Another case of Chaput-in-mouth disease

Writing at Faith in Public Life, John Gehring draws attention to a peculiar essay by archbishop Charles Chaput in which he denounces the media in the following terms:

We make a very serious mistake if we rely on media like the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN, or MSNBC for reliable news about religion. These news media simply don’t provide trustworthy information about religious faith—and sometimes they can’t provide it, either because of limited resources or because of their own editorial prejudices. These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.”

There are problems with this on so many levels, both substance and tone. Let me start with substance. Yes, of course there are problems with the media when it comes to religion. The level of basic religious education of the average journalist is quite appalling. There is no news there, it is what we have all known for years. The easy equation of Christianity with the religious right, who in many respects diverge from core Christian tenets, is incredibly frustrating.

But Chaput is not interested in making a broad point about religious illiteracy. He is instead making a narrow point about select secular news agencies he doesn’t like. CNN and MSNBC. What is the glaring omission? Where is Chaput’s mention of Fox News? And while we’re at it, where is the mention of poisonous talk radio? Is he so entranced with playing to his audience that he is willing to ignore the shameful demagoguery, the overt appeals to racism and base motives, the violent rhetoric, the liberties taken with the truth, and the grave distortions of the Catholic faith? Why does Chaput not mention any of this? Is he so insecure that he cannot handle criticism of the Church in the New York Times, and must instead run to those who use the Church for their political aims? Does he see no nuance and complexity? Is he not aware that he can learn far more about the economic mess from Paul Krugman in the New York Times than anybody on any alternative media source? As a Catholic voice, does he honestly prefer Bill O’Reilly to Peter Steinfels?

Chaput might be quiet about Fox News, but he does say what he likes: “Many of those choices include outstanding Catholic media like Catholic News Agency, EWTN, the National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor; Salt and Light and Catholic News Service; plus Catholic blogs, websites, and Catholic satellite radio stations.” Again, how thoroughly selective of him. I for one am appalled that an archbishop of a major diocese would shower EWTN with such glowing tributes while that network engages in dreadful distortions of Catholic social teaching to support an individualist and materialist ideology, and – even worse – claims that the intrinsic evil of torture is all fine and dandy. Chaput is stepping perilously close to scandal here. As for the others, I have no real beef with them. But where is Commonweal? America? National Catholic Reporter? These are all fine journals. Yes, they sway in certain directions, but no more so than National Catholic Register, and they are still within the Catholic family. Chaput needs to understand that he is a shepherd of all Catholics, not just the ones who hold particular political opinions. And what blogs is he talking about? I have a funny feeling that Vox Nova is not on his reading list! Funny, when the Church is starting to focus more and more on the anger and vitriol on daily display in the Catholic blogosphere, Chaput is telling Catholics to flock to it!

The sad thing about all of this is that criticizing the media is quite legitimate. There is a problem with the American media. The problem is too much corporate control, the dumbing down of the news, the reduction of everything to a he-said-she-said dichotomy, the obsession with sex, the focus on human interest trivia, and the merging of news with entertainment. If you want to see the lousy quality of American political and economic media coverage, just go to Europe. During the height of the financial crisis, prime-time TV debate in Ireland was talking about the differences between senior and subordinated bank debt. In the United States, it was screaming about socialism. This is the fault of the media. They thrive on controversy, real or manufactured. They live in a world where truth matters less than ratings. “A” says global warming is real, “B” says it’s false; “X”  says health care reform has death panels, “Y”says it doesn’t. There is never a sober attempt to probe the issues, even the ludicruous ones, just a partisan shouting match of slogans and talking points. This contributes to the poisonous political atmosphere, and the coarsening of the culture. Talk radio is the most extreme example, but this attitude is ubiquitous.

In sum, the media have abrogated any sense of public responsibility or civic duty. Catholics should have things to say about this. But Chaput neatly skirts all these issues, focusing instead on who criticizes the Church and who does not. A rather shallow distinction, that, one that simply avoids the difficult issues and retreats to the comfort of the familiar. Anti-Catholicism is a problem that cannot be addressed by climbing the barricades beside Bill Donohue.

And then there is the matter of tone. John Gehring puts it well when he concludes that “the Catholic intellectual and social justice tradition is not served well by embracing such an embattled, defensive posture”. This is Chaput’s problem. His essay will get him applause from a certain partisan wing of the Church, and their evangelical allies, but he is not engaging the wider culture with all its messy complexity. He is not embracing the optimism toward the world embodied in Gaudium Et Spes and more recently in Pope Benedict’s new evangelization project. Chaput should look to Diarmuid Martin, the archbishop of Dublin, who is facing an incredibly hostile media environment – far worse than the American bishops. But Martin refuses to attack the media. Here is what he said in his 2010 easter vigil homily:

“The spotlight of media and public opinion is focused on the failures and the betrayals of Church leaders and a damaging culture which has grown up in the Church. I am not criticising the media for that.  That is their job. In doing their job some will feel the media have been unfriendly to the Church, even unfair; others will welcome and recognise valid criticism, from whatever angle it comes, even if it comes from people patently unfavourable to the Church.  We have to remember that the truth will set the Church free, even if the truth is hard to digest.”

Notice how different this is from Chaput’s defensive and embittered posture. Chaput needs to take his head out of the sand. He needs to do the hard work of engaging the wider culture, and avoid the easy solution of preaching to his own personal choir. He’s smarter than that.

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  • Kurt

    Archbishop Dolan had a similiar tirade against the Times a while ago, making no negative remarks about any other NYC daily. In support of the Archbishop, I stopped by St. Patrick’s Cathedral and had a copy of the Murdoch/FOX owned NY Post under my arm. Needless to say when I set it down to light my candle, the usher was none too pleased with the typical NY Post cover photo. I can’t understand why, given his boss has limited his criticism of its competitor.

    Of course, I am also puzzled why the Archdiocese of New York purchases expensive full page ads every year in the Times. Watch what we do, not what we say?

  • Ronald King

    Excellent insights yet tragic that those with the loudest voices do not possess these same insights and perhaps never will.

  • Zach

    Have you ever once thought that you were wrong about something?

  • M.Z.

    “Many of those choices include outstanding Catholic media like Catholic News Agency, EWTN, the National Catholic Register, and Our Sunday Visitor; Salt and Light and Catholic News Service; plus Catholic blogs, websites, and Catholic satellite radio stations.”

    Each of those venues have their own problems. While there is certainly some truth that EWTN has been victimized by people who have been dishonest in their faith, there are some fundamental problems in how EWTN chooses and promotes the faith. Televangelist is not a traditional ministry and does not seem to be getting the proper supervision. There have been a lot of priests who’ve been forced out at EWTN. Then there are the non-experts given national reputations like Thomas Woods, and then there are the wannabe and real political operatives. And you are most certainly right about the problems in the blogs.

    The funny thing is that all the problems with the secular media are present in the niche Catholic alternative media as well. It isn’t just Catholicism; reporters are grossly ignorant about almost every topic. It is a furtherance of the American phenomenon of there being no consequence for being stupid. It is almost a privileged status. As long as the person is on “our” side though, any stupid thing they say can’t be criticized. (Like the Catholic blogosphere civility debate, the problem isn’t lack of civility but of quality and intelligent arguments.)

  • The Pachyderminator

    But where is Commonweal? America? National Catholic Reporter?

    National Catholic Reporter, the only one of these publications I have any familiarity with, often publishes articles written from viewpoints that are not authentically Catholic, at least not if the Church’s teaching authority means anything. Chaput certainly knows this.

    • Morning’s Minion

      I don’t know what you mean by that. Yes, NCR has disagreed with Church teachings on some matters, but so have the organs that Chaput sites, most specifically on issues of justice. And worst of all, EWTN has distorted just war teaching (Kyle did a great post on that a while back) and claims that torture is OK if America does it.

      • Alex

        Did EWTN come out in support of torture? I thought it was just Arroyo. Did the board of EWTN make some statement that I have missed? I ask because Dale Ahlquist, who also has a show on EWTN, has been pretty vocal in his condemnation of torture.

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  • A Sinner

    “claims that the intrinsic evil of torture is all fine and dandy”

    I have never heard EWTN claim that private individuals may inflict direct pain, nor have I heard them claim a private individual may directly induce death.

    However, induction of death and infliction of pain by the State are a different question. And it’s as intellectually dishonest to keep calling what the State does “torture” (as if it were covered by the Church’s teaching) as it would be to call capital punishment “murder”…

    • Morning’s Minion

      This is quite simple really. The Church defines torture as intrinsically evil, therefore never justfied under any cirumstances. In the hierarchy of evils, Gaudium Et Spes puts torture up there right after murder, abortion, and genocide. The techniques employed by the Bush admistration constitute torture – they have been long regarded as such under international law, the United States itself has prosecuted people for committing these acts, and the acts themselves were taken directly from a training program to help American military personnel cope with torture (i.e. they picked the most likely techniques they felt their people would be subject to).

      Given this background, people on EWTN – Arroyo and Sirico in particular – have defended this torture. This is wicked. It is akin to a Catholic media outfit defending abortion.

      • A Sinner

        You are being sophomoric here. “Torture,” like “murder,” has a precise definition in moral theology. And just like state induction of death is not necessarily murder (though some might call it that), state induction of pain is not necessarily torture, which covers specifically what is done by private individuals. State Killing does-not-equal murder necessarily, and neither does State pain equal torture necessarily. That the WORD is used that way in common parlance does not change the definition MORALLY speaking. Definitions of moral categories, for the most part, must be assumed to be talking about personal sins. When someone is acting as an agent of the State, that potentially changes many things.

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        A Sinner: you have made this argument before, but the fact of the matter is that the Catholic Church forbids torture by the State in all circumstances. Here is the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:

        “In carrying out investigations, the regulation against the use of torture, even in the case of serious crimes, must be strictly observed: “Christ’s disciple refuses every recourse to such methods, which nothing could justify and in which the dignity of man is as much debased in his torturer as in the torturer’s victim”.[830] International juridical instruments concerning human rights correctly indicate a prohibition against torture as a principle which cannot be contravened under any circumstances.” (403)

        You can try to parse distinctions between “infliction of pain” and “torture” but they are meaningless in this context. Torture by anyone, acting either in their own person or as an agent of the state, is a grave moral evil and has been condemned as such by the Church.

      • A Sinner

        The State can’t deputize people to “murder” either. But not all capital punishment is murder.

        Torture “in carrying out an investigation” indeed probably can’t be used, as an investigation implies there hasn’t been a trial yet!!!

        It IS certainly unjust (and indeed torture) to inflict pain on someone to extract a confession or prove they’re guilty, as the very notion of just infliction-of-pain (just like that of just capital punishment) would require having ALREADY established the person’s guilt, at least according to the standards of procedural justice (and certainly, the idea of establishing guilt THROUGH the pain itself is disordered).

        Likewise, the State can’t kill INNOCENT people either, even for the greater good.

        I’m not saying these Catholic conservatives were defending right practices. Indeed, if they were carried out on parties whose guilt had not even been justly established yet (but rather as part of the very investigation), this sounds like torture and unjust. But let’s not throw the baby out with the bath-water. If CAPITAL punishment can be allowed for those determined guilty by a just process, it certainly makes no sense to exclude CORPORAL.

        Either way, I think comparing recent condemnations of “torture” in this sense, to abortion…is rather disingenuous, as there is a clear tradition of one condemnation going back 2000 years in one case, but in the latter a “tradition” going back maybe 50 and expressed in levels of definition far below solemn.

  • Frank M.

    If “induction of death and infliction of pain by the State are a different question,” is it similarly permissible for the government of China to impose its one-child policy? Or is an intrinsic evil intrinsically evil no matter who/what commits it?

    • A Sinner

      Generally, the Family is considered a “natural society” whose authority over something like that PRECEDES the authority of the State in matters internal to it.

      As the Catholic Encyclopedia article on “Society” says:

      “The State cannot eliminate the family; neither can it rob it of its inalienable rights, nor bar the fulfilment of its inseparable duties, though it may restrict the exercise of certain family activities so as to co-ordinate them to the benefit of the body politic.”

      The State can’t use sex as a punishment either.

  • Darwin

    National Catholic Reporter and Commonweal (not so much America, which has turned around a lot in recent years) seem to mostly exist to provide an outlet for dissatisfied Catholics to complain about what’s wrong with the Church and how it should be more like them. The Catholic outlets Archbishop Chaput mentioned tend overall to take a more positive approach and attempt to serve the need for informing and catechizing the faithful.

    For all that EWTN guests and hosts have, at times, said egregious things, most of what they do is very basic catechesis and spirituality of the sort that is very much needed by ordinary Catholic laity. I mean honestly, how many hours of their programming over the last year have even touched on the issues that you’re so wound up at them over.

    Nor is Chaput the only one to have commended the work that EWTN does, the Vatican has on several occasions as well. You’re certainly welcome to dislike it on principle, but for our shepherds, whose job it is to see that people are informed about the basic tenets and practices of our faith rather than to demand that everyone acclaim St. Krugman’s interpretation of the current recession, it’s not surprising that a generally positive impression would prevail.

    Surely it’s possible to see that even those you’ve put down on the enemies list do a fair amount of good most of the time?

  • brian martin

    You mention EWTN as distorting Catholic Teaching, and ask about NCR. I recently read an editorial by one of their writers entitled “Witnessing a Catholic same-sex wedding”
    Certainly this is not in line with Church teaching. Also, there is considerable support for women’s ordination. Now whether or not one agree’s with that, it is outside of the Church’s teaching.
    I do fine commonweal to be a very thoughtful and thought provocing read, one that seems to try very hard to keep within the Boundaries of Church teaching

  • Anne

    Archbishop Chaput simply embarrasses himself with that list of secular publications he decided to single out as unreliable in their presentation of religious news. Kenneth Woodward at Newsweek, for one, has provided some of the best reporting on religion in general, and Catholicism in particular, over the past 40 years. Then to recommend a smattering of second-rate religious publications, and leave out the National Catholic Reporter, where probably the best reporter on the Vatican today, John Allen, has a weekly column, confounds the crime! I’m verklempt.

  • Anne

    Ironically, I should add that an interview with Archbishop Chaput by John Allen is currently available at