Acceptable prejudices: The Guardian and Catholic bashing

Crain’s New York Business reports the Guardian has set up shop in the US and is open for business. In a piece entitled “The British are coming: Guardian hits U.S.“, CNYB notes the British daily’s website “had more than 10 million unique visitors in the U.S. in August.” The head of the US operation, Janine Gibson, states their aim is “combine the Guardian‘s internationalist, digital journalism with American voices and expertise.”

I am one of those 10 million visitors from the US and a daily reader of the newspaper’s website. At the outset of this post I should say I have been a freelance contributor to the Guardian and am a friend and reader of the paper’s religion reporter Riazat Butt.

While I do not share the Guardian‘s pacifist, socialist, sandal-wearing, diversity worshiping, vegetarian, tree-hugging, anti-American weird-beard liberalism, I admire some of its writers. Stephen Bates, the paper’s former religion reporter, who prepares the Diary column is one of the best working journalists writing today. He is one of the few British reporters who “get religion” and “get” its place within the intellectual and cultural life of the United States, and whose work is always worth reading.

The Guardian‘s stable includes a number of superior writers, but at times the newspaper lends itself to parody, mouthing the biases of the chattering classes. Take a look at “Bishop of Derry calls for end to celibacy in Catholic church” from its Ireland reporter.

The story is rather straight forward.  The former Bishop of Derry Edward Daly has published his memoirs: A Troubled See, Memoirs of a Derry Bishop. Daly, who came to prominence on Bloody Sunday in 1972 when he was photographed waiving a white handkerchief as he escorted a wounded man to safety after troops opened fire on demonstrators, offered his views on several issues facing the Roman Catholic Church.  The Irish Times reported Bishop Daly was not enamored with the Latin Mass, finding it “lifeless and somewhat meaningless” and believed the church should reform the way it selected its bishops, stating “the virtual absence of pastorally experienced clergy in positions of authority in the Irish church” helped inhibit renewal promised by Vatican II.

And, the Irish Times reported he also had a word to say about celibacy.

I ask myself, more and more, why celibacy should be the great sacred and unyielding arbiter, the paradigm of diocesan priesthood? … (There) is certainly an important and enduring place for celibate priesthood. But I believe that there should also be a place in the modern Catholic Church for a married priesthood and for men who do not wish to commit themselves to celibacy.

So that’s the story. Retired bishop with colorful past questions mandatory celibacy. Let’s see what the Guardian team elects to do with this.

It opens with a flourish.

On Bloody Sunday in 1972 Father Edward Daly faced down the Parachute Regiment responsible for shooting dead 13 unarmed Derry civilians, waving just a white handkerchief as he protected the wounded from the army’s bullets in the Bogside. Now 39 years later the retired Bishop of Derry is confronting an even more powerful force than the Paras: the Vatican.

Dr. Daly, who was the Bishop of Derry for 20 years during the Troubles, has become the first senior Irish Catholic cleric to call for an end to celibacy in the church. His intervention in the debate over whether priests should be allowed to marry is highly significant because he is still one of the most respected figures in the Irish Catholic church at a time when faith in the institution has been shattered by the paedophile scandals involving clergy.

Challenging centuries of Catholic theocracy, Daly has said that allowing the clergy to marry would solve some of the church’s problems.

Crusading hero priest v. the evil Vatican curia, in other words. How’s that for telegraphing your point of view. Is the bishop really calling for an end to celibacy? All priests must marry? Of course not. He is calling for an end to compulsory celibacy.

Is he the first? Of course not. Off the top of my head I can recall the furore caused by the Bishop of Ferns, Brendan Comiskey, in 1995 when he called for a debate on compulsory celibacy. And there was Bishop Willie Walsh of Killaloe — but Killaloe is in the back of beyond in Co. Clare so it may not count. I will grant that Bishop Daly would have been the first to call for an “end to celibacy.” But since he did not actually say that, I don’t believe it is a point the Guardian might want to press. And it is nice to see the paedophile angle worked in. Can’t have a Roman Catholic story without the perverts can we.

And what should we make of the use of the word “theocracy”? A theocracy is a church run state like the Dalai Lama’s Tibetan government in exile or Muslim countries where Sharia law controls civil law or the Vatican City State.

So, is the Guardian suggesting that Ireland is priest-ridden island under the wicked rule of the Whore of Babylon? I’m prone to flashbacks, (the colors, the colors) and these opening paragraphs took me in my mind to Ibrox Stadium in Glasgow for a Rangers – Celtics football (soccer) game. The subtlety of this article comes close to that of a Rangers fan in full roar.

The 1200-word piece, long for a British news story, lays out what the bishop wrote in his book and shares anecdotes from his life. When the article turns back to history, offering context for the bishop’s views, we find more problems.

Catholic priests have been unable to marry since the Gregorian reforms in the 11th century made celibacy compulsory. Historians have contended that the move was partly for spiritual reasons, but was mainly to ensure estates held by clerics would pass back to the church upon their deaths rather than to offspring.

Which historians say this? What about the Catholic version which teaches that the Church’s obligation of celibacy goes back to the apostles in an ‘unbroken’ line. And that the motivation for celibacy was the closer following of Jesus Christ, who required his apostles to leave wife and family, to become “eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom”.

While attempting to pile on further, the Guardian fumbles the ball. Take these passages on Anglicans going to Rome.

However, in recent years Pope Benedict XVI has made allowances for married Anglican ministers to transfer to the Catholic church after a number made the move in protest at controversial Anglican issues including the ordination of women priests, and acceptance of ministers in same-sex relationships. …

The other development has been the welcoming into the Catholic church of traditionalist Anglicans, unable to reconcile their faith with the ordination of women or the consecration of openly gay bishops. Their incorporation has been made easier since October 2009 when Benedict issued a controversial ordinance allowing them to retain much of their identity, liturgy and pastoral arrangements.

Anglican clergy who have entered the Catholic Church and have sought to be re-ordained as Catholic priests (a move introduced by John Paul II in 1980) may have been horrified by Anglican events of recent years, but they became Catholics because they believed the truth claims of the Catholic Church. Gay bishops and blessings, women clergy and inclusive language liturgies may well have sharpened the mind, but the Catholic Church is not a girl picked up on the rebound from a bad break up. The Guardian may well think the Roman option was a knee jerk response to the innovations of recent times, but I doubt any of those who crossed the Tiber would make this claim (or if Rome would have re-ordained them if this was their motivation.)

But I digress. Back to the story. Try these samples:

The debate over whether to admit married men to the priesthood, however, is one not even the pope can stifle.

Stifle? How? When? Come on.

..the continuing sex abuse scandal. .. The first senior figure to argue the case for a link between an unmarried priesthood and sex abuse was the bishop of Hamburg, Hans-Jochen Jaschke, who in March 2010 told a newspaper interviewer a “celibate lifestyle can attract people who have an abnormal sexuality”.

Is there a link between the “celibate lifestyle” and clergy sexual abuse? If so, show us. How about a contrary view articulated in a study commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that linked child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the ’60s and ’70s to the feminist movement, a ‘singles culture’ and divorce. It may strain the credulity of the typical Guardian reader to think the virtues celebrated by the newspaper are vices, but it should have received a nod none the less.

And let us not forget to take a gratuitous shot at the pope.

In 1970, the decline in priesthood vocations persuaded nine leading theologians to sign a memorandum declaring that the Catholic leadership “quite simply has a responsibility to take up certain modifications” to the celibacy rule. Extracts from the document were reprinted in January. Not least because one of the signatories was the then Joseph Ratzinger, now pope Benedict.

Is Benedict a hypocrite? What is unsaid is that according to the Süddeutsche Zeitung in 1970 Karl Rahner, Walter Kasper, Karl Lehman, Joseph Ratzinger along with five other theologians wrote to the German Bishops’ Conference asking that the requirement that all priests in the Latin Church to be celibate should be reconsidered in the light of  the “new historical and social conditions” unfolding in Europe and North America. The full text of the document has not been released and has not been verified. However, from what has so far been printed the nine asked that the question be discussed, which is different from calling for it to be rejected.

Coming soon after the charge the Pope was stifling debate, the lack of balance in this charge of papal mendacity is troublesome and to my mind speaks to the failings of this article, and the difference between good and bad journalism.

In his 1946 essay, “Why I Write”, George Orwell stated, “every line of serious work that I have written since 1936 has been written, directly or indirectly, against totalitarianism.” I make the same claim for work of journalists whom I admire. Though Stalinism and Fascism no longer have a place in Western intellectual life, the cant, hypocrisy and moral dishonesty they represented remain part of our intellectual and philosophical lives–and it is here–in challenging the orthodoxies of left and right–that one can find the best Guardian reporting.

Does this article meet this standard? No. It is riddled with errors, condescending towards it subject, and is entirely predictable.

That unfashionable poet, Edna St Vincent Millay, wrote in her “Dirge Without Music:

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

A journalist who takes his craft seriously, who is not resigned to the world around him, who writes with moral purpose (but without moralizing) prepares stories that are a joy to read. This article is not one of those stories.

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About geoconger
  • Will

    And of course, as has been frequently noted on this site, there is no mention of the unbroken existence of married priests in the Eastern rites.

  • R9

    I’m not a Guardian reader myself (I go with the Telegraph out of habit). But, well: “Guardian’s pacifist, socialist, sandal-wearing, diversity worshiping, vegetarian, tree-hugging, anti-American weird-beard liberalism,”

    I sorta felt like stopping reading there. Are we here for objective critque of religion coverage, or conservative complaining? Do you want to preach to the choir, or get the rest of us to pay attention?

  • http://!)! Passing By

    How’s that for telegraphing your point of view.

    Would The Guardian want to telegraph anything?

  • Will

    “The Guardian is read by the people who think THEY ought to run the country…” — Jim Hacker

  • Amanda

    How about a contrary view articulated in a study commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops that linked child sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the ’60s and ’70s to the feminist movement, a ‘singles culture’ and divorce.

    I wish you’d linked to the report itself. The L.A. Times story does not explain how the feminist movement affected male clergy, nor how divorce affected celibate, unmarried clergy, in a fashion that is linked to child sexual abuse. That the US Conference of Catholic Bishops commissioned the report is insufficient, standing on its own, to establish the accuracy of its contents. (Consider, if you will, studies commissioned by pharmaceutical companies, or expert reports in litigation). Without an indication of independent verification, I do not follow your suggestion that the Guardian’s article failed by not including a “nod” to this theory.

  • Craig

    Amanda: the article cites one statement given by one bishop in one interview as proof of the beleif that celibacy attracts those with abnormal views. While I understand trepidation about an “internal commission” study (although I don’t reject the idea that they can be valid as you apparently do) I don’t think the article is fair to present the bishop’s statement as credibly relfecting a main-stream basis of thought on celibacy. Since Got Religion is about fairness in the coverage of faith issues, I think this is a fair criticism of the article.

  • sari

    Here is a link to the study:

    Interesting reading and less positive than the media have presented.

  • Norman

    The Guardian is still an exceptional paper, though as you say a mixed bag. It is, of course, a forthrightly and honestly left-wing paper, and in the late-90′s and early 2000′s this concentrated world-view was simply arresting and very persuasive. It was, I thought, the true “best newspaper” in the world. The Guardian project seems a little frayed to me now, and not all of the writing has that old dash and sparkle, but I have to give kudos to Andrew Brown for being the fairest big-name secular religion writer going, and an atheist to boot.

    The Guardian often proves that having an identifiable point-of-view and being even-handed are not mutually exclusive, though it is a thin and sharp edge to walk. Looks like they didn’t do it in the article under review, but it is not a newspaper one can just ignore, unlike another, nearer paper of record.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    On the whole this was an excellent posting and analysis. One complaint though. There is no such thing as “compulsory” celibacy in the Latin Catholic Church. A man has a choice to offer or not offer himself to the Catholic Church for study and training to be ordained a Catholic priest. Up front and clearly stipulated are certain requirements for ordination. These include taking a vow of celibacy. It is a “job requirement.” If one does not like this requirement he should seek some other job or vocation.
    And if he finds he has made a mistake, there are procedures for laicization which includes freedom to marry as a layperson (although attempts are usually made to convince the one seeking laicization to keep his FREELY GIVEN vow.)
    And what jobs or vocations do not have some sort of “job requirements” that go with the turf that you must consider before applying for that position. Don’t many jobs have “compulsory” physical requirements that a person is supposed to stay within to keep his job????
    There is no “right” to ordination to the Catholic Church’s priesthood. Like every other vocation or job those who do the employing (in this case the Church hierarchy) rightfully set the rules for employment.

  • Jerry

    While I do not share the Guardian’s pacifist, socialist, sandal-wearing, diversity worshiping, vegetarian, tree-hugging, anti-American weird-beard liberalism

    Why don’t you tell us what you really believe? I’ll bet, amongst other things, that quite conservative Christians wear sandals and sandals are mentioned in the Bible – so why do you hate those who wear sandals? And what is it with “weird-beard liberalism”? If you invent a phrase like that one, it behooves you to define it. Finally, “tree-hugging” defines you as one who does not believe in Christian creation-care. I must say that by that one clause, you managed to puncture the quite favorable image I had of you from your earlier posts and background.

    That introductory rant also helps explain this:

    Which historians say this? What about the Catholic version which teaches that the Church’s obligation of celibacy goes back to the apostles in an ‘unbroken’ line.

    So does the following mean that is wrong:

    The tradition in the Western or Latin-Rite Church has been for priests as well as bishops to take vows of celibacy, a rule that has been firmly in place since the early Middle Ages. Even today, though, exceptions are made. For example, there are married Latin-Rite priests who are converts from Lutheranism and Episcopalianism.

    As these variations and exceptions indicate, priestly celibacy is not an unchangeable dogma but a disciplinary rule.

    As the dictionary definition makes clear, the word celibacy has two meanings:

    Definition of CELIBACY
    1: the state of not being married
    2a : abstention from sexual intercourse

    So it’s clear that the site I cited used the first definition and the site you cited used the second definition. It’s not surprising, therefore, that there is confusion in news stories because some people use the word celibacy in the first sense and others interpret it in the second sense. And the comment about the Second Lateran Council of 1139 in your reference explains a root of the confusion.

    As for marriage celebrated after ordination – always strictly banned in both the East and the West – the Second Lateran Council of 1139 said this was not only illicit, but invalid.

  • geoconger

    Jerry, Let me say nothing falls flatter than a misunderstood joke. My description of the Guardian’s editorial slant was hyperbole, offered in conjunction with my praise of the newspaper’s staff.

    “Weird beard” is an expression that has been around for some 40-50 years. I cannot offer you an etymological history of the phrase, which connotes a 60′s hippie liberalism. I once heard Spiro Agnew use the phrase on tv and have enjoyed its use ever since. Though it doesn’t top “pusillanimous pussyfooters”, “nattering nabobs of negativism” and “hopeless, hysterical hypochondriacs of history.

    As to the definition of celibacy, I do not wish to be drawn into the issues under debate in the story. Suffice it to say that the definition I offered in summary was one presented by Fr. Joseph Fessio of the Ignatius Press.

  • Will

    I have always been nonplussed by calls for “optional celibacy”. Doesn’t everybody, ordained or not, have the option of celibacy?

  • Bennett

    Seems as if slanted stories like this are a big part of why Christianity is misunderstood. Just as stories about cholesterol and heart disease lead people to think that their Honey Nut Cheerios are really making them healthier, there’s a very real secular mission (not conspiracy, per se, so much as a war of worldviews) that slanders religion, especially religions that aren’t fuzzy-wuzzy. Note the free pass often given to, say, the Dalai Lama, or other Eastern leaders (after all, the faith of ‘colonized’ people is part of their culture, and therefore must be virtuous, whereas our faith is just superstition–I’m not sure who that’s more patronizing towards, if you think about it. It essentially says “Oh, isn’t that quaint” about any non-secular belief, but keeps the kid gloves on for ‘non-white’ faith, as if there were such a thing)

    Honestly, if I mostly knew about religion what I read in the papers, I’d be about as equipped for life as I would be equipped for a fight if I knew karate from watching Hong Kong Phooey cartoons.

  • Paul of Alexandria

    Why is it that nobody who writes on this topic bothers to read or research Martin Luther? He had a rather considerable amount to say on the topic.

  • Dan

    As Pope Benedict has observed, the Church’s celibacy requirement is a scandal to the modern world. Why is this? Why is the world, and particularly the left, so bothered by the Church’s celibacy requirement? After all, those who are most opposed to it are, generally speaking, those who are the least likely ever even to have thought of becoming a Catholic priest and thus are completely unaffected by it. The answer, I think, lies in the ever increasing idolization of sex. Celibacy is a sign of defiance toward the god of sex. Conversely, as Pope Benedict has put it, the choice to be celibate gives “testimony to the kingdom of heaven.” It is this testimony that The Guardian, and much of the rest of the world, does not want to hear — and would like to refute.

  • Brett

    For what it’s worth, George, I recognized the hyperbole and got the joke — but I’m a former newspaper guy, and so predisposed to your particular brand of dementia ;-)

  • Joel

    One thing I haven’t been seeing in these articles is the distinction between allowing married priests and allowing priests to marry. I notice the Irish Times used both phrases in the same article. The two are not interchangeable.

    In the Eastern Rites and the Orthodox churches, the priesthood is open to men who are already married, as is the diaconate in the Latin Rite. In none of those cases can a man marry after his ordination. I suspect that if the Latin Rite ever lifted the celibacy requirement, that’s the model they would follow, rather than the Protestant one of keeping ordination and marriage independent of each other.

  • Martha

    “The debate over whether to admit married men to the priesthood, however, is one not even the pope can stifle.”

    Particularly since they admit that this present Pope has indeed permitted married men to be admitted to the priesthood (those Anglicans who came over and were already married clergymen?)

    The two arguments about mandatory celibacy boil down to this:

    (1) If only we didn’t have mandatory celibacy, there would have been no sex abuse scandal!

    Well, Mark Shea on his blog takes a good pop at that one every time there’s an instance of secular child abuse, usually with the ironic (or sarcastic) header “If only teachers could marry! If only women could be teachers!” (or sports coaches, Scout leaders, journalists, or whatever the profession of the offender may be).

    Celibacy alone is not the root cause and marriage – or the possibility of marriage – is no guarantee of absolute protection.

    (2) There’s a host of men out there who would become priests in the morning if only they could marry!

    Again, I’m dubious about this one. Just looking at the Anglicans on this one, when they permitted women’s ordination (on the same grounds – women would be flocking to the Church once this barrier was removed), it seems that initially there were a fair number of women going for the priesthood, but that’s since levelled off, and despite fears that the clergy was becoming a female profession – the perception that only women, or more women than men, were going for ordination – the numbers seem more or less even or even tilted in favour of men.

    What does seem to be the case is that the clergy is becoming a second-career option; people are older when seeking admission to a seminary or theological college, and much more likely to be retired or have had a main career first.

    So if the bishop is thinking along the lines of older men probably already married who might want to be priests, he probably is on the button there. If people are thinking of lots of young men not willing to give up girlfriends for the priesthood, sorry, don’t think that would be a big change.

    And finally, yes, the Orthodox have married priests – but only before ordination and no married bishops, but rather have always had the tendency to draw those from the ranks of the monastics.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Some fun letters in The Guardian responding to the article in question, including one by the editor of The Tablet, who calls the silliness for what it is.

    Like others, I always amazed at the obsession of the left (and Protestant right, to be fair) with clerical celibacy. It’s really not ya’ll’s business, being our discipline and all.

  • Jay

    Wow! What is such a literary piece doing on a journalism blog? It seems more like the cover essay for a monthly magazine such as First Things.

  • Fr.Nicholas

    Why is Edna St.Vincent Millay “unfashionable”?

  • Hector_St_Clare

    Re: Historians have contended that the move was partly for spiritual reasons, but was mainly to ensure estates held by clerics would pass back to the church upon their deaths rather than to offspring.

    That may or may not have been part of the motivation of _the Church_, but I suspect it was part of why Jesus Christ chose to be celibate, why his mother was called to be a lifelong celibate, and why the Holy Spirit inspired the early church to prize celibacy among its clergy. If you want to know what Christianity would have looked like if there had been lots of descendants of Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles running around, then I suspect it would have looked something like the history of Islam, where the bloodline of Muhammed served as a major source of conflict, warfare and schism. The fact that Jesus _had_ no bloodline (and neither did his mother, nor the apostles) was, literally, a godsend to Christianity.

    And I’d also argue the fact that the ideal of priestly celibacy helped turn the priesthood into a non-hereditary, merit-based institution, which in turn helped the rise of non-monarchical forms of government in the West. It may be time to move beyond compulsory priestly celibacy. Personally I’m glad my church doesn’t require it, though one of my biggest spiritual influences has been a (voluntarily) celibate Anglican priest. But we shouldn’t forget that the legacy of the celibate priesthood to Western civilisation has been a very largely positive one.