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Monday, September 24, 2012

The Local Lens
Published• Wed, Sep 19, 2012
By Thom Nickels

A certain columnist currently writing for The Philadelphia Inquirer has created a lot of smoke by publishing email responses from Archbishop Chaput to area Catholics who went to the trouble to email him with questions or comments.

In an unprecedented move, the archbishop made public his private email address and invited any Catholic in the archdiocese to drop him a line. Now, if you don’t think this move is extraordinary, can you imagine Mayor Nutter—or any City Council person for that matter—being this accessible to the public? Can you imagine any politician getting up at 4 a.m. (as Chaput does) to read and answer email from constituents? Politicians as a rule don’t like to subject themselves to the raw (often cantankerous) nerve of the public. That’s why they have public relations front people or surround themselves with an entourage of aides whose job it is to weed out "inappropriate people, places or things."

Not so with Archbishop Chaput. By publishing his private email address he’s exposing himself to a variety of voices and opinions, be they friendly, hostile, indifferent, or offensive.

Chaput was smart to institute an open email policy. After all, he inherited an archdiocese still wounded from a rash of clergy sex abuse scandals. He boarded a ship that many saw as sinking and that had already suffered a lot of damage, namely the "ruined" reputation of the Catholic Church among certain parts of the population. Of course, the people who used the clergy sex abuse scandals as an excuse to enhance an already deep seated hatred of Catholicism, are not to be taken seriously.

In my experience, these are very often the same people who like to proclaim that Catholics are not really Christians. I hear this all the time from some Protestant people, and it is really annoying. If Catholics are not Christians, what are they then? If anything, both the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church are the only two Christian bodies in the world that can trace their roots directly back to the apostles. You can’t get any more Christian than that.

Most would agree that the fallout from the clergy sex abuse tragedy has increased the willingness of some to attack Catholicism in general rather than castigate individual priests or higher ups for crimes against the young.

The Inquirer columnist in question is a snappy, cosmopolitian "with it" kind of writer. Religion is not a common subject with her, but when it is, her approach tends to be from a cynical perspective. Despite occasional issues with this writer, as a fellow columnist, I have a grudging respect for her. Columnists, after all, work hard, and getting a column out every week can be a minor challenge. There are, of course, random off weeks when ideas are harder to come by. There are also the rare weeks when the only ideas seem to be in the mental dumpster.

What’s this? I can safely say that in most columnists’ minds there is a no zone kind of place, a kind of dumpster filled with ethically suspect ideas we come to rarely use.

And it’s a good thing.

I like to compare these dumpster ideas to the short list of bad insult jokes a comedian may keep in his/her pocket in case their regular jokes fail.

These cheap shot columns rarely make it into print because the angels of our better themselves helps to snuff them out before they see the light of print.

I’m not talking about unsettling material that may disturb the status quo, like the fantastic Watergate era reporting of Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, or the wonderful Truth Dig political columns of Chris Hedges, but the underhanded gossipy mucus membrane reports you might see on TV’s TMZ, or columns that purport to comment on the emails of Catholics based on their private email responses from Archbishop Chaput.

Think of it for a moment: Do you believe The Inquirer columnist’s intentions were good when she printed Archbishop Chaput’s private emails? Obviously if all of Chaput’s email responses had been benign or of a Shirley Temple variety, there’d be no story, no eyeball popping sensation to record. But because the emails showed the human side of the archbishop, she saw an opportunity to stoke a fire that had already been raging. (Remember, Chaput is trying to do damage control related to the sex scandals).

The emails only showed that the archbishop is a human being who gets frustrated like any human being despite his being an archbishop.

But is this news? And why did she print them? Does anyone really think that because one is a monk, nun, bishop, patriarch or pope, that one is like a plastic dashboard saint?

Listen to these lines from the column in question: "When pressed or second-guessed, Chaput can get snappy." Then the writer goes on to say, "Chaput’s annoyance intrigued me…" Intrigued in this case means fascinated, delighted, because hey, there’s something like a rotten fish here: Chaput’s weaknesses displayed like tumors on a chest x-ray. The columnist’s underlying message becomes: "You see folks; he’s no saint….he’s no better than your neighbor across the street that uses the F word all the time. By George, we need to take him off his pedestal!"

But the problem is, dear columnist, is Archbishop Chaput never put himself on a pedestal in the first place.