With a controversial Catholic in the White House, there was no way for Cardinal Wilton Gregory to face a pack of Beltway journalists without fielding political questions.
Job 1 was addressing President Joe Biden’s statement: “I respect them — those who believe life begins at the moment of conception and all — I respect that. Don’t agree, but I respect that.”
Gregory, the leader of the Catholic Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., has made it clear that Biden can receive Holy Communion. However, Gregory also noted: “The Catholic Church teaches, and has taught, that life — human life — begins at conception. So, the president is not demonstrating Catholic teaching.”
That was the big headline after the event, but that wasn’t the topic Gregory came to the National Press Club to discuss. In his address, he poured praise on America’s mainstream press, especially journalists who — during this “anxious time” — have openly pushed for change on issues linked to racism and social justice.
“You are the ones we rely on to keep us informed, updated and connected as a global community of various faith traditions,” said Gregory, America’s first Black cardinal. “Like all industries, journalism has certainly changed over the years. Technology has expanded your reach and abilities to share our life stories, our dreams and our hopes.
“You are the professionals with just the right words, who immerse yourselves in a community, a situation or even a crisis — to bring us the facts, the people and the takeaways that can help us work toward living in true peace and equality for all, without the threat of violence or harm.”
According to a sobering blast of data from Gallup, the cardinal’s comments on the national press would ring true for Democrats and political progressives — but not for Republicans and cultural conservatives. Catholics can be found in both of those camps, of course.
In their Sept. 1-17 poll, Gallup researchers asked: “In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media — such as newspapers, TV and radio — when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly: a great deal, a fair amount, not very much or none at all?”
The results contained the second-lowest numbers ever for this question. Only 7% of American adults reported having “a great deal of trust in the mainstream press,” and 29% a “fair amount.” That’s opposed to the 29% who said they had “not very much” trust, and the 34% who chose “none at all.”
Breaking the numbers down according to political ties, 68% of Democrats trusted the press “a great deal” or “a fair amount,” as opposed to 11% of Republicans and 31% of self-identified independents.
Cardinal Gregory, on the other hand, stressed that the mainstream press is part of what unites Americans, while helping to hold the leaders of public institutions — including religious groups — accountable. While the growing impact of social media is often positive, he also acknowledged the “destruction and blatant vulgarity” found online. This has resulted in “great harm” done to the nation by “fraudulent, unverified and biased information that passes as news.”
From the cardinal’s perspective as a leader among progressive Catholics, the key is that mainstream journalists are now openly calling for change on a host of issues including systemic racism, immigration, poverty, gender discrimination, the death penalty and environmental justice.
“It is you, the modern-day American journalist, who amplifies community voices speaking out against injustice and inequality (and) asking for needed change in our systems and long-held prejudices. It is the powerful impact of your multimedia images and carefully written words that help us connect with the world’s citizens fighting for the exact same hopes and dignities,” said Gregory.
The bottom line, the cardinal concluded, is that journalists must continue to promote civility in America.
“As you well know as journalists, words have the incredible power and ability to build or to damage or to destroy,” said Gregory. “As our news media outlets, you have a part in leading us in civility — online, in print, on television or on the radio. Civility and respectful dialogue for the purpose of earnest understanding can, and should, be promoted — especially when we hold different or opposing political, religious or other opinions.”
Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.