Because of the challenges of where I live, it’s rare that I get to directly respond to individual comments on a post, though all of them are read to me by telephone, then printed and sent to me. I try to incorporate some of your comments into future posts. Last month, I was able to comment about TSW readers’ responses to my controversial post, “Why Accusers Should Be Named.” It was the second of a three-part post entitled “When Priests Are Falsely Accused.” I had asked TSW readers to help disseminate that three-part series by Tweeting, pinging, and e-mailing it to others, especially to other priests and faithful Catholics. They deserve to know the other side of the story of scandal we have all faced.
In my comment on “Part 2” of the series, I reacted to a decision last month by National Public Radio to fire news analyst Juan Williams because of a candid statement he made on Fox News. The controversy ended up being a sort of contrived debate in the news media about religious tolerance and sensitivity. There’s a strange irony in this. Can any Catholic really imagine the news media debating religious insensitivity?
In another previous post, “Scandal and the News Media: William McGurn Told the Truth,” I described in vivid terms the news media’s attempt to silence a Catholic voice in the American public square by unjustly singling out the Catholic Church as a scapegoat for rampant sexual abuse in our culture. In reality, the Church is the only institution that has faced abuse and virtually eliminated it.
To refresh your memory, here’s how the NPR fiasco unfolded:
Late last month, Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly appeared on the ABC morning talk show, “The View.” Bill O’Reilly, who seems to have never had an unpublished thought, stated something fairly obvious. He said, “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” That caused Whoopi Goldberg – whose own double standard I described before in “The Whoopi Cushion” – and Joyce Behar to storm off the set of “The View” in a dramatic gesture of contempt for Bill O’Reilly and his views. The news media aired the footage of Whoopi’s and Joyce’s exit about every fifteen minutes that day. Later on “The View,” Bill O’Reilly clarified that not all Muslims are terrorists, but the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 were all Muslims.
The next evening, appearing on “The O’Reilly Factor” on FOX News, National Public Radio news analyst Juan Williams candidly stated that in the wake of 9/11, he is sometimes uncomfortable when he sees people in Muslim garb boarding a plane he is on. The next morning, National Public Radio fired Juan Williams for exhibiting a religious insensitivity that does not reflect the editorial goals of NPR.
I reacted to the NPR blunder in my comment on “Why Accusers Should Be Named,” and I’d like to expand that reaction just a bit because it’s central to the theme of this post. Suppose for a moment Juan Williams had said something like, “When I see a Catholic priest in clerical garb board a plane I am on with my grandchildren, I feel uncomfortable.” It would have been insensitive. It would have been a cheap shot at the Catholic Church, and it would have taken the Church’s public scandal completely out of context. I doubt very much that Juan Williams could ever be so crass and insensitive, but just imagine for a moment that was what he said. Do you think NPR would have fired him for it?
What if Bill O’Reilly had said on “The View” that “not all priests are child molesters, but some priests have been so accused.” It would have been as factual as his statement about 9/11 terrorists who were Muslims, but do you think Whoopi Goldberg and Joyce Behar would storm off the set over it?
As they have done repeatedly in the past, they would be far more likely to launch into an attack on the Catholic Church and laugh at anyone who felt offended. When this all unfolded, I thought National Public Radio was being highly selective in its religious sensitivity, though typically disingenuous. NPR reduced religious respect and tolerance to the worst kind of political correctness.
THE CATHOLIC LEAGUE SPELLS IT OUT AGAIN!
But I had no idea just how duplicitous NPR has actually been. On October 27, The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue issued a statement entitled “NPR’s Double Standard,” and it was shocking. Bill Donohue itemized incidents of gross Catholic bashing on NPR sponsored programs, and no one was fired – or even reprimanded – for them.
The person who read me Bill Donohue’s statement by telephone is by no means a conservative Catholic, but she was so alarmed and offended that she could not continue reading Bill Donohue’s graphic examples.
NPR commentators mocked the Eucharist and our Sacraments in clearly hateful anti-Catholic statements on the air. No one was fired. It’s unclear whether anyone was even reprimanded. It all seemed perfectly okay with NPR. I can only conclude, as I think Bill Donohue does, and now Juan Williams probably does as well, that anti-Catholic rhetoric is not at all contrary to NPR’s editorial goals. Most alarming of all was the revelation that you fund NPR through your tax dollars.
Arab-born freelance writer Emelio Karim Dabul was right on target when he wrote of “NPR’s Taxpayer-Funded Intolerance” in an editorial for The Wall Street Journal (October 22, 2010). Mr. Dabul called upon all Americans of conscience to demand a halt to public funding of National Public Radio for its “unfairness, narrow-mindedness, and reactionary policies.” I have never heard a clearer argument against consideration of a public bailout for the mainstream American news media.
In an equally insightful editorial in the next day’s WSJ (“The Real Case for Defunding NPR,“ October 23/24, 2010) New York Sun founding editor Seth Lipsky cited that “a small chorus is tuning up to demand . . . that the government . . . step up its funding of the press.”
Have you taken a good look at the news media lately? Are you prepared to see your tax dollars underwrite and reward the blatant anti-Catholic attacks that the news media has generated over the last eight years? Catholics should not have to live in fear of the news media despite the ferociousness with which it has targeted the Catholic Church. The duplicity of National Public Radio has made this very clear.
SITTING IN YOUR OWN PEW
It seems that just about every few weeks lately, some religious controversy smears across the American landscape and erupts into a fast burning media firestorm, rages on for fifteen minutes of fame, then just fades away. Within just the last two months, a celebrated Baptist preacher in Atlanta was accused of sexual abuse by several young men. An independent Baptist preacher in Florida vowed to burn copies of the Qur’an on 9/11, a small fringe Bible congregation sent picketers to the funerals of deceased U.S. servicemen to announce that their deaths were a punishment from God for America’s recent embrace of homosexuality.
Then NPR’s embarrassing taxpayer-funded double standard was exposed for all to see on the heels of the news media’s rush to paint these fringe cases as evidence that Christianity has become an intolerant millstone around our culture’s neck. The three-ring circus of religious controversy has been ironic for a nation that has, at best, proven itself to be religiously illiterate.
If religion is a vehicle, faith is the fuel that drives it. Though they’re not one and the same, you won’t get far with one and not the other. Faith without religion will evaporate in time, or combust into a moment of flames followed by little more than fumes. Religion without faith is just doomed to strand its passengers along the side of the road.
So when the Pew Research Center published its recent survey of religious awareness in America, it was described by Boston University religion professor Stephen Prothero as “catnip for atheists and agnostics.”
In an article in USA Today last month (“Let’s teach religion in schools,” The Forum, October 4, 2010) Stephen Prothero described the rather shocking result that as a group, atheists scored higher than Roman Catholics and other Christians on a survey of religious knowledge. Atheists shouldn’t brag too much as their cumulative score was a barely-passing 66%. But still…!
When compared to the Roman Catholics’ dismal and solidly flunking score of 47%, atheists are celebrating at the campus pub. Most embarrassing, Stephen Prothero pointed out, was that only 42% of Catholics could identify the Book of Genesis as the first book of the Bible. Faithful American Catholics have long held that religious education in the post-Vatican II Church in America is wanting.
It’s time for a revolution, and it should be a revolution of real faith in a modern world that values it not. It isn’t going to be easy. But before we all sign up for remedial CCD classes, the bad news was offset just a bit by the reality that the United States as a whole flunked the test, and Catholics came out just three percentage points behind the national score of 50% – a solid “F.”
Other Christian denominations fared just slightly better than Catholics – but still flunked. Jews and Mormons both passed, though just barely, with scores slightly under the atheists. Weighing everything, my own conclusion is that the problem with religion in America isn’t religion – it’s America. Catholics should remember the value of being counter-cultural.
How do we hold on to religious faith in a culture in which it is fading fast? At about this same time last year, the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life published its Religious Commitment Analysis, a state by state survey on the importance and influence of religion. The six New England states came in dead last, with New Hampshire – the First in the Nation Presidential Primary State – fiftieth out of the fifty states in how much its society is influenced by, and exhibits religious faith. The Puritan founders of New England – who came here specifically to establish a religious colony free of European Catholicism – would roll in their graves.
OUR OWN CRISIS IN CONTEXT
Modern Scripture scholars stress the importance of the “sitz im laben,” the “setting in life” of the Gospels in their historical and cultural contexts. I know only too well how much Catholics have been shamed and silenced by the clergy sex abuse crisis of the last decade, but it might be helpful to examine the “sitz im laben” of our crisis.
The sexual abuse scandal in the Church did not just spring up in response to an isolated factor that the Church overlooked for decades then suddenly became aware of. I hope that much is clear from my three-part post, “When Priests Are Falsely Accused.” The crisis sprang into public view at a time when Christianity in Western Culture began to be seen as suspect in certain circles, especially in the left-leaning intellectual elitism of our news media. I think it is clear that the media is at best ignorant of Christian traditions and ideology, and, at worst, hostile to them.
Our Catholic crisis must be seen against the backdrop of a national crisis of religious awareness, religious tolerance, and religious faith. This makes the divisions the crisis has sown in the Church all the more toxic. Division and dissension have served only to provide the media the fuel it needs to further drive our faith underground while removing from society what was once a potent Catholic voice in the public square.
MONSTERS IN OUR MIDST
I have a theory about how and why the abuse scandal unfolded with the venom and vengeance it manifested in the media. The scandal has a peculiar, and perhaps surprising, “sitz im laben.” Most people look at me strangely when I discuss this, but please bear with me.
At about 8:30 AM on the morning of September 11, 2001, I turned on my small television to see one of the Twin Towers smoldering in Manhattan. Then I watched in horror as another commercial plane swept across the river to strike the other tower. I watched this happen live, in real time, and knew instantly it was a terrorist attack and the entire world had just changed. By 9:30 that morning, my cell was filled with both prisoners and prison guards all staring incoherently at my small television. No one moved, and no one spoke for hours other than to utter, “My God!”
As that awful day unfolded, and we learned that the Pentagon had also been struck, and that another passenger-filled jet had been flown into the ground in Pennsylvania en route to yet another target, I was struck with a new horror. I learned that the four jets had been hijacked that morning out of Logan Airport in Boston. I grew up in Boston. As a teenager, I worked for a machine shop and part of my job was a nightly drive to Logan Airport to arrange air freight for our daily shipments. I grew up in the shadows of Logan Airport. I was horrified!
Within two months of that day, the first news emerged from Boston that Father John Geoghan was accused of decades of sexual abuse by over 130 people. Revelations emerged that Church officials in Boston had shuffled him from parish to parish seemingly oblivious to the wreckage left in his wake. Boston – the cradle of faith and liberty and democracy – was now the epicenter for the onset of two simultaneous national crises. A new, Boston-based boogeyman was available to the media just as our nation’s nerves were stretched to their limit. A modern day witch hunt had taken shape.
I would be a fool to suggest that there is – or ever was – any link between the attacks of September 11 and Catholic scandal. That would be absurd. But I know they represent events that emerged from the same place at the same time, and I believe the latter was seen with the colored glasses and exposed nerves brought on by the former.
ADVICE FROM FATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
There are only three solutions to the crisis – the Catholic one and the far more dangerous American one. We’re on the verge of losing our national soul, and the Catholic faith may, in the end, prove our nation’s greatest hope. The day is coming when faith will be in dire need, and faithful Catholics should not be sleeping on that day. The three solutions were proposed by Father Richard John Neuhaus, and they are simple:
Fidelity, Fidelity, and Fidelity.
G.K. Chesterton, though often misquoted, once wrote, “People who don’t believe in God don’t believe in nothing. They believe in anything.” When faith erodes it ceases to bind people together. Then there is little left. They divide and scatter, then divide again and again and again.
The media fosters our divisions, and celebrates them. It’s time for Catholics to reclaim the arena in which we have long shined: a counter-cultural Catholic tradition of faith, example, reason, and resolute fidelity and witness in the public square.