I have come to the conclusion that the media rarely gets the “tone” right when it comes to reporting on religion. This is true in reporting on all religion but in particular it is true with regard to Christianity in particular. I have some ideas about why this is so. But none of them involve conspiracies or the demonic. On the whole I believe that journalists and reporters have little or no first-hand experience of the church. They provide honest reporting with an interpretative angle that is often slanted by presuppositions about Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular.
I’ve seen this once again in Chicago over the last two weeks as the media has covered the story of the next Archbishop of the Diocese of Chicago, Bishop Blase Cupich (pronounced sue-pitch) of Spokane, Washington. After various television and print media sources said the pope had sent a “message” by this appointment to which Bishop Cupich stated very humbly, “I think he sent a pastor not a message.” Yet the Chicago Tribune headline still read: “Pope sends a pastor – and a message.”
To read the local newspapers and watch the television media you’d think that Bishop Cupich is a liberal Catholic. Here is one of the ways the Chicago Tribune reported the story in the Sunday, September 21st, edition:
But Cupich’s appointment as Chicago’s ninth archbishop sent a clear signal that the church is changing under this pope, and that Chicago will be a prominent laboratory for that change, according to experts on the church.
The reader is never told, however, who these experts are or where they got this information. And to further add to the misperception the Tribune added, in the very next paragraph no less, that: “Unlike [Cardinal] George’s sometimes rigid approach to upholding church doctrine, Cupich has spent his 16 years as a bishop often in a more conciliatory mode.” What does this mean? Well, it means the writers still think in liberal and conservative categories, categories that often do not work well inside the church. Exhibit A – in the very next sentence the Tribune says that Bishop Cupich was the leader for the opposition to same-sex marriage in Washington state! How then, I simply ask, could this stance equal what they just claimed about the new archbishop? (Cupich will be installed on November 18, 2014.)
I think the most irritating and misleading part of the story the media is telling the public is that of Cardinal George. One reporter says this new appointment represents “the start of an unprecedented transition in the city’s Roman Catholic Church, in which no other leader has lived long enough to meet the man taking his place.” Another reporter refers to Cardinal George’s “sometimes rigid approach to upholding church doctrine.” Citing Cupich’s work on immigration reform the writers for the Tribune again tried to pit Cupich against George as if the new archbishop will be a moderate, loving and open archbishop as opposed to the outgoing one. This is so much nonsense and reveals my central point. The media doesn’t get it. The Catholic Church has not shifted its emphasis on moral theology one iota by this move. There is not one scintilla of evidence for this antithesis.
Cardinal George is one of the kindest, most humane and brilliant men I’ve ever know. He is in no way inflexible or closed-minded. He is, and this is truly important, a faithful Catholic bishop. Does he have a personality and is he innately shy? You bet. But this man is insightful, pastoral and deeply spiritual. Because he has spoken out on several moral issues does not make him an old, out-of-touch, rigidly conservative cleric. Nor does the outgoing personality of the new archbishop make him a liberal. Cupich might be more pastoral in his tone and nuance but he will reflect the teachings of his church in his own pastoral way, not in the way the Chicago Tribune thinks he should or will.
Buried inside these major stories in the September 21 issue of the Chicago Tribune is a lot of great information about both George and Cupich. I have had the joy of knowing Cardinal George as my personal friend the last three years. I hope I will have the same joy with the new archbishop. (Cupich was born in the same year that I was, 1949! I cannot imagine assuming his duties at this stage of my life the more I think about my own aging.)
I pray that Francis Cardinal George will finish well and experience great peace as he struggles with life-threatening illness in the coming days. And I pray that the new Archbishop designate Blase Cupich will be granted a plentitude of grace and love to serve well in the days ahead. Like any great city Chicago needs great spiritual leadership. I believe Cardinal George has been that kind of servant. I also believe the new archbishop will prove to be a fine pastor and leader. I also believe that he will faithfully continue the great work that many of us have done for ecumenism in this great city. Please pray with me to this end if you love the whole people of God.