Times and Catholics: Call to journalistic action

Once again, we face the same question when discussing a New York Times news feature about the Church of Rome.

I get the Times on tree pulp on weekdays at my office on Capitol Hill, but not on weekends. The rest of my interaction with the world’s most powerful newspaper takes place online. This sometimes leaves me wondering precisely how certain news stories were played in the analog edition.

For example, can someone out there in reader-land tell me if an “analysis” label graced the Times print edition of the recent story that ran under this headline: “Catholic Group Based in Chicago Leads Protest Against Church.” Surely it ran with an “analysis” tag, because it certainly isn’t a traditional, American model of the press news report. At times, it reads like a public relations release.

I just love the cutline on the main photo, which is a totally stereotypical pic of Catholic hands holding a rosary. No, it’s not the photo with this post, but it’s one totally like it. The cutline says:

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is divided on the ordination of women. The group Call to Action, based in Chicago, supports such a policy.

Actually, Catholics in America are somewhat divided on the issue of the ordination of women (much more so the ordination of married men) but the Catholic CHURCH in the USA, in terms of its governing institutions, is not divided on the issue. If one includes seminary faculty, there are some cracks. But the cutline makes this sound like, oh, the Anglican Church’s local, national and global wars about the moral status of sex outside of the sacrament of marriage.

The story flies its PR flag high, right at the top:

It’s a long way from the Vatican to Roscoe Village, but a group based in that North Side neighborhood is leading a high-profile protest among American priests that challenges the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on ordination of women.

The group, Call to Action, an organization for reform-minded Catholics, has collected signatures of more than 150 priests — including 8 in Chicago — on a petition defending a liberal priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who is being threatened with dismissal for his public support for ordaining women. In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.

“We just got on the phones and started telling priests, ‘We’ve got to support Father Roy,’ ” said Nicole Sotelo, 33, a leader of Call to Action, which bills itself as the nation’s largest organization for reform-minded Catholics.

Two things, out of many:

(1) “Reform” is one of the most loaded words in the journalism dictionary, because it already assumes that one side is right and the other wrong. “Reforming” financial practices is one thing. Certainly, reforming clerical policies that protect lawbreakers is an appropriate use of the word. But “reforming” the doctrine of the male Catholic priesthood, which is unbroken in the ancient churches of the east and west?

Now this is an issue that journalist must cover fairly and accurately, because debates are taking place in some circles. But who gets to decide who is “reforming” who? Unbiased language is urgently needed there, rather than simply using Call to Action’s own pet phrases.

(2) The story states this as fact: “In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.” Let’s simply nod at the passive voice sourcing. Nod. Now, what does the word “church” mean in this sentence? Is this the whole global Catholic Church? Is it the American church culture? Are we talking about Chicago?

It is significant that a small number of priests are putting their names semi-publicly on the record in support of the Womenpriests movement. That’s a story. It’s important that some priests are doing that (especially if they are not retired). Now, assemble a list of bishops — the only people who can ordain priests — who are signing on with the Womenpriests movement and you will have a “rebellion” in an accurate sense of the word.

The story includes a long unattributed summary of Catholic activism in Chicago, a city with a rich history in this regard. It is, of course, a totally one-sided list, ending with:

In the ’80s and ’90s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was a leading national voice in opposition to the death penalty.

These days, the Rev. Michael Pfleger invokes the Catholic mission and obligation in pushing for social causes that serve the poor and reach out to blacks, even as his style sometimes draws the wrath of his boss, Cardinal Francis George.

Smooth, isn’t it. The former cardinal was a good man (opposition to the death penalty, of course, is common among many conservative and orthodox Catholic bishops, as well) and the new one is, well, sort of a racist for opposing the “style” of a priest who reaches out to African Americans?

So what else is Call to Action up to?

Besides the ordination of women, the group calls for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, giving priests the option to marry and accepting back into the fold divorced Catholics who have remarried.

Call to Action has also focused on protecting church workers, citing cases of Catholic employees’ being dismissed for holding views contrary to Vatican orthodoxy or belonging to organizations like Planned Parenthood deemed unacceptable by the hierarchy.

Gasp. You mean that Catholic organizations might have a right to hire workers who do not actively oppose “Vatican orthodoxy,” which I assume would mean centuries of church teachings? The church may want to opt out of employing those who oppose what it teaches to be truth? I am sure that academic groups, scientific groups and political groups would never do such a thing.

From a strictly journalistic perspective, note the paragraphs rolling by in opinion essay form, almost totally free of attribution to on-the-record voices.

But wait, there is one conservative voice:

Although many Chicago priests and nuns belong to the group, Cardinal George has kept his distance. “The archdiocese has no relationship with Call to Action,” said Susan Burritt, the spokeswoman for the Chicago Archdiocese, “and therefore has no comment on Call to Action’s policies or statements.”

Unlike, of course, Bernardin. There is no discussion of the facts about how the late cardinal did or did not support this particular group. The implication is that he backed them.

Later on, there is a fact paragraph that also deserves some two-sided unpacking:

The organization has 57 chapters and 25,000 members nationwide. Nuns and priests account for about 30 percent of the members who attend the group’s annual conference.

How many people attend those conferences? How many nuns and priests are we talking about and, oh, what is the average age in this crowd?

Toward the very end, another conservative does appear (not counting Pope Benedict XVI). This produces the ultra-strange ending to this essay:

The Rev. Anthony Brankin, the longtime pastor at St. Thomas More Church who now serves at St. Odilo Church in Berwyn, is an outspoken conservative and critic of Call to Action. Father Brankin describes members of the liberal Catholic movement as lost souls, disenfranchised by both their own church and a larger society that views Catholicism as largely irrelevant.

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of a more faithful church, even if that means it becomes smaller.

Father Brankin said: “Really, when you think about what has happened in modern society, who but aging feminist nuns and their hangers-on clerics even cares whether women should be priests or not?”

But the activists at Call to Action note that while church leaders might not be open to dissent, they seem to be paying attention.

So conservative dioceses are shrinking and the progressive ones growing, right? The orders led by liberal nuns have waves of young sisters and the conservative orderss are shrinking and aging, right? The same thing is true with priests, from diocese to diocese?

This story, in other words, covers one half of a debate, while using very few on-the-record facts on that side. The viewpoint of pro-Vatican Catholics is totally missing. There are facts over there, too, that needed to be included. What we need here is some additional journalism to complete the picture. The reporter could even attempt to report facts that would make activists on both sides upset or nervous.

That is, if this is a news story, as opposed to an “analysis” essay or even an editorial.

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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.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    “Has been hailed” by whom? Blank-out.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    I’d note that the mass media also doesn’t accurately portray the nature of the issue. The claim of the RC and Orthodox churches (as I understand it, I’m open to correction) is not that ‘ordaining women would be a bad idea,’ the claim is that ordaining women, even if it might be an excellent idea, is ontologically impossible. Nor do they address the question of whether it’s more dangerous to decide wrongly in the affirmative, or to decide wrongly in the negative. The consequences of ‘ordaining’ women, if they are ontologically not capable of being ordained, would be beyond terrible, it would mean that millions of people are unable to validly confess their sins to a priest, or to validly receive Christ in the eucharist, even if they sincerely want to.

    (For the record, I’m an Episcopalian that’s on the fence about the ordination of women, but I wish that the media would talk about this intelligently, not in the tired old slogans about ‘discrimination’ and bad analogies to the civil rights movement. On the face of it, saying ‘women cannot be priests’ may be wrong, it quite possibly is wrong, but it’s not ‘discriminatory’ any more than saying ‘men cannot be mothers’ is discriminatory. The priesthood is not a job, it’s an ontological state.)

  • Mark Tardiff

    I think that one way to balance the coverage would be for a reporter to corner a Call to Action leader and ask them to answer the following question: The Episcopal Church adopted all the reforms you’re calling for, and they are declining in numbers and splitting apart. Why do you think that the result for the Catholic Church would be any different if it went down the same road?
    Well, I can fantasize, can’t I, about New York Times reporters actually doing real journalism?

  • Dave

    using very view on-the-record facts

    Shouldn’t that be “few?”

  • Dan

    Will, to answer your question, “by whom?”: by Laurie Goodstein. She “hailed” the so-called “rebellion” in a recent New York Times article about the same subject matter.

  • Julia

    Actually, Catholics in America are somewhat divided on the issue of the ordination of women (much more so the ordination of married men)

    In my experience – in my mostly conservative diocese in the pews with a bunch of outlier priests who are sponsoring this
    ex-communicated Bourgeois to speak soon, the people in the pews are much more amenable to married priests than women “priests”.

    Eucumenism with the Protestant world is going nowhere, if there is to be the healing of a split between Catholics and other Christians it will be with the Orthodox world. I would bet that if there are going to be married priests, it will follow the same or very similar rules as the Orthodox.
    You must be married before ordination and then no second marriage, even if widowered.

    I’ve not seen this addressed at all in the secular press.
    Hector is right.

  • Julia

    re: Call to Action. The local chapter sends me mail. Back in 2002 I went to one of their meetings at the invitation of an ex-priest and ex-nun. I was just about the youngest person there (I’m 66). They write angry letters to the editor, picket the Cathedral and give hyperbolic interviews. And a fair number of them are supporters of the schismatic Polish priest at St Stan’s in St. Louis. Most Catholics pay no attention to them.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    I wonder how often reporters or outlets written about in GetReligion respond. If so, have any ever said they’d take the critique seriously? There’s some pretty important issues deconstructed in this post. What is the NYT’s response?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BILL P:

    The NYTs correction desk is very professional about mistakes and issues of fact.

    In this case, I am challenging a decision by editors to publish, as news, what I believe is clearly a work of editorial analysis or, bluntly, advocacy journalism. It’s half a news story.

    GetReligion has heard about errors that WE have made and we have responded — with corrections and/or with further explanations, inviting debate.

    I have received calls and emails arguing about these kinds of issues, in the past, but never when the topic was Catholic coverage.

  • Dan

    Presently the banner headline on the homepage of Call To Action’s website is: “Welcome New York Times Readers!” and the home page also links to the (favorable) July 22 and July 30 NYT articles. So it seems that the NYT and Call to Action have formed a sort of a mutual admiration society.

    It would be interesting to know how many people are active in Call to Action (more than 1/100th of one percent of Cathoics in the US?), from where it gets its funding (any $$ from Moveon.org or some similar outfit?), and what the demographics of its membership are (how many under age 60? how many (if any) are Hispanic? are they all Catholic?). The New York Times puff piece tells us none of this, of course.

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    tmatt: Thanks much.

    Dan: Well put.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    My favorite item was including the age – 33 – of the CTA spokeswoman, given that (as Julia notes) the actual active membership is generally considerably older.

    But I really want to know this:

    tmatt -

    If you were writing an article for publication, would you refer to the Catholic Church as “the Church of Rome”. I haven’t heard this from Eastern Orthodox, it being more of a way that Anglicans assert the authenticity of their “branch” of “the Church Catholic”.

    I mean, after 24 years a Catholic, I have never set foot in Rome, much less am I am member of it’s Church, of which Benedict XVI is the bishop. I am, in fact, a member of a local Church in Communion with Rome and her bishop. I understand that Catholics, Orthodox, and Anglicans (not to mention other protestants and evangelicals) all have different ecclesiologies, which is not what I’m arguing here.

    As a matter of style, “the Church of Rome” seems a means of dismissing, rather than honestly disagreeing with, the Catholic claims. It has always seemed a demeaning title, meant to sidestep the nature of Catholicism as a world-wide Communion: it’s only Rome, after all. Similarly, this “pro-Vatican” terminology sidesteps the fact that Catholics world-wide share the Catholic Faith, and groups such as Call to Action, while members of the Church, do not share that Faith completely.

    By the way, I’m not one who objects to Roman Catholic, since I am Latin Rite. But as a reporter, ought you to present your own ecclesiology to demean and dismiss those with whom you disagree? Are you then a journalist or a partisan, rather like the New York Times?

    I don’t mean this harshly; it’s just really irritating, particularly since your post seems to be a kindness to that old Church of Rome. :-)

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    PASSING BY:

    I have never heard the term “Church of Rome” used in any way other than respect. It’s like the Orthodox acknowledging that Pope Benedict XVI is the patriarch of the West. I’ve never heard the term challenged by my friends who are Catholic priests or even bishops.

    I use pro-Vatican to describe American Catholics who, well, tend to back the policies and initiatives of the Vatican.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Re: I haven’t heard this from Eastern Orthodox, it being more of a way that Anglicans assert the authenticity of their “branch” of “the Church Catholic”.

    Yup, I’ve only ever heard “Church of Rome” (or, more commonly, “The Roman Church”) from super-high Anglo-Catholic clergy. The connotation being more or less what you suggest, that “Anglicans are part of the Church catholic as well.”

    I disagree with you that it’s ‘demeaning’, necessarily; it makes sense given the premises of Anglo-Catholic (or Orthodox) ecclesiology, and it’s no more demeaning than Pope Benedict (at the time he was Cardinal) saying that the Anglican church isn’t a church. (Which, as an Anglican, I certainly don’t think is demeaning, even though I respectfully disagree with it.) Having said that, I agree with you that the NYT shouldn’t be using the term “Roman Church”, as they shouldn’t be in the business of defending one ecclesiology versus another.

  • http://www.aleksandreia.wordpress.com Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Eucumenism with the Protestant world is going nowhere, if there is to be the healing of a split between Catholics and other Christians it will be with the Orthodox world

    I don’t think either one is at all likely, since there seem to be irreconcilable differences with the Orthodox as well (over divorce, contraception, original sin, etc.).

  • http://friarsfires.blogspot.com Brett

    You know, if the Times keeps adding to the list of issues — same-sex marriage, anti-orthodox (note the lower-case “o,” please) movements in the Roman Catholic Church and so on — on which its coverage should be taken with a grain of salt, Mayor Bloomberg is going to prohibit them from publishing on the grounds that reading the paper will be bad for our health.

  • Julia

    The Church of Rome is very acceptible and in use in official documents; it’s tacking “Roman” on to “Catholic” that is problematical. This is due to its history in England-Catholic relations and to Eastern Catholics feeling not included when that term is used. This was brought up at the Synod of the Eastern Churches last fall in Rome. SEE interview of Cardinal Mahony, the US observer, by John Allen.

    Latin Rite Catholics are Western, and there are several rites still in existence in the West. The major one is Roman but there are others, including Mozarabic and Ambrosian.

    Here’s the history of “Roman” Catholic.

    http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13121a.htm

    It is in fact a prevalent conception among Anglicans to regard the whole Catholic Church as made up of three principal branches, the Roman Catholic, the Anglo-Catholic and the Greek Catholic

    Among other things, also note the dispute in 1897 and again in 1901 between the Archbishop of Westminster and the Home Secretary in the next to last paragraph regarding the use of Roman Catholic.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    tmatt and Hector_St_Clare -

    Thank you for your courteous replies. I’ll admit my exposure to “The Church of Rome” terminology has not been so benign, but accept that it’s not ill-meant in all cases.

    “Demeaning” is probably the wrong word. “Diminishing” might be better.

    I can accept the “pro-Vatican” label if it refers to, say, support for a broader use of the Mass of Pius V (“Tridentine Mass”), or support for Anglicanorum Coetibus In that case, “pro-Vatican” makes sense, but not if the pope restates ancient and settled doctrines, such as those opposed by Call to Action. Agreement in that case is not with the pope (“the Vatican”), but with the Catholic Faith.

    Julia, if you hit the link in my last comment, you will see that my diocese self-identifies as “Roman Catholic”. The sign at my parish says we are “St. Mary of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church”.

  • Julia

    By the way, I’m not one who objects to Roman Catholic, since I am Latin Rite.

    I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. The Latin Rite is Western and uses the Latin language, but all (r)ites in that Western Rite are not derived from Rome. Most of us use the GIRM – General Instruction for the Roman Missal. The Milanese do not, they use the Ambrosian Missal/rite; and neither do a few churches in Spain and I think Portugal that have permission to continue the Mozarabic Missal/rite.

    Here’s the entry on the Roman Rite in the Western Latin Church. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13155a.htm

    The Church of Rome is the Pope’s diocese, since he is the bishop of Rome. But it is also the HQ of the world-wide Catholic Church. It’s the mother church for all in communion with the Pope – sited at the Lateran. So – the “Church of Rome” is a kind of short-hand or AKA for Catholic Church in communion with the Pope.

  • Julia

    There is a liturgy at a 2008 Call to Action event in San Jose CA on YouTube that will give an idea of the age of the members. This was about what I saw at the MidWest meeting I attended.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rh_nqtp3VrU

  • Julia

    Passing By:

    Lots of US Catholics don’t understand where “Roman Catholic” came from, that includes bishops and priests. We’ve gotten used to it b/c it’s standard in our English-derived culture.

    As that encyclopedia entry indicated, the Catholics in Maryland used “Roman Catholic” in their dealings with the home country, England, because they were English subjects and the government required it. People just forgot over time where it came from and what it indicated.

  • john

    So conservative dioceses shrink and the progressive ones growing, right? The liberal nuns have waves of young sisters and the conservative ones are shrinking and aging, right? The same thing is true with priests, from diocese to diocese?

    Actually, it tends to be the other way around, both in Catholicism and Christianity in general. I can’t speak for others, but from what I understand the most vibrant parishes and congregations out there tend towards the orthodox (as in conservative, for lack of a better term) view of things. Same with vocations…most of the older liberal orders of nuns are dying out. It’s he more traditional orders who are actually attracting new members. Some even have waiting lists.

  • Tyson K

    john, Terry almost certainly knows all that, which is why he’s asking that rhetorical and somewhat sarcastic question.

  • dalea

    How many people attend those conferences? How many nuns and priests are we talking about and, oh, what is the average age in this crowd?

    That would be useful information. Unfortunately, this goes into the dreaded area of statistics which is rarely done very well by religious reporters. What I suspect we are dealing with successive ‘waves’ of clerics. The older ones appear to be more liberal than the ones who have come after them. This may be a statistical illusion. We need to know the break down of conservative/liberal by age related cohort. Then we need to track that through time: what was the spread when those now in their 60′s were in their 30′s.

    I think this can be done, it just takes work that is beyond the call of duty for religion beat reporters. It may be that there was a one time influx of liberals into the orders. Or that a noticeable number of priests and nuns become more liberal with age. Or that conservatives are now more willing to sign up while liberals don’t. I don’t know what the facts are and would like to learn more.

    Probably articles on the life journies of clergy could get at the flavor of the situation.

  • dalea

    Regarding Roman Catholic, there is an older English term that might help: Pope Catholic versus Anglican Catholic. This is meant to convey that the difference revolves around the Pope’s role.

  • Elizabeth D

    Dalea, presumably these are terms used by Anglicans, we would only call high church Anglicans “Anglo Catholic” sort of in parentheses since they are not Catholic. They may see the difference as having to do with unity with the Pope or not, but the real differences are much deeper since Anglicans do not have valid Holy Orders therefore do not have most of the other Sacraments validly.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Regarding Roman Catholic, there is an older English term that might help: Pope Catholic versus Anglican Catholic.

    Somehow I don’t think that many RC’s are going to like the term ‘Pope Catholic’ any more than they like the term ‘Roman Catholic’. The Pope is by definition the Bishop of Rome, so the two terms are saying basically the same thing.

    Ultimately the problem here is that Julia’s church and my church have very different ecclesiologies, and the terminology reflects that. I believe that Rome and the Pope have merely local as opposed to universal authority, and that they can be wrong, and have been wrong in the past. Presumably she believes the opposite, and that’s fine, but it means there are going to be irreconcilable differences in the way we talk about these things. That being said, as far as possible the NYT should try not to take a position on which ecclesiology is correct.

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: It is in fact a prevalent conception among Anglicans to regard the whole Catholic Church as made up of three principal branches, the Roman Catholic, the Anglo-Catholic and the Greek Catholic

    That is a prevalent conception, I also happen to agree with it, so why shouldn’t I use terminology that reflects it?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: the real differences are much deeper since Anglicans do not have valid Holy Orders therefore do not have most of the other Sacraments validly

    I understand that you believe that, and that’s fine, but why are Anglicans under any obligation to agree with you?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    This RC object to “Pope Catholic” no more than I object to RC, but had never heard it before. There are Church Papists, but that’s a different critter, and there are Anglo-papalists, aka Anglican Papalists.

    Actually, discussions like this, and the journalism that inspires it, would be more productive if we agreed on what, precisely, “Catholic” means. My Church History professor, an Episcopalian and self-described “born-again Calvinist”, taught us that in the centuries when local Churches went in and out of Communion with one another, and local groups split into various factions over doctrinal issues, “catholic” simply referred to that body remaining in communion with the bishop of Rome, who served became an arbiter of differences, theological and practical. The “Catholic Church” in a town was that group in Communion with Rome as distinguished from other groups, Marcionites, Montanists, Socinians, etc.. Hence “Catholic” doesn’t mean, in the main, “good”, “better than” or “correct”: it’s a statement of relationship. All of this from a text by a Baptist.

    The point isn’t to argue ecclesiology, but to note the difficulty when people use undefined, or poorly defined words, in this case, “Catholic”.

  • Peggy R

    I didn’t have time to read all comments. I believe Julia is the Julia from my same diocese at the other end of IL. I have to say I’m not too concerned/impressed with 150 priests nationwide defending Bourgeois, as the local CTA (appropriately called “FOSIL”)and its priest friends amassed over 40 signatures of priests to a letter demanding the resignation of our bishop appointed by Rome w/o their approval! The nerve of the pope taking such an action without their input!

    I didn’t realize that Bourgeois was slated to speak in our diocese(If I read Julia correctly)–not at a diocesan facility, I am sure. The bishop has prohibited FOSIL from using Catholic facilities.

    Also, the journalist has it quite wrong that orthodoxy doesn’t grow, while dissent does. Just look at the Arlington,VA diocese. Look at which women religious orders are growing–the ones in habits with traditional devotions and missions.


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