Thinking Catholic

By Kevin Edward White, Board of Directors, Catholic Citizens of Illinois

How We Read the News about the Roman Catholic Church:

The kerfuffle late last year over the appointment of Joseph Blase Archbishop Cupich to oversee the Chicago Archdiocese provides yet another useful reminder of the need for greater care and sensitivity when drawing conclusions about the Catholic Church, based on reporting in the media.

Consider how much that was reported about this appointment turned out to have little or no foundation in reality.

  • The Pope’s appointment was a “surprise.”

Of course, at one level, this a truism.  None but the handful of people (fewer than five including the Pope) involved in the appointment process selection has any access to it.  Those few who do have access could easily be fingered if leaks occurred, and the penalty for disclosing such confidences are severe.  So they don’t talk about it.  As a result yes, almost any appointment can be characterized as a “surprise.”  And, of course Archbishop Cupic himself was repeatedly quoted as saying that he was as surprised as anyone by his appointment, and overwhelmed by it.[1]

But reporting that a Vatican appointment was, as always, a surprise, and that the person appointed was, as always surprised doesn’t make for much of a story.  Only a “Man Bites Dog” story is news.

  • The Pope was “sending a message” through the appointment.[2]

While perhaps any appointment to any high office could be construed as “sending a message,” the media does not often routinely characterize appointment stories that way, much less then go on to assert exactly the message the appointment was conveying. Nor did any of the Cupich articles explained how the Cupich appointment could be construed as any such thing. Most simply contrasted Cupich with his predecessor.  Obviously, they were different people.  No successor is going to be the same as his predecessor.  But when do such differences suddenly constitute a “message?”  The media never explained that.

And note that not all such appointments send messages, at least to judge from media reports.  When Pope Francis appointed the highly orthodox Australian Archbishop Anthony Fisher, to replace another highly orthodox Australian predecessor, Cardinal George Pell, did the media see a “message” there?  If there was a “message” being sent there, the media kept it to itself.

Perhaps most aptly, and as Archbishop Cupich himself put it, the Pope was not sending a message to Chicago, but a bishop.[3]

The “message” that the Pope was sending with the Cupic appointment was that Cardinal George’s “confrontational and rigid approach” was “out.”[4]

Note the subtle assumption here, that Cardinal George was “confrontational and rigid,” a “combative conservative.”   The media reports made no case for depicting George that way and it would have been hard pressed to do so.  Instead the characterizations are just presented as obvious and a given.

The “message” was that the more “pastoral” manner of Pope Francis and Bishop Cupich was “in.”

What in this context the media means by “pastoral” is anyone’s guess.  But somehow the statement again implies additional shortcomings of Cardinal George, though without evidence, and for that matter the current Pope’s own predecessors, again without explanation or analysis.  For lack of any basis, why should anyone take this as a valid report?

The “message” was a softening of the church’s doctrines on so-called “hot” social issues like abortion and gay marriage.

Now this is truly remarkable idea, that tectonic changes in Church doctrine are not only possible, but transmitted via appointments.  But that is really the point: statements like that one demonstrate only that the writer either understands nothing about the Church, or is hostile to her, or both.  So why react to such a report, other than to try to correct it?

In hindsight, of course, the media’s analysis of the meaning of the Cupic appointment bears no relation to reality, nor does it seem to provide any startling insight into what  Pope Francis has in mind for the Church, much less for the Church here in the Archdiocese of Chicago.

So what is the lesson here?  Namely, that as Roman Catholics, we need to bring a skeptical and knowing eye to coverage of the Church in the secular media, and not just assume that the report is accurate. Particularly if the media reports something we find startling or uncomfortable about the Church, assume first that the coverage is inaccurate and ‘do no harm” in response to it.

Instead, when you see such reports, take a deep breath, get yourself a refreshing beverage of your choice, and review the basics:

  1. No writer appearing regularly in the main stream media covers the Roman Catholic Church most, or even much, of their time. At best a particular reporter might, with some rough consistency, step in and out of coverage of the Church, if and when his or her editor looks to spin a particular Church event as a  “man bites dog” story.
  2. As a result, most such writers (and their editors) are at best ignorant, and at worst both ignorant and hostile to the Church. Therefore the odds of an article getting it “right,” particularly regarding anything requiring any subtlety, or even a general familiarity with Catholic theology, or Church history, are slim to none.

A recent example:  a media report recently referred to Pope Francis’ tone on homosexuality as more open and accepting, contrasting his statements with those of Pope Benedict, who reportedly referred to homosexuality as “objectively disordered.”   But Pope Benedict of course, was quoting fundamental and long-standing Catholic doctrine, from which Pope Francis, as a self-described “son of the Church,” has never distanced himself nor, likely, will he ever do so.[5]

The less these editors and writers know and understand about the Church, the more likely that, in their own minds and perhaps without even realizing it, they will analogize the Church (and its decision-making processes) to other denominations with which they are more familiar with (more typically Protestant and typically liberal), or to state or federal legislative bodies, or to our major corporations.  Doing so make the coverage even less meaningful, of course, the Church in no way analogous to any of those institutions.

That is not to say that these reporters (or their editors) should be written off as hopeless. Indeed, it is important to communicate with them when the coverage we see is just plain poor. If such contacts are done appropriately, then at least the reporter will know that someone is watching and that, if they continue to distort something they’ve already been advised they are distorting, they will be acting unprofessionally.

Keep these precepts in mind then, when we read about the Church in the main stream media. Without necessarily questioning the integrity of the writer, we ought not to assume that a report that we might find disturbing is even being accurate, much less thoughtful or sympathetic.  And even assuming good faith, unless the reporter knows and understands the Church, he or she will almost inevitably not understand the story about the Church that they are reporting.

Knowing that the media is not accurately reporting the story, if we intend to talk about it with others, then we first need to figure out whether there really is a story to discuss and, if there is, what the story really is.

But how to go about doing that is a topic for another reflection.