Chaput-Martin feud a case study in news media misrepresentation of Catholic teachings

Who is made a cardinal — and who isn’t — can sometimes be loaded with intrigue. It’s why the Vatican (and much of the Catholic church) is covered more like a political institution (akin to the White House and Congress) and less like it’s part of a global religion. It is this dangerous tendency, largely on the part of the secular press, to reduce most theological positions to political ones that has fueled divisions within the Catholic church during the era of Pope Francis.

For everyday Catholics, the ties to the Vatican are religious, not political. Like Mecca for Muslims and Jerusalem for Jews (and Muslims), Rome is a place of pilgrimage and prayer. Everyday Catholics don’t concern themselves with the backroom politics. The consistory of this past Saturday (where Pope Francis “created” 13 new cardinals) wasn’t a part of Mass or discussion among parishioners in my church the past few weeks. The attitude generally seems to be that these cardinals don’t really affect our lives.

Or do they?

They do. Those chosen to take part in the Amazon Synod taking place at the Vatican starting this week are a good example of this. These men not only elect the next pope, they also guide the flock in their particular metropolitan areas. They help set the agenda. They can influence local and national politics. In other words, they are a big deal. And most metropolitan newspapers, large and small, in this country cover them that way. This is big news, no matter how your define that.

It wasn’t lost on The New York Times, who was giddy in this news story about Pope Francis’ legacy that ran on the eve of the consistory. Add to that this fawning opinion piece posted to the website on the same day under the headline “Pope Francis Is Fearless.” The subhead, on the newspaper’s website, read like this: “His papacy has been a consistent rebuke to American culture-war Christianity in politics.”

This takes us to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia and why who will replace him matters. It’s the best example of the fight currently going on between those on the doctrinal left and right. It’s all tied up with Francis’ talk of schism, whether priests should marry and how to minister to the LGBTQ community, while heeding centuries of church teachings.

Again, how the mainstream press has covered these issues over the past few weeks (compared to the Catholic press) all goes to the heart of this worldview divide. Chaput has been on the forefront of this “culture-war politic” the Times talks about.

It was on Sept. 21 that The Philadelphia Inquirer published a story about Chaput turning 75, starting the clock on who could be named by Francis to replace him. In paragraphs seven and eight, the story addresses the biggest hurdle to Chaput staying on.

Though Chaput has pushed back against those who would characterize him as Francis’ foil, his outspoken traditionalism and willingness to enter the fray of secular politics have earned him a following in the conservative Catholic movement that has arisen in response to one of the most progressive popes in generations.

“These two individuals have quite different ways of doing theology and processing questions confronting the Catholic community,” said Philip Cunningham, a theology professor at St. Joseph’s University. “They’re not mutually exclusive, but they are different.”

Despite Philadelphia being a major American city in terms of the number of Catholics, the pontiff has ignored Chaput when it comes to who gets a red hat. A Philadelphia Inquirer story from October 2015, linked in last month’s story, did a great job explaining why.

Fast-forward to the present. It was on Sept. 19 that Chaput penned a column on the archdiocese’s website addressing what he called “a pattern of ambiguity” on the part of Father James Martin.

The Jesuit is no stranger to readers of this site. Catholic News Agency, like many news sites on the doctrinal right, covered the Chaput column and this theological conflict. This is what they reported:

Martin is the author of “Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity,” and speaks frequently on issues pertaining to homosexuality and Catholicism. He spoke Sept. 17 at Philadelphia's St. Joseph's University.

Chaput’s column raised his concern that “Father Martin – no doubt unintentionally – inspires hope that the Church’s teachings on human sexuality can be changed.”

“In his book, ‘Building A Bridge,’ he writes: ‘For a teaching to be really authoritative it is expected that it will be received by the people of God . . . From what I can tell, in the LGBT community, the teaching that LGBT people must be celibate their entire lives . . . has not been received.’ One might easily, and falsely, infer from such language that the Church’s teaching on sexual intimacy lacks binding authority for same-sex attracted Catholics,” Chaput wrote.

The archbishop credited Martin for the priest’s insistence that he has never directly challenged Catholic teaching.

“But what is implied or omitted often speaks as loudly as what is actually stated, and in the current climate, incomplete truths do, in fact, present a challenge to faithful Catholic belief. When people hear that ‘the Church welcomes gay people’ or needs to be more ‘inclusive and welcoming’ without also hearing the conditions of an authentically Christian life set for all persons by Jesus Christ and his Church -- namely, living a life of chastity -- they can easily misunderstand the nature of Christian conversion and discipleship,” Chaput noted.

This very public fallout triggered lots of debate. It also led Martin, who also serves as editor-at-large of America magazine, to respond to Chaput in a letter that took the form of a tweetstorm and an Op-Ed in the archdiocese’s newspaper.  

In response, Chaput said he appreciated Martin's “typically gracious comments” — but did not think they changed the need for writing his column.

This back-and-forth received no secular news coverage. That is, until Martin had a private audience with Pope Francis on Sept. 30 at the Vatican. The meeting was Francis’ way of rebuking Chaput’s comments — and the press couldn’t get enough of it. This is how America covered the meeting, opening their story this way:

Pope Francis received James Martin, S.J., in a 30-minute private audience in the papal library of the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace this morning, Sept. 30, in what is seen here as a highly significant public statement of support and encouragement for this U.S. Jesuit. Father Martin is well known as a public speaker, author and for his pastoral ministry to L.G.B.T. people.

“I was very moved by my encounter with a real pastor,” a joy-filled Father Martin told America after the meeting. “I am most grateful to the Holy Father for his generosity in granting me an audience in the midst of his busy schedule,” he said.

The Associated Press was even more slanted in its approach. The story, under the headline “Pope meets with Jesuit targeted by right for gay outreach,” started their story this way:

Pope Francis met privately Monday with an American Jesuit who has been attacked by conservative U.S. Catholics for reaching out to gays, the latest evidence of Francis’ willingness to shrug off right-wing criticism for the sake of his pastoral priorities.

The Vatican listed the audience with the Rev. James Martin among the pope’s daily activities, in a sign that Francis wanted it publicized. Since only some of Francis’ private meetings are announced, the implicit message was a public vote of confidence in Martin’s ministry.

Martin, author of “Building a Bridge,” a book about how the Catholic Church should reach out more to the LGBT community, has had several talks canceled in the United States because of pressure from conservative groups who oppose his advocacy. The Vatican under Francis has welcomed him, however, appointing him as a communications consultant, giving him a speaking slot at a 2018 Vatican-sponsored family rally and now a private papal audience.

That very sympathetic news coverage left little room for debate — or Catholic doctrine on the issue of homosexuality — and Chaput’s previous warnings. There was no mention of the Philadelphia archbishop.

Instead, the article made mention of those on the right this way:

Some conservative Catholics, especially in the U.S., have accused Martin of blasphemy and of spreading a “homosexualist” agenda. Many of them belong to the small but loud Francis opposition — a wing that the pope recently acknowledged when he told reporters that he was “honored” to be attacked by Americans and wasn’t afraid of schism by conservatives in the U.S. church.

In a tweet, Rorate Caeli, a traditionalist blog that has been critical of Francis, noted that Martin’s audience was listed alongside that of an entire bishops’ conference. “If that’s not an endorsement, nothing is,” read the tweet.

Damian Thompson, associate editor at Britain’s The Spectator, a conservative newsmagazine, said Francis’ aim in meeting with Martin was “intended to taunt the U.S. conservatives that he demonizes.”

Many of Francis’ critics argue he has confused the faithful with his mercy-over-morals priorities and flexibility on doctrinal issues such as sacraments for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

Doesn’t the mainstream press make a big deal of every papal meeting?

Not really. Consider that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s recent meeting with the pope did get ink — but featured President Trump’s impeachment as the main focus. This Huffington Post story is a great example of this pervasive practice.

In addition, there was no mention of the catechism in these Francis-Martin stories — as if not supporting LGBTQ rights was in contrast to Catholic teaching. It should be noted that Francis, while being welcoming of homosexual Catholics, has largely reiterated the church’s teaching on the matter, especially in regards to gay marriages. Nonetheless, like Martin, critics have said he’s left the door open for ambiguity.

The conservative Catholic website Church Militant, a critic of many of Francis’ decisions, has reported that the Amazon Synod is packed with leftists, including LGBT advocates. Yes, some can argue that this website pumps out “an extreme view.” How extreme is up for debate. The synod’s working document features a number of issues, including whether priests in this part of the world should be allowed to marry. Cardinal Raymond Burke, another conservative prelate, has been critical of the synod and its agenda.

How the synod will progress over the next two weeks is certain to reveal the growing doctrinal divide. The Chaput-Martin feud revealed lots about what secular journalists think of Catholic doctrine. They either don’t know it (or care to quote it) and cover issues such as homosexuality in a political context.

As a result, Martin is seen as “woke” and Chaput is hopelessly on the wrong side of history. In other words, the press now treats conservative Catholics (those who believe in the church’s doctrine and teachings) as akin politically to evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump.

While mainstream outlets don’t care to cover this fight accurately, it goes to the very heart of where the church may be going in the future and the doctrinal divides that continue to dominate the debate around Francis.  

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