Another case of Chaput-in-mouth disease

Another case of Chaput-in-mouth disease August 25, 2011

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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