What is it about renegade Catholic priests that excite the secular media so? For every human interest story about a typical clergyman, it seems like there are a thousand profiles of a loose cannon (or is it ‘loose canon’?) who is either excommunicated, under investigation, suspended, or blatantly misrepresenting Church doctrine. “Women priests” are a particular favorite, but we mustn’t overlook “‘cool’ priest in urban area with an earring/tattoo.” Oddly enough, the media only ever seems to salivate over priests who use their pulpit to advocate for liberal and progressive causes. Traditionalist Catholics who oppose many of the changes to come out of Vatican II are hardly ever noticed. The desire for coverage of renegade priests hit parody level recently when one CBS reporter asked a former priest if Pope Francis himself was “breaking with the Vatican.”
This past week featured two over-the-top examples of national media outlets cheerleading for dissident or unruly priests without even a shred of neutrality. The first, as highlighted by the good folks at Patheos’ GetReligion blog was a particularly egregious story on the excommunication of a Brazilian priest. Here is how NPR introduced the story:
This past Monday, in Rio, pro-gay marriage activists mounted a bare-breasted demonstration. Same-sex unions have become a big issue in the region. NPR’s Lourdes Garcia Navarro has this profile of a rebel priest whose message of tolerance got him excommunicated.
Already it’s troublesome that NPR states outright that support of same-sex marriage is “a message of tolerance”. The undeniable subtext is that by opposing it, official Catholic teaching represents an intolerance of gays. Before the listener even hears the actual NPR report, the good guy and bad guy are already clear: big evil Catholic Church versus the tolerant rebel priest. In case it weren’t prejudiced enough, the introductory paragraph of Navarro’s report claims the priest, Roberto Francisco Daniel, “is pretty cool-looking.”
But Daniel’s support of gay marriage is only the tip of the iceberg. The excommunicated priest also supports premarital sex, masturbation, divorce, and most shockingly, open marriages. Yes, he thinks husbands and wives should be allowed to sleep around. “It never even crossed my mind that they would excommunicate me,” Daniel claims, as though there weren’t about a dozen strikes against him. With all of these strikes, it’s impossible to even know if Daniel’s support of gay marriage was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Especially since throughout the entire report, NPR never even interviews Daniel’s superiors, or even a Catholic priest who might not support Daniel’s stance. You know, like 99% of them. Instead, they unquestionably claim that he is “still a devout Catholic… who stands by his priestly vows.”
The NPR story was pretty egregious, but at least they recognized that Roberto Daniel was a controversial figure. ABC recently ran a puff piece on a Chicago priest without even hinting at the controversy surrounding the central character in their story’s narrative.
The name Father Michael Pfleger might sound familiar to those who were carefully following the 2008 Democratic primaries. At the time, Father Pfleger made a point of defending Reverend Jeremiah Wright at the height of the media scrutiny surrounding Barack Obama’s attendance at his church. Father Pfleger even preached at Reverend Wright’s Trinity United Church of Christ. This is what Father Pfleger had to say about Obama’s primary opponent, Senator Hillary Clinton:
“I really believe that she just always thought, ‘This is mine. I’m Bill’s wife. I’m white, and this is mine. I just gotta get up and step into the plate.’ Then out of nowhere came, ‘Hey, I’m Barack Obama,’ and she said, ‘Oh, damn! Where did you come from? I’m white! I’m entitled! There’s a black man stealing my show!'”
At another point in the speech, Father Pflefer declared that “America has been raping people of color and America has to pay the price for the rape!” The Obama campaign was forced to denounce Father Pfleger’s comments, despite the Chicago Tribune noting he was a “longtime friend” of both Obama and Reverend Wright. It should go without saying that the Chicago’s Cardinal Francis George wasn’t amused and asked Father Pfleger to take a leave of absence.
But Father Pfleger’s most widely-known incident is not even his worse. That would probably be his participation in a protest in front of a gun store outside Chicago. Father Pfleger was caught on tape actually threatening the life of the gun store owner, saying “He’s the owner of Chuck’s. John Riggio. R-i-g-g-i-o. We’re going to find you and snuff you out… you know you’re going to hide like a rat. You’re going to hide but like a rat we’re going to catch you and pull you out.”
It was eventually Father Pfleger outright refusing to obey a transfer order that led to Cardinal George suspending him for a month from administering any sacraments, although his support for women and married priests probably didn’t help. With all these highly controversial incidents in Father Pfleger’s past, what was the focus of ABC’s story? He put on a basketball tournament for Chicago gang members. I highly recommend you watch or read the entire story, in which Father Pfleger is never portrayed as anything other than a saint. The title of the ABC’s story refers to him as “Father Peacemaker,” which I’m sure must amuse that poor gun store owner on more than one level.
It wasn’t necessarily obligatory for ABC News to air a laundry list of grievances against Father Pfelger before airing a piece on him. But can anyone imagine a story on a prominent conservative faith leader such as Pat Robertson that wouldn’t mention any of his controversial actions or comments? Besides, this isn’t the first time ABC has hyped Father Pfleger, despite his sordid past. Only a few months after Father Pfleger’s vile comments on race, he was invited on “Good Morning America.” During a softball interview, Father Pfleger was asked “In 2008, are you surprised that race is still such a hot button issue?” Yes, isn’t it surprising that so many people were offended by Father Pfleger’s pronouncement that America is a country constantly raping blacks? It boggles the mind, frankly.
The media’s fascination and implicit support of renegade faith leaders does a disservice to all people of faith by misrepresenting the central tenets of their faith. How are churches like the Catholic Church supposed to share their beliefs when the only Catholic voices on network news disagree with fundamental church teachings? And for people who care deeply about these issues, it only telegraphs to them how little the national media cares about the most important aspect of their lives.