Womenpriests in the balance

I would love to stop covering Roman Catholic Womenpriest stories but in order to do that, they have to stop being written in such hacktastic manner. Take this one from the Fort Myers News-Press, headlined “Fort Myers woman defies church to become priest.”

The captions accompanying the story are my favorite. I’m not sure which one is the best. Perhaps:

Judy Beaumont, 74, will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest Saturday.

Or perhaps:

Judy Beaumont risks the loss of her soul by being ordained, says Diocese of Venice Bishop Frank Dewane. Beaumont says she is following her conscience.

Except for the parts about how Beaumont will not be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest and the bishop never said what he’s accused of, these are excellent captions.

A commenter to the article writes “Journalists need to develop some critical judgement. She and the others can’t become ‘Catholic priests’ simply by calling themselves that. If I decided I wanted to become a supreme court justice and phoned up my local news station and announced that I was being sworn in as a judge at a local church hall at the weekend what would journalists do? They would laugh and throw the story in the bin – where this one should go.” Except that reporters could not love these stories more. And they’re somehow led into writing these stories up in the least evenhanded manner possible. Take the lede (please!):

Judy Beaumont plans to take a historic step Saturday, one that will jeopardize her immortal soul.

Beaumont, 74, of Fort Myers, is defying centuries-old doctrine in becoming the first woman in Southwest Florida to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. The church decrees this role is reserved for men. Bishop Frank Dewane of the Diocese of Venice, which oversees the Catholic faithful in 10 counties, including all of Southwest Florida, has warned her not to cross that patriarchal line.

Historic in what sense? Is the reporter signaling to us that she thinks this is “important” or “likely to be famous”? And “patriarchal”? The bishop told her not to cross a patriarchal line? Because in his letter, mentioned below, it sounds like a “doctrinal” one. Perhaps that would be a better and more neutral word to use.

The story does quote from the letter before telling us that Beaumont “will follow her conscience and take the consequences.” And, further, that she thinks excommunication is a “man-made rule.” So let’s see, female going for ordination at a Lutheran-Episcopal hybrid congregation who doesn’t recognize any church’s authority to excommunicate. Hmm. It’s almost like the reporter could figure out from her own reporting that the language “will be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest” is in error.

Or maybe I’m expecting too much. Check out this choice line:

The movement has generated controversy and debate between traditional and progressive Catholics who favor the concept of “inclusion,” embracing women priests, married priests, gays and others not accepted by the church.

Ooft. The sentence construction on that one is rough, eh? And why the scare quotes around “inclusion”? Also, to which doctrine is the reporter referring when she writes that the gays are not accepted? That last line, by the way, is the final line to the story. There’s also a video accompanying the article featuring the subject of the story talking. You know, for balance.

Off-balance woman photo via Shutterstock.

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  • bob

    What you have here is the common sub-headline, “the first in SW FLorida” to do something. Wrestle an alligator, swallow a coconut, swim across the Gulf Of Mexico, become a Catholic priest, whatever. It’s almost not a religious story at all. And they send the same reporter who covers coconut swallowing to write the news item. With the predictable knowledge of religious issues.

  • http://northprairiepastor.wordpress.com Pr. Timothy Winterstein

    “Beaumont, 74, of Fort Myers, is defying centuries-old doctrine in becoming the first woman in Southwest Florida to be ordained a Roman Catholic priest. The church decrees this role is reserved for men.”

    I think that line perfectly sums up your point: If “the church decrees this role is reserved for men,” then it can’t make much sense to say that she is being ordained “a Roman Catholic priest.” Some editor, somewhere, sometime, has to realize that this is a contradiction in terms. But if that editor does realize such a thing, that would probably put an end to these stories, as if something newsworthy is being reported.

    I thought this line was a little strange: “She is one of more than 124 women priests and 10 woman bishops who say they have been called to serve in the Catholic Church.” That’s a pretty specific number; maybe “more than 120,” but “more than 124″?

  • Martha

    “warned her not to cross that patriarchal line.”

    Okay, headlines are one thing, but that line in the body of the story makes me want to smack the reporter (preferably over the knuckles with a ruler while dressed in the pre-reformed version of the Sisters of Mercy habit).

    Look, if someone buys medals on eBay and dresses up in uniform complete with decorations and goes about presenting himself as a decorated war hero, it makes no difference to the Army if he’s really wearing his old uniform and really did serve in the Queen’s Own 16th Port Royal Haberdashers’ Brigade, they crack down on people claiming what they’re not entitled to.

    I don’t think a reporter would write a story about “The General warned ex-Private Smith not to cross that war-mongering line”, do you?

  • Mark Baddeley

    A commenter to the article writes “Journalists need to develop some critical judgement. She and the others can’t become ‘Catholic priests’ simply by calling themselves that. If I decided I wanted to become a supreme court justice and phoned up my local news station and announced that I was being sworn in as a judge at a local church hall at the weekend what would journalists do? They would laugh and throw the story in the bin – where this one should go.”

    I agree with the commentator that magisterium of the Catholic church should define who is and is not a Catholic priest. However, I’m not sure it is that simple for a journalist. There seems to be a reasonable number of people who consider themselves Catholic who don’t think the magisterium has total say in defining what it means to be Catholic – they see it as more ‘bottom-up’ than that.

    So simply saying, “These aren’t news, file them in the circular bin”, seems strange. Women becoming ex-Catholics in their pursuit of the sacrament of ordination would seem to be news. Someone accepting excommunication to be ordained, or (effectively) denying that the Church can pronounce excommunication is reasonably considered ‘news’.

    It wouldn’t be news in the same way for Protestantism – because of its history of individual judgement and denominationalism. A person deciding they’re a judge and getting a former judge to install them to the bench wouldn’t be either – but only because there isn’t a body of citizens arguing that the judiciary selection process doesn’t control who can become a judge. If such a movement did arise, then private “I’m becoming a judge” stories would be news.

    I think the issue is more with the balance. What’s going on here reflects a debate internal to Catholicism (and in the cases of these stories, is spawning a (very small) movement outside of mainstream Catholicism that may have broader support or sympathy among practicing Catholics who are going to remain inside) we’re not really getting a good sense of that debate, and what’s at stake in that debate, in the midst of the cheerleading for one side.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com Authentic Bioethics

    I find these stories very odd, in the same way as the commenter who said it would hardly be newsworthy if she claimed she was being sworn in as a Supreme Court justice. There are people who claim to be pope, too. Like this poor fellow who passed on not too long ago, leaving the Chair of Peter vacant (again): http://www.truecatholic.us/ The Church has also decreed that there will be only one pope at a time, but these other popes are hardly newsworthy.

    Therefore, the journalistic conundrum for me, is one of just why this particular is so readily pounced upon by the media. And it has to be the socio-political undercurrents. Discrimination, liberation, gender issues, and anti-Catholicism, etc., that are totally missing from the “I’m a new Supreme Court justice” claim. I mean, it just really seems that these media believe that the Catholic Church is something to pick on.

  • carl jacobs

    The story is ‘historical’ in the sense of “an inevitable outcome of the historical march of man towards a progressive future.” That’s why journalists love the story so much. For them, it’s like watching the birth pangs of the next step in man’s progress. It let’s them imagine that one of the bulwarks of tradition – the RCC – is subtly being eroded and overcome by modernism. In addition, progressives tend to think of religion as self-defined. That means no authority has the ability to tell anyone what they are not. This denies traditional religious leadership control over definitions, and explains why they don’t care that the Pope says they aren’t Catholic.


  • Passing By

    Women becoming ex-Catholics in their pursuit of the sacrament of ordination would seem to be news.

    How many times?

  • Fr Theodore

    The article has another problem, considering it states the first seven women in this group were ordained by a “male priest” on the Danube River. Probably meant bishop, but it does not enhance trust in the author if she got that wrong.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: Passing By

    How many times?

    I share your pain, and am tempted to say “seventy times seven”?

    I think it’s still news at the moment, depending on how developments pan out in the Catholic Church that may change. I’m not sure we can say more than that. It all depends on the demographic changes in that list of ‘the Catholic vote’ that tmatt regularly puts up – how the proportions of those 4 categories change from here.

  • Bill

    Maybe a womenpope can straighten all this out.

  • http://returntorome.com Francis J. Beckwith

    If Catholic Archbishop Dolan were to claim to have ordained his laptop computer “a priest,” it would be just as wrong for a journalist to call the laptop “the first non-sentient artificial member of the Catholic priesthood” as it would be for that journalist to suggest that the Endangered Species Act applies to unicorns. It’s not that the Catholic Church won’t ordain women. It’s that it can’t, just as its priests can’t consecrate an Oreo cookie or baptize a frog. Catholicism is tightly tethered to a realist understanding of being and natures, while the secular world is tightly tethered to a nominalist understanding. Hence, the confusion and the inability to comprehend very simply theological distinctions within Catholic theology.

  • http://returntorome.com Francis J. Beckwith

    Yikes. In the last sentence above I meant to say “very simple,” NOT “very simply.”

  • Matthew

    This is a bit more general than about this article, but I am wondering if anyone from this blog tries to actually contact the reporters and ask them what on earth they were thinking when the wrote X? Some of the defects cited here are so egregious that I think the reporters should be made aware of them. Just curious.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Mark Baddeley -

    My comment was strictly journalistic: when does a repetitive event cease to be “news”? I’m old enough to remember Uncle Walter (Cronkite) assuring us that all that bad news (this is ca: 1968) was, by definition, exceptional and we shouldn’t panic because the country seemed to be falling apart.

    I don’t understand the rest of your comment, but if you mean by the proportions of those 4 categories that a relatively high percentage of self-described Catholics will enjoy having their fantasies massaged by The New York Times and the like, I would agree. If you mean that some majority view will cause the Catholic Church to ordain women, that’s another matter. ;-)

  • Martha

    I think there has to be a certain amount of disingenuousness going on here; the only reason these stories get prominence is because they’re controversial, and the only reason they’re controversial is because there is not acceptance of these women’s orders by the Roman Catholic Church.

    I know the line is that “We just use the terms people call themselves so if someone says he or she is the Divine Ruler of the Frog-People Empire from Cynus Alpha, that’s what we print”, but come on: if these women really are priests, what’s the news value here? It goes in a paragraph under ‘Local News’ with the Girl Guides Bake Sale and the 50th Anniversary Banquet for the Good Companions Guild.

    The same way that if we were talking about someone claiming to be a judge, a doctor or the mayor, the story would be festooned with “allegedly”, “claimed” and “is acting as”, and certainly they would not treat Mayor Jane Doe as the real Mayor, or write the story as if it was just a matter of opinion as to whether Mayor Doe or Mayor Smith was really an elected official.

    That being so, either they should write the facts: these women are claiming to be what they are not, or they should come clean with the slant: of course they’re priests, this is the Century of the Anchovy, this is America where anyone can set up their own church and call themselves priests, bishops or pope if it comes to that. All religion being equally kooky, we don’t care if you’re in the Apostolic Succession or the Alpha Cygni Frogmen ordained you.

  • Susan

    While I agree this woman simply cannot be ordained, it struck me odd that one article noted that Ms. Beaumont served as a Benedictine nun under the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience for more than 30 years . . until she apparently decided her life-long permanent vows meant nothing and she left the order. How long do you think she’ll want to play “priest”? We can only hope that she’ll grow tired of the game and come back into full communion with the Church before she dies.

  • Mark Baddeley

    Hi Passing By,

    Thanks for the follow-up, sorry I was unclear. I’m not sure when a repetitive event ceases to be news. Clearly most repetitive events do. I can’t see women who were members of the Catholic Church getting ordained as “Catholic” priests being a story in say, twenty years. And that’s a deliberately ‘extreme’ figure.

    Nor am I saying that everyone in tmatt’s four categories of Catholic vote is a ‘true Catholic’. I’m trying to remember them, but something like: ex-Catholic, goes once or twice a year, goes regularly and is involved, ‘sweats the details’.

    It’s group 4 which is, according to tmatt, a very small section of ‘the Catholic vote’, which are the clearest group who are true Catholics. Group one pretty clearly isn’t (although they’ll often say they are). It’s groups two and three – those who are actively involved to some degree, who are probably communicants of their local church, where there is some sympathy, if not support, for these women. And it would seem there are some priests and bishops who are similar.

    That group does not decide Catholic doctrine and practice. It’s not up for a majority vote, or even a minority vote. But they are in the Church in *some* sense and are resisting the position/agitating for a different position. That is news, even though it has (arguably) been with us since the 1st Century (just read the NT epistles). Conflict or sustained tension in a hierarchical institution between the leadership and some/many of its members is often news when it surfaces in a discrete event, even if an event has occurred like that multiple times before. How many times have Protestants divided into new denominations since the Reformation? Does that make the latest round of divisions not news?

    If support in groups 2 and 3 wanes, or those groups collapse by either becoming group 1 or 4, then it ceases to be news. If it keeps going like it is now then it will cease to be news also at some point (I would have thought within five years in the U.S. where you’ve had a number of these, much longer is Australia where I think we’ve had fairly few – there’s only a bit over 20 million of us all up anyway, we don’t have the numbers to do these kinds of things regularly).

    My point is just:
    1) While I disagree with the women and their supporters, I think it is arguably news at this point in time despite the fact that it’s a relatively regular thing (but hardly that regularly, because the numbers involved are so vanishingly small).

    2)I think the reason why it is news is not because the Catholic church will one day join the glorious liberal-democratic revolution and become a bottom-up institution or the like, it is just that expressions of sustained significant doctrinal disagreement within an institution that does not determine such matters democratically is news, and is particularly so in a society that does run on liberal-democratic grounds.

    Hope that makes my point clearer.

    I *do* think the Catholic Church is getting a raw deal in how this is being presented. This isn’t some sneaky way to say ‘just smile and take your lumps’. But my criticism is focused on how these stories are being framed, not their existence. I think the guys who are saying ‘You can’t make yourself a judge’ should be being heard in the reports in the story. *That’s* part of the news of this and needs to be in the mix as well. This is a debate between members of the Catholic Church (whether they are true Catholics or not is a different question) who submit to the teaching of the magisterium and those who do not – that is what makes it news, and that’s what needs to come out IMO.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    Mark Baddeley -

    Thank you for the clarification. I’ll admit I find these stories tedious in their repetitiveness and fundamental dishonesty, so probably I’m just being cranky (senior discounts and cranky seem to go with being 60).

    I generally agree with you, but note that the newsworthiness here is based on conflict-as-news. Whether it should be newsworthy is another matter – Catholics have always been a fractious lot. Ok, enough of kicking that particular boulder.

    Well, except to repeat that having spent my adult life reading and watching news stories about sticking-it-to-the-man, questioning authority, raging against the Machine, and speaking truth to power, it’s just an old, tired theme, particularly when told without regard for facts. If people want to press an agenda, fine, but should we call it “news”?

  • Mark Baddeley

    No debate with you there, Passing By. I’d rather “news” was something different as well.

  • Just visiting

    Does the use of “womenpriest” in a derisive way to describe women wanting to join the Roman Catholic priesthood reflect good journalism, or good commentary on journalism?

  • Mark Baddeley

    Re: Just visiting, it reflects a stance from one side of the debate, just as calling them ‘women priests’ does the other. It is derisive as well, so I wouldn’t do it (not my style generally, and I’m not Catholic), and I think it would make as bad journalism for a journalist to use it as the current cheerleading does. But in the comments on a website that attracts interest from religious people with an interest in journalism (like me) as well as journalists with an interest in religion (hiss! boo! :) ), I think GetReligion is wise to allow people’s stances to be expressed as long as the comments are not tendentious to journalism.

    If they change that policy to enforce more courtesy, I’ll happily live with that as well, but you Americans are into freedom of speech in a big way, which entails the right to offend and be offended, so this seems reasonable.

  • http://!)! Passing By


    Womenpriests is their term. Why do you think it derisive?

  • Mark Baddeley

    Hmmmn, from the link you offer ‘womenpriests’ isn’t what they call women who have been ordained, they call them ‘women priests’. The website calls itself “Roman Catholic womenpriests” and uses that entire phrase to speak of itself as a movement that can be described as a single entity. I cannot find the term ‘womenpriests’ without “Roman Catholic” in front of it on a quick scan.

    If that is the case, it looks to me as though their usual phrase to describe themselves is ‘women priests’. If someone is using their own terminology in a respectful fashion to describe them as they describe themselves, then ‘Roman Catholic womenpriests’ can be used to describe the website or movement. But from their point of view ‘Roman Catholic’ is as arguably as important as ‘womenpriests’ in that label. I don’t see the whole thing appearing in the thread. Just the ‘womenpriests’ on its own, and in places where they would normally say ‘women priests’ on that site.

    Hence, that ‘style guide’ would not be good journalism.

  • http://www.ephesians4-15.blogspot.com/ Randy

    The word “historical” is a pet peeve of mine outside of religion reporting. In sports. In politics. In weather. It is used all the time and almost never in a way that actually meets the definition of the word. Does this reporter really think historians will write about this event when they review the 21st century? That is what they are saying when they say “historical.” I know every writer is trying to make people pay attention to their story but some level of accuracy is required to keep the language in tact.

  • Will

    I know the line is that “We just use the terms people call themselves so if someone says he or she is the Divine Ruler of the Frog-People Empire from Cynus Alpha, that’s what we print”

    And as I have said repeatedly, this is simply falsehood. They do not call Jose Adames “Mayor of New York” because he says he is. (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/22/nyregion/thecity/22flie.html) And what do the meeja call “Pope Michael” and “Pope Pius XIII”? Oh,that’s different?

  • SB

    This will sound antagonistic, but while I have little patience for the whole RCW/etc “movement,” I honestly do wonder about the seemingly intentional (and remarkably consistent) decision––on the parts of the participants in the illicit ordinations and on the parts of the various journalists and commentators I’ve read on the subject––to avoid the term “priestess.” Isn’t that the feminine form of “priest?” Has this avoidance been explained elsewhere or addressed in the media coverage and I’ve just missed it?

  • Will

    No, because “priestess” is associated with either pagan priestesses, or priests’ concubines (what that “historian” on the Times Oped page was really talking about.)
    In reference to, uh, the matter in hand, I see it used only by bloggers who want to deride not only “womenpriests” but female Anglican clergy with the epithets “priestess” and even “priestette”, snicker, snicker, sneer, sneer.

  • http://home.comcast.net/~acbfp/ The young fogey

    Vagantes. Always useful to stab the church with on a slow news day.