Apparently Archbishop Charles Chaput struck a nerve with Mark Silk, professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and the author of Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II and Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America. We've discussed Chaput's address to religion news writers a few times already. If you haven't read it, we'll give you a minute to do so now.
I thought that Chaput offered constructive criticism of the media and really elevated the discussion. Silk says it's tired, old culture war silliness. He says the problem with the media isn't that it's composed of elites who make secularist assumptions that are out of touch with reality or that coverage of Christianity in particular is negative. He says the real problem is that "the media tend to view religion not through secularist glasses but in categories derived from Western religion." Fine.
But check out this part of his criticism:
But be this as it may, what really caught my eye in Chaput's address was this:
One of the worst habits many Catholics had at the start of the clergy sex abuse crisis, including many bishops, was to minimize a very grave problem. But news media show many of the same patterns of denial, vanity, obstinacy, and institutional defensiveness in dealing with criticism of their own failures.
Now, it's pretty white of Chaput to include "many bishops" on his side of the comparison ...
What? What was that last line? Now, on a good day, in an intimate setting, that type of line is risky. But yikes -- what was Silk thinking? The usually sarcastic saying -- an unsubtle reference to white people engaging in atrocities against or oppression of non-whites, while claiming to do so in their benefit -- is a biting insult with the power to offend all races.
For what it's worth, Chaput is a registered member of the Prairie Band Potawatomi Tribe, very active in Native American affairs and the first Native American archbishop.
I can't even imagine what the media response would be if Chaput made such a scathing remark with racial connotations. I assume that Silk, who received his Ph.D. from Harvard and has spent his life in journalism and the academy, either didn't think about what he was saying or didn't realize how the remark is taken by others. Maybe he thought Chaput's family heritage is what makes the insult work. I don't know. But it's really an odd way to disagree with someone who's calling for civility and decency in media coverage. And it probably couldn't better prove Chaput's point that the media has trouble with self-criticism and respect of others.
Here's how Chaput's address ended:
Religion journalism deals with the most fundamental things about human meaning, things intimate, defining, and sacred to many millions of people. So master and respect your material. Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don't make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that -- and do it with integrity, fairness, and humility -- then you'll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you'll embody the best ideals of your profession.
We can all disagree and fight things out, but it seems to me this is solid advice. We should check our prejudices and aim for integrity and fairness and humility.