Msgr. Daniel S. Hamilton recognizes a source of doctrinal authority when he sees one -- which is why he pays such close attention to The New York Times.
The 83-year-old priest often feels the urge to respond to the Gray Lady and, rather than limiting himself to sermons from a pulpit, he keeps pounding out letters to the editor -- roughly 330 since his first on July 19, 1961.
"I am a citizen, I am a Christian, I am a Catholic and I am priest," said Hamilton, who is pastor emeritus of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church in Lindenhurst, N.Y. These letters are part of "defending the faith in our day and age. You have to keep saying that there is a profound moral and ethical angle to all of life and certainly to the stories and editorials printed in the Times."
While he frequently disagrees with the Times, the monsignor said it's crucial for the church to take journalism seriously. The bottom line: Hamilton believes more clergy should demonstrate their respect for journalists by reading their work carefully and then arguing with them -- on the record.
To which I say, "Amen." As of this week, I have been writing this syndicated "On Religion" column for 27 years and I have heard from many angry professionals on both sides of the tense wall between church and Fourth Estate. This was especially true when I taught in a seminary in Denver, before I began teaching journalism in Christian colleges. We urgently need dialogue.
Tragically, it appears these tensions are getting worse, creating a giant, two-sided blind spot inside the First Amendment.
Consider that recent Times column by Frank Bruni entitled, "Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana." He stressed that it's time for traditional faiths to change their doctrines and that they "must be made" to do so.
"Homosexuality and Christianity don't have to be in conflict in any church anywhere," argued Bruni. "That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred's pull as of tradition's sway. … But in the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It's a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since -- as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing."
For Hamilton, this demonstrates the "relativist" worldview he describes in his book, "Jousting With The New York Times 1961-2014: Worldviews in Radical Conflict." While the editors appear to believe that there is "good religion" as well as "bad religion," he said, the key is that they attack those who defend "absolute, transcendent" doctrines about moral issues.
At the Times, "truth is not eternal -- it's constantly evolving," said Hamilton. In particular, the editors "believe that sexual morality has changed and that this is a good thing. Their ultimate standard is a radical individualism" that trumps all other arguments.
Meanwhile, he said, these same editors often seem to endorse, and even praise, some absolutes. In a Sept. 22, 1980, letter he noted: "What would you say if the issue, instead of 'abortion rights,' were slavery rights, segregation rights, euthanasia rights, sterilization-of-the-weak rights or genocide-of-the-Jews rights? But, you reply, no political candidate is supporting any such enormity or the funding thereof! At the moment, no; in the past, yes."
In an unpublished Feb. 19, 1993 letter, the monsignor noted: "Acclaimed as moral prophets when they declare Church teachings on, and actively campaign against, racism, anti-Semitism and social and economic injustice, Catholic clergy are severely criticized (by some) as 'politickers' and 'lobbyists' when they declare Church teaching on, and actively resist, policies that promote abortion, fornication and homosexual activity."
Hamilton keeps writing letters, while encouraging others -- especially young priests -- to interact with journalists. Unfortunately, many appear to be "too busy to pay attention," even when dealing with highly influential newsrooms.
"Some will say, 'Who cares what The New York Times is saying?' They just don't realize how important the Times is when it comes to shaping the world we live in," he said. "The church must continue this struggle. … We can't fall silent. We have to let them know that we have principled, consistent views on public issues and that we are not going to go away."