Saturday, March 06, 2010

Controversy Teaches Us A Few Things

So how big was the story from Pigeon Forge about the anti-Catholic Chick tracts being distributed at Pigeon Forge High School? It has made Fox News:

A Baptist pastor in Tennessee says he now regrets that his church distributed an anti-Catholic leaflet that a local Catholic priest decried as “hate material."

Pastor Jonathan Hatcher, who leads Conner Heights Baptist Church in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., has removed the inflammatory leaflet, “The Death Cookie,” from his congregation. He says he will no longer distribute it.

[Father Jay] Flaherty learned that the material was being circulated when a young parishioner brought it into his church last week, after she said she received it in high school.

‘She was very upset,” he said. “But I don’t understand the [pamphlet’s] reasoning — it has nothing to do with scripture. It’s anti-Catholic; it’s just hate material. It has nothing to do with theological discussion. 'You better get out and get saved' is basically what it says.”

Flaherty said he had considered contacting authorities about the publication and distribution of "The Death Cookie," but he has reconsidered.

“I pray for him,” Flaherty said of Hatcher. “That’s all you can do.”

The story was still among the most e-mailed Fox News website articles as of this morning.

I'm going to take a wild guess that the City of Pigeon Forge is none too happy about getting national attention for any perceived climate of anti-Catholicism that may exist there. Sevier County depends on tourism to keep its economy humming and tourist dollars have helped the county survive the current depression. As other area counties continue shedding jobs, Sevier County is opening new tourist attractions and adding more people to the rolls of the employed. No small number of the visitors who keep that economic engine rolling are Catholics-lots of them are, in fact.

To be fair, I doubt very seriously that Pastor Hatcher knew what was going to occur from the distribution of what to him (and to the student who gave the literature to a classmate) just seemed like another "gospel tract." There are still plenty of folks who reckon that there are just not many Catholics around here, so who cares, right?

The reaction to what has occurred shows us two things: First, that there is enough local disdain for this kind of thinking for the local press and the larger community to react in such a way as to cause the folks at Connor Heights Baptist Church to rethink their strategy. Not only do many in the community not share the views expressed in "The Death Cookie," but feel repulsed enough by them to distance themselves from that kind of thinking. The second thing that this entire affair has made clear is that the positive influence of the Catholic Church in East Tennessee has grown significantly in recent years. The pastor at Connor Heights changed his tune after the Bishop of Knoxville intervened. There was a time not very long ago when the words of the local Catholic bishop (be it of Knoxville or Nashville, since the parishes here were part of the Diocese of Nashville before Knoxville got a bishop of its own) would have had roughly the same impact as issuing a press release to a brick wall. Hence, we've learned that we as Catholics may still have a lot of unwarranted suspicion and false ideas surrounding our faith, but at least we are respected enough that the bishop can speak to the larger community with authority behind his words.

Catholics from other parts of the country who visit East Tennessee also need to know that these kinds of incidents are increasingly rare. I do not expect we will see any crosses burn in front of Holy Cross or St. Mary's in Gatlinburg anytime soon. I'm very proud of how East Tennessee seems to have reacted to all of this-it says a lot about just how far we have actually come.

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