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Hudson and Fournier: Catholic Countdown to Election 2012, Day 26. Bishop Michael Sheridan and Media Savvy Bishops

By Deal W. Hudson and Keith A Fournier
October 11th, 2012
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

Our Catholic bishops are getting better and better at handling a usually hostile media. One reason for the improvement is their realization that much of the media is not merely hostile but playing a "gotcha" game, looking for an angle to embarrass or otherwise cause the bishops a problem. 

WASHINGTON, DC (Catholic Online) - Our Catholic bishops are getting better and better at handling a usually hostile media. One reason for the improvement is their realization that much of the media is not merely hostile but playing a "gotcha" game, looking for an angle to embarrass or otherwise cause the bishops a problem. 

Some of the bishops are now so adroit at interviews, reporters themselves have grown wary of attempting to trap them into making quotable, that is, controversial, statements. Cardinal Dolan, Cardinal Wuerl, Archbishop Chaput, Archbishop Gomez, Archbishop Lori, Archbishop Nienstedt, Bishop Morlino, and Bishop Vasa are among those who cannot be backed into a corner by an aggressive reporter. 

Another excellent example of how to handle the media was published Wednesday in the Colorado Springs Gazette. Bishop Michael Sheridan responded to a series of questions posed by columnist Daniel Cole. Cole, in fact, was not out to trip up the bishop; he is a fair and reliable journalist. But, the questions he posed in the interview are typical of the mine fields through which our bishops must navigate, especially in an election season.

Controversy can erupt at any time: Recall the controversy elicited by the 2008 interview with then Archbishop Burke just after he arrived in St. Louis. When asked by a reporter whether or not he would give Holy Communion to Senator Kerry if he was standing in line, Archbishop Burke replied, "I would have to admonish him not to present himself for Communion." 

That "admonition" line became the national story, whereas the comments that followed were ignored, "I might give him a blessing or something," Burke said, and added, "If his Archbishop has told him he should not present himself for Communion, he shouldn't. I agree with Archbishop (Sean P.) O'Malley  (of Boston.)"

In other words, all Archbishop Burke was saying is that he would follow the example of Senator Kerry's ordinary, Archbishop O'Malley. The press paid no attention to O'Malley and set out to demonize -- unsuccessfully -- Archbishop Burke. 

Here is the way Bishop Sheridan handled the question: Daniel Cole asked, "If Vice President Joe Biden, who is Catholic, were to swing through Colorado Springs on a campaign tour and attend your Mass, would you deny him Communion?"

Bishop Sheridan's answer avoided any inflammatory rhetoric, "He should know, and I would do everything I could do to make sure that he knows, he ought not to be receiving Communion."

The simplicity of Bishop Sheridan's answer, his matter-of-factness, contained nuances that inhibit the possibility of controversy. Sheridan said nothing about a public pronouncement; he looked at the issue from Biden's perspective -- "He should know...."; and suggested it is Biden's responsibility to withhold himself from Communion. 

Cole then moved to questions about the death penalty and federal entitlement programs that are not easy to answer incisively, but Bishop Sheridan did as good a job as we have ever seen. 

Take his answer to Cole's tricky question, "The USCCB has also called for an end to the death penalty, as did Pope John Paul II. Are Catholics obligated to share that position?"

Bishop Sheridan's answer was a model of clarity:

"Catholics are bound to take that teaching seriously, but you'll note that in the Catechism, it says there actually may be circumstances under which the death penalty can or should - I'm not quoting it exactly - be applied. As soon as you say that, you know you're not talking about intrinsic evil, because there would be no circumstances under which it could be done. So again, I think a Catholic is obliged to take that seriously...."

The reporter then asked whether, "the Church's social justice teachings require Catholics to support government welfare programs?" The bluntness of the bishop's answer was surprising, even to us:
"Not that I'm not aware of. I think we recognize that the government can and should do things for people, especially people who are in great need. But, really, the obligation is for us as individuals, as Catholics, as believers, to be charitable toward our neighbor. I don't know that that extends to supporting government welfare programs."

The most common complaint we hear from lay Catholics during a presidential campaign is "Why aren't the bishops speaking out more?"  Those same lay Catholics should take into account how easy it is for a well-intentioned bishop to generate a controversy that does not benefit the pro-life, pro-marriage effort.  Savvy bishops have learned that lesson, and it's time for the laity to catch up.

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