Washington Post feature sticks Chaput inside an 'omniscient anonymous' voice box

When it comes to biblical images of good and evil, you start off with God, as opposed to Satan, and then you have Christ, as opposed to the mysterious end-times tyrant called the Antichrist.

Now with that in mind, it's safe to say that in current news speak, Pope Francis is pretty much the top of the heap when it comes to good-guy status. It really doesn't matter that the edited Francis who appears in most mainstream news coverage ("Who am I to judge?") is not quite the same pope who appears in the full texts of his homilies and writings ("It is not 'progressive' to try to resolve problems by eliminating a human life").

Thus, it's safe to say that calling a Catholic archbishop the anti-Francis is not a compliment.

Apparently, there are Catholics who have pinned that label on Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and they have shared their views with The Washington Post. Readers do not know who these Catholics (and probably some journalists) are, however, because that would require Post editors to ask some of their reporters to attribute crucial information to named sources. That would be old-school journalism. That would be bad, or so it seems.

The new Post profile of Chaput contains some interesting information, including some drawn from pieces of an email interview with the archbishop. It is also positive that Post editors posted the email-interview text online. I wonder if this was a condition attached to the interview, or whether editors realized that it would be awkward if Chaput posted the text, thus allowing readers to see what he actually said. Either way, this was a constructive act.

(At this point I will stress, as I always do, that I met Chaput decades ago when he was a young Capuchin-Franciscan priest and campus minister in urban Denver and I was a newcomer on the local religion beat. We have been talking about issues of faith, mass media and popular culture ever since.)

Let's return to those anonymous Catholic voices. The Post piece opens with an anecdote about Chaput's skill at blunt, quotable remarks, some of which have been known to anger those on the other side of hot-button issues in public life. Then it launches into a classic example of the "omniscient anonymous voice" narrative that has, in recent months, dominated much of this newspaper's coverage of moral, cultural and religious issues.

This long summary passage -- the story's thesis -- frames the contents of the entire piece. Try to find some clearly identified sources.

Chaput’s barbed words -- delivered in a Midwestern tenor rasp -- have earned him a reputation as an “anti-Francis,” a culture warrior who stands in contrast to the “Who am I to judge?” Francis. But Chaput disagrees. He implies that the contrast exists only in the minds of nosy reporters looking for a good story as Philadelphia prepares to host the World Meeting of Families, the world’s largest gathering of Catholic families, which will be headlined by the presence of the pope.

When the Kansas-born Chaput -- the first person of Native American descent to be an archbishop in the United States -- came to Philadelphia from Denver four years ago, the archdiocese had more than $350 million in outstanding bills and was reeling from the revelation of a major sex-abuse coverup involving dozens of priests. Chaput was tasked with fixing it all, a heavy lift that occupies the majority of his attention -- along with the upcoming papal visit, of course.

But when Chaput does step out onto the culture war battlefield, he gets noticed. Especially with someone like Francis headed into town.

Whereas the pope has made the church seem more welcoming, Chaput recently defended a local Catholic school’s decision to fire a popular religious educator because of her same-sex marriage. Francis hosted a high-level meeting last year to open dialogue on expanding the place of divorced and gay Catholics in the church. Chaput, who didn’t attend that meeting, worried in remarks last year that it left a public impression of confusion. Citing Scripture, Chaput added, “I think confusion is of the devil.”

The comment encouraged a comparison between Chaput’s attitude and Francis’s vision.

Did you spot any named sources in all of that? Do you think that (a) the Post team just made this stuff up or (b) that they are quoting Catholic sources who want to remain anonymous, perhaps to shield their employers? Who contributed the "anti-Francis" label?

Along the way, we have the familiar torn-from-context Francis "Who am I to judge?" quote (full transcript here), a reference to a Catholic schools lifestyle covenant dispute (that seems to assume that Pope Francis opposes the writings of St. John Paul II on Catholic education) and yet another "confusion" reference to a misquote of Chaput's 2014 Erasmus Lecture in New York City (video here and transcript here). 

You remember the famous Chaput quote from the Erasmus Lecture, right?

If we ignore the poor, we will go to hell. If we blind ourselves to their suffering, we will go to hell. If we do nothing to ease their burdens; then we will go to hell. Ignoring the needs of the poor among us is the surest way to dig a chasm of heartlessness between ourselves and God, and ourselves and our neighbors.

Oh wait. Not that quote. I mean the quote in which, according to some media reports (one famous headline, "Archbishop Chaput blasts Vatican debate on family, says 'confusion is of the devil' "), Chaput hinted that Pope Francis was working with Satan to confuse and weaken the Catholic Church.

Actually, here is the key quote -- from the Q&A session after the speech -- that has loomed over Chaput's work with many mainstream reporters ever since.

Audience member: I would be very grateful for your comments on the recent Synod on the Family in Rome.
Chaput: Well, first of all, I wasn’t there. That’s very significant, because to claim you know what really happened when you weren’t there is foolish. To get your information from the press is a mistake because they don’t know well enough how to understand it so they can tell people what happened. I don’t think the press deliberately distorts, they just don’t have any background to be able to evaluate things. In some cases they’re certainly the enemy and they want to distort the Church.
Now, having said all that, I was very disturbed by what happened. I think confusion is of the devil, and I think the public image that came across was of confusion.

So was Chaput saying that the confused "public image" of the Synod on the Family was due to the work of the pope or some members of the press? As the omnipresent Vatican watcher John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux put it, describing Chaput's comments:

Anyone who knows him realizes he’s a man of strong opinions about the risks of assimilating to secular culture, and not shy about voicing them. It’s legitimate to suspect he may be a bit uncomfortable with some of the new winds blowing in the Francis era.
Yet Chaput is also a papal loyalist, and the idea that he would publicly accuse a pontiff of fostering the work of the Devil is implausible. If you read the full text of his response, it seems clear he was talking about media presentations of the synod, not necessarily the event itself. (Whether he was being fair to the media is a conversation for another time.)

While the new Post profile includes a reference to this dispute, it avoided the crucial fact that the archbishop continues to insist that the whole Synod-was-Satanic riff is based on a misquote of what he actually said (that transcript again).

A crucial exchange between the Post and Chaput was included in the email-interview text, but not the story. Here it is:

WP: What’s it like to be an American archbishop in the Francis era? Your remark from Rome about the “confusion” was widely quoted, as well as your comment that the whole debate seemed stirred up by “enemies” who hate the church. Why is this papacy confusing? Polls show many U.S. Catholics have left the church specifically over the issues the synod was addressing. It seems clear many want to have these conversations.
Chaput: Widely misquoted, you mean. What I actually said after the 2014 Erasmus Lecture, which was in New York not Rome, was videoed and transcribed. Anybody can look it up on the Web. My comments had nothing to do with criticizing the extraordinary synod or the Pope. Criticizing some in the media for encouraging confusion and conflict -- well yes, that’s another matter and something this Pope is familiar with. His treatment by the government and media in Argentina when he was archbishop of Buenos Aires was anything but friendly, unless his being accused of running an inquisition on issues like marriage and sexuality is considered “friendly.”
If there’s anything confusing for people in their perceptions of this papacy, it’s a matter of style, not substance. And again, candidly, it’s hard not to see some in the media and blogosphere as fueling that confusion.

So what's the bottom line here, as we head into the heart of the pope's public agenda during his Acela Zone visit? 

When reading the coverage, look for material based on sources who are willing to be quoted by name. Distrust the whole "some have said" and "experts/insiders believe" construction.

Also, if the pope says something that is alleged to be controversial or even unorthodox, don't trust the IQs of Rush Limbaugh and/or folks at MSNBC. Check to see what Catholic media are saying, on both the doctrinal left and right. And in the end, find a source for the full Vatican texts -- for many journalists that remains Whispers in the Loggia -- and dare to read the pope's words for yourself.

As always, the most important words in journalism remain -- comma, quotation mark, said, space, name, period. Avoid the world of "omniscient anonymous voice" insiders.

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