So an anonymous priest walks into a newsroom . . .

cassromanflWhere do we begin, when it comes to talking about the recent flurry of news reports about the Roman Catholic Church and the proposed — repeat, proposed — “ban” on the ordination of homosexual priests?

We are still at the trial balloon stage. But if we want to talk about this as a journalistic subject, which is the purpose of this blog, we should probably start with (cue: drum roll) Andrew Sullivan. No, we don’t need to talk about his views of Catholic theology of sexuality. No, Sullivan recently launched into another topic that actually hits closer to home for journalists. Take it away Andrew (this gets long, but the content is crucial):

Money quote from a new piece in the Catholic newspaper, the Tablet: “Most gay priests, like myself, have been prevented from speaking about our own experiences, and sharing with our parishioners our rewarding lives as celibate men. Most have been formally silenced by bishops or religious superiors on the topic, so the Church can deny our existence. (That is the reason for my pseudonym: I would much prefer to write under my own name.) And many who have not been formally silenced fear reprisals from their bishops and some parishioners. As a result, the only public model of the ‘gay priest’ is the notorious paedophile.

To which Sullivan responds:

There is a solution to this. It’s called courage. I am actually tired of hearing from all these gay priests who refuse to use their names and give blind quotes to the press. Memo to them: your silence is empowering Benedict and the forces of bigotry. You have a choice now: come out to your congregations, explain your lives, stand up for yourselves and the pope, or continue to be scapegoated, exiled, punished. . . . Don’t quit; come out and fight; force the bishops to fire you in the daylight of the press and the people. If all gay priests did that, up to a third of the clergy could call the Vatican’s bluff. The time for hoping this will blow away or that somehow you can avoid facing it is over. And your time has come.

The journalism hook in this is obvious.

In the wake of recent scandals — in the priesthood of the newsroom, not the church — all kinds of journalistic bishops have been confessing the sins of their institutions and promising to do better in the future. The New York Times is merely one such Principality and Power. Part of this journalistic “crisis of faith” is a commitment to avoiding, whenever possible, anonymous sources.

Sullivan is right. This is a story in which more of the Roman Catholics who want to overturn the teachings of their church on sexuality need to step forward and be quoted. We are already seeing waves of MSM stories that are built on anonymous quotes. The logic is natural. These men cannot speak without being punished. If we quote them on the record, we will be hurting their cause. Thus? What do you do?

The result, in a Chicago Sun-Times piece, sounds like this:

“Flying in the face of reality and scientific evidence, rather than dealing with the real issue of psychic immaturity in priests who are either gay or straight — which is clearly the problem for pedophiles . . . — they are going on a witch hunt to get rid of all the gays,” said the priest, who requested anonymity. “It would be funny if it weren’t so sad.

“Why stop at seminaries? Why not deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals? Are they going to be asked if they are homosexuals and if they are, be forced to resign their positions?” he said. “If that happens, there will be many empty offices, many empty parishes and many empty sees.”

Once this game has started, the National Review Online folks can turn to anonymous sources and print something that sounds like this:

I was in the seminary from 1984-87 and can personally attest that the homosexual problem was huge. Conservatively, I would estimate that at least half the seminary was homosexual. The problem with this is that seminaries get a reputation as centers of homosexuality and the priesthood becomes known as a homosexual profession. Who wants to be associated with that?

Another problem comes with the simple temptation of homosexuals living exclusively with other men. This is comparable to a straight seminarian living with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. You can imagine the scandal and temptation that would lead to. Once that gay undercurrent starts, it’s virtually impossible to control it and gay and straight cliques form amongst the students and faculty. (Trust me, I’ve seen them.)

But we all know that this battle will, for the American Catholic elites, be fought out at the level of the New York Times news and editorial pages.

30579F4sThe Catholic establishment in North America is, in many ways, a very conventional oldine progressive church. There are many men and women there who fiercely oppose Catholicism’s ancient doctrines on sexual morality and want to see them modernized. They teach in seminaries and universities and hold jobs in church bureaucracies and ecclesiastical offices both local and national. This is true in all of the mainline religious groups, as anyone who can read a newspaper knows.

But the Times is supposed to be cutting down on anonymous sources. Right? But how do you quote the Catholic left on this story without giving these men and women the safety of anonymous-source status? If they speak up, they will be quoted on the record in Rome as well as in newspapers and broadcasts.

It is early in this story, but a crucial piece so far was Laurie Goodstein’s recent “Gay Men Ponder Impact of Proposal by Vatican.” The gay men, of course, are seminarians and priests. Thus, the story opens:

Word that the Vatican is likely to issue instructions soon that could bar most gay men from joining the priesthood has set off a wave of anger and sadness among some gay priests and seminarians who say they may soon have to decide whether to stay or leave, to remain silent or to speak out.

“I do think about leaving,” said a 30-year old Franciscan seminary student. “It’s hard to live a duplicitous life, and for me it’s hard not to speak out against injustice. And that’s what this is.”

In telephone interviews . . . with gay priests and seminarians in different parts of the country, all were adamant that their names not be used because they feared repercussions from their bishops or church superiors.

I have many questions about this situation, even though I understand the logic.

Stop and think about this for a moment. Where do these anonymous sources come from? What groups and causes do they represent? Would conservatives making anonymous claims be treated by elite MSM reporters in the same manner? Is it fair to allow one side in such a hot debate to remain cloaked, while the other is defending its views in a harsh spotlight?

Or how about this question: Does the Vatican have a right to attempt to ordain men who actually believe the teachings of the church? This leads to another question, which I am sure we will continue to see journalists ask (and they should): Is the proposed Vatican policy an effective way to attempt to screen out men who do not believe the teachings of the church?

Stay tuned. There are, I think, many more trial balloons ahead.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

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  • Michael

    Would conservatives making anonymous claims be treated my elite MSM reporters in the same manner?

    If conservatives risked their careers and family if they were named publicly, the elite MSM would let them be anonymous. They let Bush administration officials–all of them conservatives–speak anonymously on much more flimsy rationales than that.

    While I agree with Andrew, the reality is that if you are writing a story about gay priests and seminarians, you aren’t going to find many who will talk openly and identify themselves. So you have the choice of giving them anonymity or not writing the story at all. Those threatening to oust gay priests and seminarians have no reason to be anonymous and therefore are not in a comparable position.

    One of the reasons why sources are given anonymity is if their cooperation in the story could result in losing their jobs or hurting their families. Since these gay priests will undoubtedly have difficult staying in the priesthood–and many of them are likely not openly gay to family–they fall exactly into the scenario created for justifying anonymous sources.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    Is that repeated *proposed* an implicit admission of the misreporting/misrereporting done by Mr. Pulliam on the 21st? (“Catholic Church bans gays from seminaries”)

  • http://blogs.sun.com/bruce Bruce Geerdes

    Does the Vatican have a right to attempt to ordain men who actually believe the teachings of the church?

    Sullivan thinks so, which I guess is more than most the MSM grants the Vatican.

  • http://www.newpantagruel.com dk

    In this case and in a few others I’ve noticed in the past, it is hard to determine where the quotations are in the article. I’d suggest a double indent on block-quotes and never any images within their boundaries. Sometimes the output in the email version of individual GR posts is uniquely ambiguous due to layout and typography problems.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    Would conservatives making anonymous claims be treated my elite MSM reporters in the same manner? Only if it makes (other) conservatives look bad.

  • http://weblog.theviewfromthecore.com/ ELC

    One of the reasons why sources are given anonymity is if their cooperation in the story could result in losing their jobs or hurting their families. Other reasons might be that (1) the anonymous source has a very, very big axe to grind and, therefore, is spinning like a dervish, or (2) the anonymous source is, to put it plainly, lying. No specific accusations intended here; but, come on, let’s not pretend everybody who hides under the cloak of anonymity has a clear conscience. Heck, Jayson Blair fabricated quotes out of whole cloth, even when he attributed them to real people. :-)

  • tmatt

    dk:

    We are not Borg here at GR. It is my interpretation, based on experience covering Rome, that we are still at the trial balloon stage.

    P.S. I have never found a way to format posts to fit all browsers and screen sizes. Hang in there with us!

  • Michael

    ELC, I was referrnig to ethical reason to permit anonymous sources. Of course people want to be anonymous for lots of self-serving reasons, but there are also sources who want/need to be anonymous because discolosure would possibly ruin their career, bring harm to themselves, or bring harm to their families.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m sick and tired of hearing about the poor oppressed Catholic priests and seminarians who say they are gay. I have read of and personally known too many good men who were heterosexual, orthodox and traditional and were driven out of the seminary by being “black-balled” by professors or priests who are or were apparently part of a “Lavender Mafia” in some seminaries and who seem more interested in promoting the gay agenda than the moral teachings of the Catholic Faith and the Bible.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m sick and tired of reading sob stories from men who are priests or seminarians who shouldn’t be such. I know personally of too many heterosexual, orthodox Catholic men who have been “black-balled” in one way or another by what is being called the “Lavender Mafia” in some American seminaries.

  • http://www.joe-perez.com/ Joe Perez

    I agree with tmatt that there are excellent questions here for the media that deserve to be pondered. Michael also makes an important point in these comment boxes. Judging from the NRO item, there is no blanket prohibition against the media giving conservatives the same privilege, though it isn’t clear to me why the source was allowed to speak anonymously at all. I think Sullivan’s original point is the most important in this discussion: “gay” seminarians need to stand up for themselves and stop being cowardly. If that means talking on the record, that’s a good step. If that means taking even more courageous actions, so much the better.

  • http://blogs.salon.com/0003494/ Bartholomew

    This 2003 article by AN Wilson might be of interest, even though it’s about the C of E rather than Rome. Wilson is discussing his time at St Stephen’s Anglican seminary in Oxford:

    …At Staggers (as St Stephen’s was known), they gave most of the students “names in religion”. This meant that the young men called one another by girls’ names. Young homosexuals of my acquaintance aren’t camp in this way any more. That whole Colony Room, Francis Bacon tradition of calling one another a silly bitch has rather gone out, to be replaced by earnestness of one kind or another.

    …These are men who have been prepared to devote their whole lives to working in poor parishes, visiting the sick, the housebound, the lonely, the prisoners and the captives. They believe in, and live, the Gospel of Christ. They think that God became a poor man to carry our sins. Many of them, but not all, carry with them the strange burden of being homosexual.

  • Michael

    Is being a celibate homosexual against the teachings of the church? Under that logic, would a hetroseuxal priest who fantasizes about having sex out of wedlock be against the teachings of the church? Or a priest who fantasizes about killing someone, but never acts on it? Would he too be going against the teachings of the church?

  • Carl

    To DK’s problem, I think it could be solved by setting your CSS to have a light yellow background behind blockquotes.

  • SEV

    Does the Vatican have a right to attempt to ordain men who actually believe the teachings of the church?

    Sure, but what does this have to do with homosexual priests? The teaching of the church is to avoid any unjust discrimination of homosexual people (paragraph 2358 of the catechism of the catholic church). Let’s get rid of all the non-celibate priests, gay or straight, but draw the line at banning gay priests.

  • tmatt

    Ah, the issue is whether the Church has a right to ordain men who believe its teachings ON SEXUALITY.

    But this raises a real question:

    Is it wrong to ordain a celibate man who has struggled with homosexuality and who still believes what his church teaches about sexuality, but OK to ordain a straight man who might as well be an Episcopalian?

  • http://www.commonwealmagazine.org Grant Gallicho

    Terry,

    Your statement, “This is a story in which more of the Roman Catholics who want to overturn the teachings of their church on sexuality need to step forward and be quoted,” operates from a mistaken premise, namely, that those who oppose barring gay men from the seminary are, by virtue of such opposition, subverting the Catholic Church’s teaching on sexuality. They aren’t. Indeed, I haven’t seen any opposition that called for the church to ordain sexually active gay men. That would be a position that subverts church teaching. The simple fact of being gay does not render one a dissident. Likewise, opposing a ban on homosexually oriented men from entering the seminary does not mean one is opposed to church teaching on sexuality.

  • tmatt

    Grant:

    You didn’t catch what I wrote.

    When I wrote “the teachings of their church on sexuality” I meant precisely that, not the current issue of admitting celibate gays to the seminary.

    I am well aware that there are gay conservatives on sexuality doctrines and liberal straights. That is one of the great paradoxes in this debate that the MSM is not covering.

    And there are gay conservatives who also cannot fight hard for their convictions because there are others who can out them, etc. etc.

    Wheels within wheels….

  • Patrick Rothwell

    It seems to me that there a difference between the press using anonymous sources to make a factual claim and using an anonymous source to express an opinion critical of the organization that they serve. The anonymous gay priests normally would fall into the latter group. I don’t see any problem. Names would be nice, but given the fact that there would be a vendetta against the priests by fanatical laymen – even if he completely supported the Church’s teachings and lived by them – I can hardly see why they should be blamed for remaining anonymous.

  • Michael

    Patrick is exactly right. We give whistleblowers (and would-be whistleblowers) some level of protection through anonymous sourcing when it is clear their employer will retaliate. The priests and seminarians here would fall into that category.

    I also think it’s interesting to look at the NRO story, which uses an anonymous source to raise allegations of blackballing for straight seminarians who would get along. This is becoming a fairly common meme in this discussion and I wonder whether these folks need to be anonymous?

    If they aren’t in the priesthood because they were blackballed or they are priests now, what do they have to lose from supporting a position coming down from the Vatican?

  • http://www.commonwealmagazine.org Grant Gallicho

    Terry,

    If you feel like continuing this exchange over e-mail, that’d be grand. I wasn’t referring to the ironies of gay conservative priests or liberal straight ones. I read the passage I cited not only in light of the broader subject of your post, but also in light of the end of your post: “Does the Vatican have a right to attempt to ordain men who actually believe the teachings of the church? This leads to another question, which I am sure we will continue to see journalists ask (and they should): Is the proposed Vatican policy an effective way to attempt to screen out men who do not believe the teachings of the church?”

    This is a story about whether a man who is homosexually oriented can be ordained a priest. This is not a story about the Vatican screening out dissenters. I repeat: being gay does not mean being dissident. The answer to the first question is obvious: of course the Catholic Church has a “right” to determine its own methods of screening seminarians. But, again, in the context of the proposed ban, your second question seems to presume a false premise. The document and the apostolic visitation were occasioned by the sexual-abuse scandals, as is noted on the first page of the instrumentum laboris for the visitation. It’s not an orthodoxy purge. My concern is that questions like that last one seem to equate being gay men with men “who do not believe the teachings of the church”–a rather broad brush to paint with in this multifaceted story.

    As to whether there’s anything wrong with quoting anonymous sources (and as you know), papers must evaluate whether to use an anonymous source on a case-by-case basis. In this instance, revealing the identity of the sources who are essentially criticizing the policy of their employer could risk their livelihoods (material and spiritual). It’s not simply a conservative/liberal issue.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    As far as “needing courage”… are there no priests in Courage (the organization), which purportedly has the blessings of the awfulnastytyrannical hierarchy?

  • http://fonticulusfides.blogspot.com Sparki

    There are at least two kinds of courage: the courage required for self-actualization, and the courage to be obedient.

    For Catholics, including our priests and other religious, the courage to be obedient when you don’t want to be and when others in society are pressuring you not to be, must be the more difficult of the two.

  • Craig Goodrich

    Terry asks, “Is it wrong to ordain a celibate man who has struggled with homosexuality and who still believes what his church teaches about sexuality, but OK to ordain a straight man who might as well be an Episcopalian?”

    Mmmpf. As an ex-Episcopalian, I’m tempted to respond that it is _never_ OK (even for Episcopalians) to ordain someone who might as well be an Episcopalian, but of course that would be unfair to +Duncan, ++Akinola and the rest.

    But as to the Catholic situation, it seems to me that this involves not only personal spiritual struggles — clearly we all sympathize with the celibate homosexually-attracted postulant — but also perceived risk to the faithful. Any objective analysis of the recent abuse scandal must conclude that, since the overwhelming number of victims were postpubescent boys, the underlying problem is not really pedophelia but homosexual seduction/rape.

    The question is — at least partially — if the priest yields to his temptation, will it not only endanger his soul but also cause permanent trauma to members of his flock? It is not illigitimate for the Church to consider this an overriding concern.

  • Michael

    Any objective analysis of the recent abuse scandal must conclude that, since the overwhelming number of victims were postpubescent boys, the underlying problem is not really pedophelia but homosexual seduction/rape.

    Assuming one is being objective.

    It is not at all clear that the priests involved in the abuse scandal were gay and therefore would have been caught in a net trying to eliminate gays. Arguably, someone who could be identified as gay in a purge of the seminaries would be someone who more openly identifies or interact with other gays. Those people are likely not the people who rape 12-year olds.

    A purge will miss the larger proportion of abusers who are sexual opportunitists, preying on young boys because they are available. Just as rapists in prison are not “gay” and those who sexually assualt other men in all-male situations (military, fraternities, all-boys schools) are often not “gay,” these men would fall under the radar of a gay purge, yet continue to hurt the flock.

    There is an argument that the reason that it was primarily boys (but clearly not all boys and certainly there are adult women who have been assualted by priests) is that priests have access to alot more boys than girls. They coach sports, sponsor all-male clubs, oversee altar boys, teach in all-boys schools. Had the priests had more access to girls, the number of assaults on girls would likely have been greater.

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