Religion News Service and the Chicago Sun Times. In an otherwise interesting profile of the pastor, Falsani emphasized his political activity repeatedly, as in this passage:

Along his unique spiritual journey, Pfleger has made a lot of enemies and acquired a few interesting traveling companions, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, poet Maya Angelou, singer Harry Belafonte, the Rev. Al Sharpton and black liberation icon James Cone.

Sen. Barack Obama's controversial former pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, is one of Pfleger's closest friends. In fact, Pfleger credits Wright with teaching him how to preach in the fiery style that landed him in hot water and resulted in an involuntary leave of absence from St. Sabina.

Sure, Pfleger's political activism is a big part of the story. If it weren't, he would never have made national headlines.

But for a Catholic priest, his brand of political activism is highly unusual. He quotes Martin Luther King, Jr. and Paul Tillich, but not popes John Paul II or John XXIII. He fights against drugs, guns, and prostitution but not abortion, which is an issue of increasing concern among black Catholics. (This would be too much to ask of most reporters, but Falsani and Brady might have asked why Pfleger did not become a Josephite, an order that caters to black Catholics.)

Pfleger's theological views and spiritual experience are also unusual. In the middle of the story, Falsani writes

Outside of it, Pfleger, 59, has spent the 33 years of his priesthood among the impoverished black community on Chicago's South Side creating a ministry that's based in equal parts on a thoroughly Catholic understanding of the social gospel and its notion of God's preferential option for the poor, and the not-so-Catholic belief in salvation by grace, through faith -- period.

At the same time, Pfleger, who says he became a born-again Christian more than 30 years ago, also has built a public reputation for being a loudmouth rebel (some say renegade) -- a rabble-rousing, bishop-defying troublemaker.

There is a lot to explain there. How do his views and experience comport with his service as a Catholic priest?

What's more, Brady and Falsani failed to note that Pfleger was suspended by Cardinal Francis George of Chicago precisely because he was acting in a partisan (i.e. overly political) way. Yet the reporters continue to portray Pfleger almost entirely as a political activist rather than a Catholic priest.

Whatever the two reporters and Pfleger think, there is a difference. Catholic teaching maintains, and Cardinal George reiterated, that priests have a role to play in politics. But priests should not be confused with politicians. When reporters miss this, they don't get religion.

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