Yesterday Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput addressed a gathering of top religion journalists at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life in Washington, D.C. His speech was billed as a discussion on the political obligations of Catholics but he also spent a great deal of time discussing the strengths and weaknesses of media coverage. I had the privilege of attending, while also getting to put the names of reporters we discuss here with their faces. The Associated Press and U.S. News & World Report had brief mentions of Chaput's remarks but Catholic News Agency had a lengthy article, "Media risks making politics a religion by marginalizing the Church, Archbishop Chaput says" that is sure to be of interest to readers of this blog. Chaput had quite a bit of praise for his personal dealings with reporters and the story mentioned that. But there's another side, too, he said:
However, he said some reporters and editors have been "uniquely frustrating" because "too often they really don't know their subject; or they dislike the influence of religion; or they have unresolved authority issues; or they resent Catholic teachings on sex; or they'd rather be covering the White House, but this is the only beat they could get."
"I don't 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," he commented, advocating that editors have a "basic Catholic vocabulary" 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 "she" and "her" instead of "it."
"I find that extremely odd, because those pronouns go straight to the heart of Catholic theology, life and identity."
Chaput had good words for the role of the media in public life and said journalism is a vocation tantamount to law or medicine in dignity and in the importance to society. And check out whose work he highlighted in particular:
Archbishop Chaput singled out by name several journalists, praising the work of Vatican expert John Allen and Associated Press writer Eric Gorski for their "outstanding work." He also mentioned Terry Mattingly and his colleagues at GetReligion.org before praising Vatican expert Sandro Magister and Alejandro Bermudez for offering "excellent and well informed international reporting on religious affairs."
Chaput criticized the practice of hiring religion reporters who have no expertise in the subject matter. He referenced the media coverage of his 2008 book Render Unto Ceasar:
In his interactions with reporters about his book, the archbishop found that many hadn't "really read it," many lacked "even a basic understanding of Catholic identity" necessary for a "useful disagreement" and many weren't interested in "learning what they didn't know."
"At the same time, some did unfortunately know what they planned to write before they walked into my office for the interview," he commented, explaining that a bishop's approach to politics differs from the media's.
One of the more interesting aspects of the meeting occurred when the Washington Post's Sally Quinn defended her reception of the eucharist at the funeral of her good friend Tim Russert. She said she'd taken communion once prior, at a non-Catholic church. She'd done that because she wanted to see what it felt like and she believed that reporters should know and experience a lot about religion. She said Cardinal McCarrick had invited the entire congregation to take communion at Russert's funeral and that she wanted to do it for Russert. It was an emotional time for her. She thought of how much Russert had tried to convert her to Catholicism. She said the experience was helpful but that she had gotten quite a bit of hate mail over the matter. She pointed out that it wasn't written anywhere in the funeral bulletin that she shouldn't take communion.
All of that was prelude to her question of Chaput. Quinn said that Chaput had set very harsh guidelines for who can and can't commune. She said it would seem that no one is acceptable for admittance to communion since everyone is a sinner, has scandal and has done something wrong in their life. She wondered why Catholic friends of hers whose consciences are not clear are allowed to take communion.
Chaput began his response by apologizing to Quinn for any Catholic who treated her poorly or accused her of doing things she hadn't meant to do. He pointed out that the guidelines he'd given in his earlier discussion weren't his guidelines but, rather, the guidelines of the church. He explained that the church doesn't teach you have to be perfect or even good to receive the Eucharist. You do have to be sorry for your sins and believe what the church believes. He said that Catholic teaching doesn't really permit personal interpretations of what the Eucharist means.
CNA noted some of his other comments on the Eucharist, many of them dealing with what the media don't get about Catholic teaching. Where the media see a Catholic politician, he said, Catholic bishops see a soul. Here's how the piece ends:
Warning against the imposition of the language of "civil rights" upon Catholic practice, he said that no one has a "right" to the Eucharist and "the 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."
Noting that the media have no obligation to believe Catholic teaching, he said they are "certainly" obliged to "understand, respect and accurately recount" how the Church understands herself and how and why she teaches.
"Most 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," he stated. "I thank you for that."
"Now please tell your friends in the newsroom to do the same," he concluded, warning that the marginalization of religion leads politics to take its place "with the same vestments, but less conscience."
Read the whole thing. And I'll let you know when the transcript for the event is up at Pew.