Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

belief, unbelief, and bad faith

By Diogenes ( articles ) | Apr 13, 2004

Last month, National Catholic Reporter contributor Chuck Colbert planted himself in a parish mass near Boston with the purpose of disrupting it by gay shock tactics. Off The Record questioned the propriety of his pretending to write as an objective reporter. To his credit, the NCR’s editor Tom Roberts takes up the issue and addresses it directly (subscriber-only content):

In stories and newscasts that followed [his disruption], Colbert was correctly identified as a freelance writer who regularly contributes to NCR. What wasn't said, however, is that Colbert has not written for NCR since the issue of March 19, not since he made the decision to cross the line between reporter and activist. At that time, we talked about the situation and Colbert understood that becoming a public activist on the gay marriage issue would prohibit him from reporting on our pages.

Roberts admits that Colbert’s “decision to disrupt the Mass was the decision of an activist, not a journalist.” To give credit where credit is due, he understands the journalistic conflict of interest at stake in direct action partisanship and seems determined to make Colbert understand it as well. While I’m still somewhat baffled as to why John Allen was allowed to give a talk titled “From Stonewall to Stonewalling” at the 2002 New Ways Ministry convention (reported in the NCR by -- you guessed it! -- Chuck Colbert), the paper does make some professional efforts to separate its editorial page from its reportage.

Yet this very separation hits at the paradox of religious journalism, where convictions define what a religion is, and “activism” -- in the sense of real-world effort on behalf of one’s convictions -- is both expected of and commendable in all adherents, including journalists. No one faults an employee of a Catholic paper for attending a Eucharistic congress or participating in a Corpus Christi procession. The problem comes with undeclared allegiances and hidden agendas -- not with the cards played face-up but those played face-down. And it’s here that the National Catholic Reporter goes schizophrenic on us.

The NCR’s editor, post-prank, identifies Colbert as “Catholic, highly educated and ... deeply committed to a church in which he increasingly feels alienated and marginalized.” He further tells us that “Colbert lives in a committed relationship with another man, and the two of them plan to be married, under Massachusetts law, in May.”

This is important: to call Colbert “Catholic,” Roberts cannot use the term in the public, face-value sense of one who holds such-and-such convictions, because Colbert rejects those convictions. He can only use “Catholic” in the narrowest canonical sense to mean one aggregated to the Catholic community by baptism who is not formally excommunicated. Note that this fact hinges purely on what Colbert publicly professes to be true and false, not on his moral comportment.

So why wasn’t this card played face-up back while Colbert was still contributing as a reporter? After all, it’s highly relevant to the question of his objectivity on Catholic controversies. Well, obviously, it’s congruent with the NCR’s own editorial sympathies, which are counter-Catholic on a whole range of doctrinal issues. Why attach a warning flag to this particular specimen of partisanship? A tug on any loose string and the whole web unravels.

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