Chaput to media:
‘Would you send someone to cover Wall Street who doesn’t understand even the basics of economics and finance?’
So if you’re going to cover the Church, get a working knowledge of its history and teachings. Sound advice, from the author of Render Unto Caesar.
Public understanding of the Catholic role in our
political process depends, in large part, on how the mainstream media
frame Church-related issues.
He knows Catholics commonly get more of their information about the Church from the media than from the bishops.
I don’t know if any of you had the chance to cover
Mother Teresa when she visited this country over the years. She once
joked that she’d rather bathe a leper than meet the press. Mother was
not known for the ambiguity of her feelings. And a lot of people in
the Church, especially those who practice their faith in an active and
regular manner, would agree with what she meant because they feel the
Chaput says he doesn’t, personally, because he likes engaging in
debates and getting challenging questions. Too bad there’s such a
dearth of those…
When reporters talked with me last fall about Render Unto Caesar,
I learned that (a) many hadn’t really read it; (b) many lacked even a
basic understanding of Catholic identity that you need for a useful
disagreement; and (c) many weren’t interested in learning what they
didn’t know. At the same time, some did unfortunately know what they
planned to write before they walked into my office for the interview.
That’s been the case for a long, long time in secular
media. The story is preconceived, the reporter is sent out to get the
quotes and anecdotal information that will back it up.
Look, Chaput says, just approach your reporting with a good base of
background knowledge and a good set of questions and the ability to
The media have no obligation to believe what the Church
teaches. But 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.
And why he refers to the Church as ’she’, for another thing.
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. Too often, they don’t. And here’s a very simple
example. In 20 years as a bishop, I’ve never had a single reporter ask
me why I so often refer to the Church as “she” and “her,” instead of
“it,” just as I’m doing today. I find that extremely odd, because
those pronouns go straight to the heart of Catholic theology, life and
That should be a conversation starter, right there.
Here’s his finish, and it’s a good one:
Most of you came here today because you already do try
to take the Catholic Church and religious issues seriously, and you do
try to write with depth, integrity and a sense of context. I thank you
Now please tell your friends in the newsroom to do the same. I
think history teaches us that the religious impulse is hardwired into
human identity, and that faith is one of the engines of human dignity
and progress. When religion gets pushed to a society’s margins,
politics takes its place with the same vestments, but less conscience.
We need the Church to remind us of the witness of history: that
human beings remain fallible; that civil power unconstrained by a
reverence for God — or at least a healthy respect for the possibility
of God — sooner or later attacks the humanity it claims to serve; and
that we’re all of us subject to the same excuse-making and
self-delusion in our personal lives, in our public actions — and even
in the corridors of national leadership.
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