Oct 03

The Religion Newswriters Association held their annual meeting recently. Their keynote speaker challenged them: be honest.

“Know yourself and your prejudices,” advised Archbishop Charles Chaput. In the right order of things…

A responsible press and a faith shaped by the God of charity and justice share two things in common: a concern for human dignity, and an interest in truth. 

But in this age of relativism, there’s a shock value to moral anecdotal accounts. Like the one behind George Orwell’s evolution as a political writer.

By the time he finished writing Animal Farm in 1943, Britain had joined with the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. Orwell couldn’t find a single publisher honest enough to release his allegory of the Soviet regime, in which the main characters were a breed of shrewdly cynical pigs.

Where’s he going with this?

Six decades later, this essay still has value. And here’s why: Most arguments for press freedom deal with the media’s need for independence from state censorship and propaganda. That makes sense. But Orwell focused on something very different—a kind of undermining of free thought and expression unique to modern democratic societies.

He saw his problems with Animal Farm as part of a much bigger pattern of “self-censorship” in wartime England. Nobody demanded the media’s fawning coverage of the Soviet Union. Nobody required the falsification of facts, or the ugly attacks on critics of Stalin, or the covering-up of unpleasant truths. Nobody forced journalists and editors to do these things. They freely chose to do them.

The news media of the day were staffed by decent men and women. They felt they were on the side of social progress. They thought the Soviet Union, whatever its flaws, was fighting for human progress too. So they ignored unhappy details and hard questions about the reality of Soviet life.

Their assumptions created what Orwell saw as a new form of religious orthodoxy. That orthodoxy shaped the boundaries of permissible thought and expression. And Orwell warned that this unspoken tendency toward group-think would threaten the press in democratic societies well into the future…

I think Orwell’s words capture the way many people feel today toward the news media and coverage of religion news. In practice—at least in the eyes of ordinary people I hear from every week—a new body of ideas seems to shape the limits of acceptable thought in American public life. This new orthodoxy seems to influence the selection of religious news and how that news gets presented. It seems to frame which opinions are appropriate and which ones won’t be heard. And it seems to guide the historical narrative that media present to their audiences. At its core, it has a set of assumptions about the nature of human life, the purpose of government, and the proper role of religion in the lives of individuals and in society that veers away from past American habits of thought.

This new thinking seems to presume a society much more secular and much less religious than anything in America’s past or anything warranted by present facts…

Well, how did the religion reporters hearing this address react? Some of them sneeringly, as First Things pointed out.

During the question and answer period, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times asked him why he didn’t return her phone call when Archbishop Jose Gomez was chosen as Los Angeles archbishop. Chaput said that Times reporter David Kirkpatrick misquoted him during John Kerry’s presidential campaign, and he said that he has recordings to prove it. “It’s the New York Times’ editorial policy that I’m interpreting,” Chaput said. “I made a judgment based on experience.”

Goodstein said she did not know Chaput was boycotting the Times. He challenged Goodstein’s more recent coverage of the Catholic Church. “You treated Pope Benedict badly in the latest series about him,” he said.

Cathy Grossman of USA Today challenged him, asking if a boycott over one reporter was fair. “We don’t boycott everyone, just the New York Times,” he said.

Wow. As a lifelong journalist, having spent two decades in ‘big media’, I’m picturing this scene as just bizarre, right from the Times’ reporter asking why her call wasn’t returned. Which is why this followup wasn’t surprising:

Boycott the New York Times, will you? And not even bother to tell the New York Times you were doing it?

Archbishop Chaput’s talk had a number of interesting elements: the excursion into George Orwell’s career, the embrace of freedom of the press while asserting freedom of religion, the analysis of secularism as a system of thought.

But leave all that aside and think, for a moment, just about his description of knowledge professionals and the ways in which they are lured into a sense of perfect entitlement and superior correctness. One could hardly ask for a better example…than a reporter from the New York Times thinking it entirely reasonable, in a public question-and-answer period, to demand an answer to why her phone calls weren’t returned.

Chaput finished with this:

The point I want to leave you with is this: Journalism is a “knowledge profession.” But like any other profession, the work of journalism doesn’t necessarily translate into self-knowledge or self-criticism. And any lasting service to the common good demands both. Journalism has its own unstated orthodoxies. It has its own prejudices. And when they go unacknowledged and uncorrected—as they too often seem to do—they can diminish our public life.

Religion journalism deals with the most fundamental things about human meaning, things intimate, defining, and sacred to many millions of people. So master and respect your material. Know yourself and your prejudices. Acknowledge mistakes, and don’t make them a habit. Be as honest with yourself as you want your sources to be. Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. And if you do that—and do it with integrity, fairness, and humility—then you’ll have the gratitude of the people you cover, and you’ll embody the best ideals of your profession.

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Jul 26

This could be a many-part series under that heading….

Let’s look at what’s at stake in this particular campaign.

Catholics United aims to raise $500,000 to support congressional candidates who backed health care reform, the liberal-leaning Catholic advocacy group announced Wednesday.

It’s planning to pour money into four races in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia to start, and it hopes to widen its efforts as November’s elections approach…

The executive director of Catholics United accused “many political operatives” of “dishonesty” in their attacks on candidates they oppose.

“These groups are engaging in scare tactics and misusing the language of faith to score cheap political points and lead voters astray,” Chris Korzen said in a statement announcing the “Set the Record Straight” campaign.

Confused? Okay, let’s really set the record straight.

These Catholics are anything but united under the teachings of the Church on supporting anything that facilitates abortion, and Obamacare does that in many and assorted ways (NRLC lists and updates them, though fact check here, especially down under ‘Seeing Through the Smoke’). The name ‘Catholics United’ alone misuses the language of faith.  Not sure what they mean by the nebulous reference to “many political operatives…engaging in scare tactics…to score cheap political points,” but it would help the debate to clarify who and what they’re blaming.

This CNN item notes, correctly, how contentious this debate has been for members of the Church, complete with the key buzz phrase at core…

The health care reform debate was deeply divisive for Catholics, with some saying it would lead to government funding of abortion and others denying it. Catholic supporters of health care reform portrayed the bill as an issue of social justice.

There it is. The false dichotomy between the social justice crowd and the pro-life crowd, as if it’s an either/or proposition for faithful Catholics.

Which, speaking of language distortion, gets back to the issue of what is meant by social justice. I interviewed Fr. Robert Sirico again the other day on this issue, and he talked about the “creeping socialism” of government takeover and control of the private sector. Catholics have traditionally carried out the church’s teaching of subsidiarity and run everything from soup kitchens and shelters to hospitals and health care networks. But the “moral impulse” behind humanitarian services and civil rights movements has been co-opted by government. And he said he doesn’t see how it applies the Gospel. “Jesus is much more of a radical than the progressives are,” he told me. “He calls on us to conform our hearts and react from our hearts.”

Which means not killing the unborn under the guise of choice or reproductive health, stresses CatholicVote.org. Especially in response to the ‘Catholics United’ congressional election campaign.

This confusion benefits some “political operatives,” but others are trying to clarify it.

Look for the clarity.

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Jul 25

The administration had the chance to redeem the institution’s hasty decision to fire a professor for doing his job. They blew it.

When the press release went out last week that the U of I had called a meeting with Prof. Kenneth Howell and his Alliance Defense Fund attorneys, supporters were hopeful that they would reconsider their irrational and knee-jerk action against a popular professor who taught Catholic studies and the rare academic discipline of critical thinking skills.

Why else would the school go to such extent?

Because Prof. Howell has such a huge following and the cause is so noble and the grievance so gaping, they had to do something. But it turns out they chose to contrive a more ridiculous defense of their actions.

In response to a lawsuit filed on behalf of a Catholic professor who was barred from teaching after he explained Catholic teaching on homosexuality to the students in a class on Catholicism, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has defended the decision by saying that the professor was not actually “fired” – he’s just not allowed to teach any more classes.

Further proving that in what was once known as the institutions of higher learning, intellectual exercises have given way to semantic gymnastics.

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Jul 12

This story is picking up press, and it should. Freedom of speech is at the heart of it, as is the effort yet again to attack legitimate expression of belief, expressed…where? In a classroom setting that fosters intellecutal inquiry and critical thinking skills?

Not exactly.

The University of Illinois has fired an adjunct professor who taught courses on Catholicism after a student accused the instructor of engaging in hate speech by saying he agrees with the church’s teaching that homosexual sex is immoral….

[Prof. Ken] Howell, who taught Introduction to Catholicism and Modern Catholic Thought, says he was fired at the end of the spring semester after sending an e-mail explaining some Catholic beliefs to his students preparing for an exam.

“Natural Moral Law says that Morality must be a response to REALITY,” he wrote in the e-mail. “In other words, sexual acts are only appropriate for people who are complementary, not the same.”

These days, this gets someone in academia in all sorts of trouble, which is what he quickly got. An unidentified student complained, on behalf of an “offended” student, (not sure why the offended student didn’t speak for himself or herself…), that this was ‘hate speech.’

“Teaching a student about the tenets of a religion is one thing,” the student wrote. “Declaring that homosexual acts violate the natural laws of man is another.”

Just to clarify a point here, the phrase “natural laws of man” is an oxymoron. (Just Wiki natural law and read the first three sentences.)

But that wasn’t all the student complained about that was contradictory.

The courses at this institution should be geared to contribute to the public discourse and promote independent thought; not limit one’s worldview and ostracize people of a certain sexual orientation.”

By the guiding lights of those who cry ‘hate speech’ like this, public discourse and the engagement of independent thought is only welcomed if it agrees with their views.

Howell had every right to teach as he successfully did for so long.

Howell said he was presenting the idea that the Catholic moral teachings are based on natural moral law, and the Catholic understanding of what that means.

“My responsibility on teaching a class on Catholicism is to teach what the Catholic Church teaches,” Howell said. “I have always made it very, very clear to my students they are never required to believe what I’m teaching and they’ll never be judged on that.”

He also said he’s open with students about his own beliefs.

“I tell my students I am a practicing Catholic, so I believe the things I’m teaching,” he said. “It’s not a violation of academic freedom to advocate a position, if one does it as an appeal on rational grounds and it’s pertinent to the subject.”

Cary Nelson, a UI emeritus professor of English and president of the American Association of University Professors, agreed. He said while many professors choose not to share their beliefs with students, they are free to do so and to advocate for a particular position.

“We think there is great value in faculty members arguing in a well-articulated way,” Nelson said. “What you absolutely cannot do is require students to share your opinions. You have to offer students the opportunity to freely disagree, and there can be no penalty for disagreeing.”

Oh, but there is.

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Apr 26

Business and financial reporters are required to have a certain aptitude with their subject matter for acceptable coverage, and to another extent so do political reporters. Often it seems that religion reporters do not.

Especially when the story involves the Catholic Church.

In a remarkable display of journalistic ignorance of Catholic teaching, the Associated Press has reported that the “implicit understanding of the need to follow just civil laws dates to a 1965 document from the Second Vatican Council, Gaudem et Spes.”

In addition to misspelling Gaudium et Spes–the Latin title of the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World– the Associated Press appears to be unaware of the constant teaching of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition, and the Church’s Magisterium on the moral obligation under the Fourth Commandment to obey just civil laws. For example, St. Paul exhorted Christians to “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution” (Rom. 13:1), the Epistle to Diognetus noted that Christians “obey the established laws,” and the Catechism of the Council of Trent taught authoritatively about the “honor, respect, and obedience” owed to “civil rulers, governors, magistrates, and others to whose authority we are subject.”

The media don’t get religion. But they’re trying.

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