Earlier this month, news that the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Peoria were engaged in an unusual public battle about the fate of a long-deceased archbishop’s bones brought to light one of the Catholic Church’s more misunderstood customs: the veneration of saintly relics.
But for Catholics of a certain age, seeing the name Archbishop Fulton Sheen back in the news may have conjured images not of bone fragments, but of a priest on television interpreting the world. Back then, a half century ago, Sheen was an anomaly, but today, when Catholic news breaks, viewers of cable news will often find a man in a Roman collar giving his perspective.
For seven years, Sheen hosted a primetime television show that at its height lured 30 million viewers per episode. Even during a time when Protestant America still harbored some suspicion of their “papist” neighbors, Sheen went head-to-head with Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, winning an Emmy Award in 1952.
The media landscape nowadays, of course, would be unfathomable to Sheen, with the slicing and dicing of viewer demographics creating hundreds of networks and channels all available anytime. But Catholic priests still play a role in making sense of the day’s headlines.
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit, is frequently quoted in the media and appears regularly on MSNBC. He said he was once told that a good Jesuit “explains the world to the Church and the Church to the world, and that’s what I try to do when I speak to the media.”
Over on the other end of the spectrum at Fox News, the Rev. Jonathan Morris, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, said he sees his role as “another opportunity to reach people who may not necessarily be coming to the pews.”
And at CNN, a Passionist priest, the Rev. Edward Beck, said that Catholic clergy are able to bring a unique vantage point to news reporting. “What I bring from being a priest is an insider’s view, from having worked in, and having direct access to the structure of the church,” he said. Further, he said that “working with people in ministry” affords priests the opportunity to bring “an experiential view.”
Chris Cuomo, host of CNN’s morning show New Day, said he invites Beck on to interpret not just Catholic stories, but a range of issues with spiritual and religious dimensions. He said that sometimes, “when it comes to faith, being intractable is often confused with a virtue,” which he contrasts with Beck’s candor.
“He’s just not in the spin game,” he said, “and he has the heart and soul of someone who believes passionately but who lives pragmatically.”
All three priests — each middle-aged and based in New York — recorded spots for their networks earlier this month about the synod on the family. Beck and Martin commented right after the Vatican released the midterm relatio that praised some virtues of same-sex couples, and Morris spoke closer to the synod’s conclusion.
In the days that followed that document’s release, some conservative Catholic voices blasted the media for irresponsible reporting or framing the news to advance a liberal cause. But all three priests rejected that notion.
“I saw in the Catholic press—in the conservative Catholic press I would say—people saying, ‘No the big, bad old press got it all wrong,’” said Morris, the Fox priest. “But I don’t think they did.”
“It was language that was not heard coming from such a high place in the Vatican ever before,” he said. “I think a lot of the criticism [of the media] is not called for.”
Beck called the controversy over the relatio “interesting” because “with the same story, over the course of two weeks, both [the left and the right] seemed to have their day in the sun,” referring to the closing vote of the synod which didn’t include liberal language about gays and the divorced.
They have each authored more than three books, some appearing on the New York Time’s best-selling list, and all have their own followings and maintain a high-profile media profiles.
In lectures throughout the country, Martin, the Jesuit, speaks regularly of joy and humor in religion. That outlook has made him a favorite of Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert, who dubbed Martin the “official chaplain” of Colbert Nation, and Martin has appeared numerous times on the satirical news show.
Beck, who in addition to his CNN responsibilities also hosts a nationally syndicated Sunday Mass, was once given the Daily Show treatment, particularly his cobalt blue eyes. “It’s as if Anderson Cooper and a Siberian Husky made love and had a baby priest. I want one of those. I want one of those. I’m sorry, Father McDreamy, you were saying,” then guest host John Oliver said.
A theological adviser to Mel Gibson’s 2004 film “The Passion of the Christ,” Morris’s media presence includes contributing to the Wall Street Journal and serving as program director for Sirius XM’s Catholic Channel, on which New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan hosts a weekly show.
Of course, given that all three contributors are Catholic priests, there are many similarities in what they say on air. But both Beck and Morris told Crux they don’t see their roles as speaking for the Church—instead they share their own opinions—whereas Martin said that people watching will see his as a representative for the institution, which affects how he interacts with those who challenge the Church’s views.
“Always deal with people charitably, no matter how mean they are to you, even on air, because you’re representing the Church and you’re representing the Jesuits, whether you like it or not,” Martin said.
A survey last month by the Public Religion Research Institute found that when asked which television station they trust most for “accurate information about politics and current events,” Catholics were most likely to say Fox, at 24 percent. (Though only 16 percent of Hispanic Catholics would choose Fox.) CNN came in at 21 percent and MSNBC at 4 percent, just a point ahead of the Daily Show and the Colbert Report. Some Catholics, such as the Catholic League, criticize how the Church is covered in the mainstream press.
But these three priests said they don’t see evidence of widespread bias against Catholicism. Instead, they each pointed to the reduction of full-time journalists covering religion across the media landscape as problematic.
This, Beck says, presents a challenge in trying to get media outlets “to look at news stories through the lens of faith and religion.” He pointed to the fear encircling the Ebola crisis. “How can that fear be addressed? I think that this is a religious, spiritual question, and I haven’t really heard it discussed in the mainstream media,” he said.
Martin said the audience is sometimes more problematic than the reporter.
“A lot of people in the listening or viewing audience may not understand as much about the Church as one might think. That’s the greater challenge,” he said.
Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN, have, over time, all accused each other of showing a certain ideological tint, and sometimes the priests’ analysis seems to play to their respective audiences. Morris, for example, said in a 2011 appearance on Fox Business that if he were a bishop, he would not have signed a letter that the US Conference of Catholic Bishops drafted in support of increasing tax revenue. MSNBC’s Martin, who has been critical in the Church’s pastoral approach to gay Catholics, struck a celebratory tone when talking about the synod’s midterm report that called for welcoming gays into parishes.
That issue, homosexuality, drives the most negative feedback for all three. Martin said he receives “hate mail and hate Tweets and hate [Facebook] posts” whenever he talks about it.
Morris, whose family was recently profiled in the Washington Post about their own struggles with accepting his sister’s lesbian relationship, said, “That issue is so emotional that the reactions are visceral. You see people listening to the exact same thing and come away with completely different understandings of what I’ve said.”
Despite the sometimes-nasty comments and feedback they receive, all three say their appearances present an opportunity for evangelization and gently inviting others to take a look at the Catholic Church.
“The more we can be in the media with regards to conversations around important issues—and I think faith, religion, and spirituality are right up there with some of the most important societal issues—anytime we can put a good face on that, that is well received by people, we help in their understanding” of the challenges facing society, Beck said.
Morris, who emphasized that he is “not a media priest” and tries to resist “falling into the celebrity of it,” said, however, that only priests who agree fully with church teaching help in spreading the faith. “It can be destructive,” he said, “when only those priests who disagree with the Church on an issue are the only ones going on the news.”
Given that on television “in one minute you can reach more people than you might in months of homilies,” as Martin put it, the TV priests seek some divine assistance of their own.
“I say, ‘Lord, open my lips and my mouth shall declare your praise.’ I see it as a ministry. I always do that, no matter who I’m talking to,” Martin said. “Even Crux.”