I rarely post my weekly Scripps Howard New Service column here at GetReligion, but this week is a unique situation. First of all, it the 21st birthday of the column. So there. Sue me. Second, the actual subject of the column is religion-news coverage, in an indirect way, and that means the whole "blind spot" issue is once again in play.
The column focuses on Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput's recent appearance at the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, which was supposed to focus on the role of Roman Catholics in American politics and public life. Click here for the whole transcript of that event (and there'll be more on that later, because it's a must-read for journalists). I realize that the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway has already posted on this event. But it's worth two looks.
But before he ventured into that terrain -- focusing, as you might expect, on his book "Render Unto Caesar" -- the archbishop spent some time talking about why he respects reporters and journalism in general, yet why he is often angered by inaccurate -- as opposed to critical -- coverage of the Catholic church.
So with that introduction, here is a long, shameless chunk of my column, which includes some first-person info on how long I have know this particular priest-bishop-archbishop. He opened with Mother Teresa's quip that she would rather bath a leper than meet the press.
The archbishop stressed that he does not feel that way, especially when working with journalists who have acquired the knowledge and skills needed to do accurate, critical coverage of religion. However, he is convinced that many religious believers simply do not appreciate the vital role that journalists are supposed to play in public life.
"Journalism is a vocation, not a job," said Chaput. "Pursued properly, journalism should enjoy the same dignity as the law or medicine because the service that journalists perform is equally important to a healthy society. I really believe that. You form people. You form the way they think and the way they live their lives. So journalists have a duty to serve the truth and the common good."
That's the good news. I have heard Chaput make that point more than once during the quarter of a century since I first met him, while he was a Capuchin-Franciscan priest in urban Denver and I was a newcomer on the local religion beat. Chaput was already interested in mass media, popular culture and the changing landscape of American religion and those interests only deepened when, in 1988, he was ordained Bishop of Rapid City, S.D. Soon after he returned to Denver as archbishop, in 1997, he organized a conference on the cultural and religious implications of the Internet.
These were precisely the kinds of topics that I wanted to emphasize when -- 21 years ago this week -- I began writing this column for Scripps Howard. Our interests also overlapped when I began teaching about religion and mass media, first in a Denver seminary and then in the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. Our paths have been crossing ever since.
When it comes to journalism, Chaput knows the good news and the bad news.
The bad news, he said, is that far too many journalists who cover religion events have no idea what they are doing. They may be talented and intelligent, but when it comes to religion they just don't get it.
"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 said. "I do think editors should have the basic Catholic vocabulary needed to grasp what we're talking about and why we're talking about it."
As you would imagine, much of the discussion time with a room full of journalists -- mostly pros who cover the intersection of religion and politics -- focused on the issue of Holy Communion and the sacramental status of Catholic politicians who openly reject the moral teachings of their church, especially on the iron-clad issue of abortion. You need to read all of that give and take in the transcript, including a long exchange with "On Faith" czarina Sally Quinn of the Washington Post about her decision -- as a nonbeliever -- to take Communion at the funeral of the late Tim Russert.
In his book "Render Unto Caesar," Chaput argued that it's the "political duty" of Catholics to "know their faith and to think and act like faithful Catholics all the time" -- even those who work inside the Washington Beltway.
Alas, the journalists think they are writing about the rights of politicians, while some Catholic bishops want to discuss the salvation and, yes, damnation of souls. If journalists insist on describing this conflict in strictly political terms, he said, there is no way the public will ever understand what is happening.
"No one ever has a right to the Eucharist, and the vanity or hurt feelings of an individual Catholic governor or senator or even vice president does not take priority over the faith of the believing community," said Chaput. Thus, while journalists are under "no obligation to believe what the church teaches … they certainly do have the obligation to understand, respect and accurately recount how she understands herself, and especially how she teaches and why she teaches" these doctrines.
Too often, said the archbishop, inaccurate news reports about this controversy have left the impression that "access to Holy Communion ... is like having bar privileges at the Elks Club."
As you read the transcript, you'll notice that the key issue is that some journalists seem to doubt whether it is possible to say that the Catholic church teaches anything specific and, thus, whether accuracy is the issue. Why believe that what the Vatican says is more important, more accurate, more authoritative, than what Father So-And-So says out at Georgetown? In other words, the pope has opinions on what the church teaches and so do those who disagree with him.
It's a crucial issue, especially as journalists wait for more dominoes to fall in the weeks before THE SPEECH at Notre Dame University.