Defying the archbishop in Seattle?

In the Pacific Northwest, some Roman Catholic churches in the Seattle area have declined to circulate a petition calling for a referendum on Washington state’s new same-sex marriage law.

From Reuters to ABC News, the churches’ decision to steer clear of the political battle has drawn national media attention.

The key news peg: Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, citing the “critically important” nature of the issue, encouraged — but did not demand — the gathering of signatures in parishes.

The Seattle Times produced the best report that I have seen on the controversy. However, its coverage failed to address a number of relevant questions.

The top of the Times’ story:

Priests at a number of Roman Catholic parishes in the area have said no to the gathering of signatures for Referendum 74 at their churches — putting them at odds with their archbishop on a statewide ballot measure seeking repeal of Washington’s same-sex marriage law.

The majority of parishes in Western Washington are expected to make the petitions available — some as soon as this Sunday, following Mass, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

But pastors of at least three prominent Catholic churches in Seattle — St. Mary’s Church, St. Joseph Parish and St. James Cathedral — have notified members that the petitions will not be made available there.

In an item posted on St. James’ website, the Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan said he decided not to permit the petitions after a discussion with the pastoral team. He said he believed allowing the petitions would “prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community. In saying this, I do realize that there are some who will be disappointed with this decision.”

The decisions by pastors come two weeks after the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle, sent a lengthy letter to parishioners outlining his support for Ref. 74 and explaining why he believes defending traditional marriage is important.

The Seattle newspaper story and other reports give the impression that the priests disagree with the archbishop on the issue of same-sex marriage. That may be true. But another possibility could be that they support the church’s teachings on marriage but differ on the wisdom of inserting parishes into the political process, right?

A few simple journalistic questions would help much of the coverage I have read. Questions such as: Why did you decline to circulate the petition? What do you believe concerning same-sex marriage? Do you see your action as defiance of the archbishop?

In two paragraphs filled with potentially meaty information, the Times fell short in providing attribution (the “How do you know this?” details so important to quality journalism):

Sartain’s position is in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which has traditionally opposed same-sex marriage, despite support from 56 percent of lay Catholics for such unions. In states from Maine to California, the church has advocated — to some degree or another — against such unions.

Yet in supporting the gathering of signatures in local parishes, Sartain went further than other bishops, some of whom more recently have backed off their opposition to same-sex marriage, or even come out in support of arrangements such as civil unions. Still, his recommendation was not a dictum, and he left it to the discretion of pastors to decide for themselves and their parishioners how best to handle the matter.

What’s the source of the 56 percent figure? Why should I trust it?

Who says Sartain has gone further than other bishops? Who are the bishops who have backed off opposition to same-sex marriage? Which bishops have come out in support of civil unions? (A few examples are given later in the article, but the source appears to be a gay-rights advocate, not church leaders themselves.)

A reader sent GetReligion a link to a  Seattle Post-Intelligencer item on a Catholic priest applauded for shunning the anti-gay marriage drive, as the online-only newspaper characterized it.

The congregation at Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church gave the Rev. Tim Clark a standing ovation Sunday when he announced that the parish would not gather signatures for a referendum to repeal same-sex marriage.

The parish became the sixth in Seattle to opt out of the petition drive for Referendum 74 that has been endorsed and foisted on parishes by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.

“I am happy to report that Our Lady of the Lake parishioners have been overwhelmingly and, thus far, unanimously supportive of the decision I made NOT to gather signatures in support of this Referendum,” Clark wrote in response to an e-mail.

“The standing ovation experienced during one of the Masses says less about me and much more about the health of this parish.  I only wished the archbishop could have experienced the sustained applause — the ‘sensus fidelium’ — of the people.  He needs to listen to this ‘voice.’ That is my prayer.”

“Smell the bias,” wrote the reader who shared the link.

If indeed a standing ovation occurred, I don’t think it’s biased to say so. It’s simply reporting (although the term “foisted” does nothing to counter the reader’s perception). However, full reporting would require interviewing some of those who stood and asking why they did so. The Post-Intelligencer neglected to do that, much less seek comment from the archbishop on the priest’s statement.

I’m not sure if that’s bias or just bad journalism.

Image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Your question about the why some are not circulating the petition is a very good one. Because it involves a root question about churches and politics. The Seattle Times story spoke to that but I’ve read in other places that others disagree. That came up in CA about Prop 8. So I’m not 100% sure about this statement from that article:

    Churches risk losing their tax-exempt status if they become involved in political campaigning, but the restriction doesn’t apply to initiative and referendum campaigns, which are considered legislation. Churches are permitted to lobby on pending laws.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Thanks, Jerry. That’s another case where attribution would have been helpful on the information provided.

  • Dave

    Here’s what the actual IRS code has to say about legislative lobbying and tax-exempt status. It appears to prohibit such lobbying if it becomes excessive … it all depends on what one considers “substantial.” (Catholic efforts have certainly been “substantial” in absolute terms, but not as a percentage of their total budget.):

    “In general, no organization may qualify for section 501(c)(3) status if a substantial part of its activities is attempting to influence legislation (commonly known as lobbying). A 501(c)(3) organization may engage in some lobbying, but too much lobbying activity risks loss of tax-exempt status.

    Legislation includes action by Congress, any state legislature, any local council, or similar governing body, with respect to acts, bills, resolutions, or similar items (such as legislative confirmation of appointive office), or by the public in referendum, ballot initiative, constitutional amendment, or similar procedure. It does not include actions by executive, judicial, or administrative bodies.

    An organization will be regarded as attempting to influence legislation if it contacts, or urges the public to contact, members or employees of a legislative body for the purpose of proposing, supporting, or opposing legislation, or if the organization advocates the adoption or rejection of legislation.

    Organizations may, however, involve themselves in issues of public policy without the activity being considered as lobbying. For example, organizations may conduct educational meetings, prepare and distribute educational materials, or otherwise consider public policy issues in an educational manner without jeopardizing their tax-exempt status.”

  • sari

    If indeed a standing ovation occurred, I don’t think it’s biased to say so. It’s simply reporting (although the term “foisted” does nothing to counter the reader’s perception). However, full reporting would require interviewing some of those who stood and asking why they did so.

    Doesn’t this presume that reporters would have advance notice of the public announcement? It would be easy for the priest to provide sources in a small congregation, but what about a big one?

    Foisted rubbed me the wrong way, also. It suggests an arbitrary, capricious decision rather than arrived at by reason.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Doesn’t this presume that reporters would have advance notice of the public announcement? It would be easy for the priest to provide sources in a small congregation, but what about a big one?

    I’m not asking for the priests to provide sources. I’m suggesting that the paper track down church members who were there and ask them if they stood up and applauded and why. If there was a standing ovation, there are a few hundred potential sources, I’m guessing.

  • Martha

    Bobby, I broadly agree that you can’t really “smell the bias” as far as the newspaper reporting goes, but on the other hand, the phrase “sensus fidelium” is one of those phrases that does ring a certain bell in a Catholic context (it is often used or heard in conjunction with “the Spirit of Vatican II”).

    So the priest and congregation of Our Lady of the Lake may or may not be inclined towards being supportive of same-sex marriage, or may or may not be inclined towards telling bishops “you’re not the boss of me”, but…
    :-D

    (Oh, and unrelated to the substance of this post: that’s a lovely First Communion picture, but why that particularly when talking about petitions, bishops and same-sex marriage? Was it just the first generally Roman Catholic one that could be found?)

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Was it just the first generally Roman Catholic one that could be found?

    Yes. Looked for more specific art and didn’t find anything in a hurry.

  • sari

    I guess I’m asking how the paper would go about tracking down those sources. Do churches have sign in sheets? I’ve never seen one at the Masses I attended. Would you ask the church for a membership list?

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I’d start by Googling the church. Looks like there’s a school at the church. Maybe a parent who attends the church could be caught dropping off a child or picking one up? Maybe a parishioner has been quoted before in an unrelated article and could be contacted about this situation? If there’s a roomful of people who gave a standing ovation … I am certain a reasonably competent reporter could find someone to interview.

  • sari

    thank you, Bobby.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    In none of the articles on this topic on Seattle did I see reported as context what happened in other dioceses when the churches got involved in circulating petitions to get Gay “marriage” on the ballot.
    Here in Ma. the Catholic Church got plenty enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot. However, the state constitution allows the state legislature to keep a referendum off the ballot if a microscopic number of legislators oppose it.(Making it easy to squelch any referenda.)
    The referendum never made it onto the ballot and the Boston Globe had an interesting quote by the leader of those fighting to deny Bay Staters the right to vote on the issue. She lamented that, though they were able to finally get the legislature to do their bidding, their biggest problem had been keeping the politicians they had “bought”(her word) in line until the final vote.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    Opponents of marriage equality need to gather 120,577 valid voter signatures by June 6 to block the state’s new same-sex marriage law from taking effect and put the issue on November’s ballot.” You can’t smell the bias in that?

    “The archbishop said that all persons ‘should be treated with respect, sensitivity and love,’ but reiterated church teachings on sexuality that are eschewed by many American Catholics.” Or that?

    The conscience-driven dissent expressed by Seattle-area Catholics has been stifled elsewhere in the nation.” Or that?

    “Archbishop Nienstedt has also mailed out 400,000 anti-gay DVDs to Catholics in his diocese and refused communion to students wearing rainbows at a diocesan mass.” Or that? (And students wear rainbows? Really? And a diocesan “mass” of what? Oh, you mean “Mass”? Plus he got the archbishop’s title wrong — it’s “Most Rev.” not “Rt. Rev.”, though I believe AP style would just use “Archbishop” on first reference and last name alone on subsequent ones.)

    Never mind that the guy didn’t talk to anyone who stood and applauded. I can’t believe that there’s not a single pastor in Seattle or the Archdiocese who is supporting the Archbishop’s move, but we never heard from them. Are there lay organizations supporting him? I’m sure there are, but you wouldn’t know it from this. Yes, you can smell the bias.

  • sari

    I can’t believe that there’s not a single pastor in Seattle or the Archdiocese who is supporting the Archbishop’s move, but we never heard from them. Are there lay organizations supporting him? I’m sure there are, but you wouldn’t know it from this. Yes, you can smell the bias.

    Bias, yes, but it’s not news that Catholic clergy would support the Archbishop’s position. It is newsworthy that some clergy unexpectedly refused to promote the petition. The big question, the one that went unasked, was why.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Somehow the very fact that this has recieved media attention makes me suspect it was not an “attempt to steer clear of a political battle”. It seems more like an attempt to make a political statement in direct oposition to the archbishop. Not doing something only becomes a news story if you are deliberately trying to make a statement by inaction.

  • Northcoast

    It appears that the Seattle papers are more interested in the dissent in the Catholic Church over this issue than in the Catholic and Protestant congregations that oppose the Same Sex Marriage bill passed in Olympia. I did quick searches and couldn’t find any articles in either the Times (which no longer distributes a printed newspaper) or the PI about petitions in other Western Washington churches. There is a petition circulating in my Anglican church.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    sari,

    It is newsworthy that some clergy unexpectedly refused to promote the petition.

    Actually, in that Archdiocese, it is not news that the clergy would go against Archbishop Sartain’s request. Seattle used to be run by the infamous Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen, a man so bad that Pope John Paul personally appointed a priest, then-Father (now Cardinal) Donald Wuerl, as auxiliary bishop and gave him the unusual faculty of having direct authority over five areas of the diocese, over and above the archbishop. This proved unworkable, but it shows how far off the mark the archdiocese had become that the Pope would try such an unusual approach. The two succeeding Ordinaries between Hunthausen and Sartain basically maintained the former’s status quo. In fact, the same man who wrote this article that I called biased, Joel Connelly, wrote an opinion column when Sartain was first appointed that made it clear that he had better maintain the status quo, otherwise the press would go into attack mode. Connelly was true to his word.

    So in that context, it actually is news that the clergy would support the Archbishop. But even if it wasn’t, it seems to me to be obligatory journalistic practice that you get the thoughts of someone like a priest who is supporting him in order to balance out those who are saying “nay.” The same should be true of lay people who are supporting him.

    No, the whole tenor of the article is meant to make people think the Archbishop stands alone on this, that he is isolated from his clergy and his people; that he is out of touch with reality, with progress, with reasonable thinking. As Ferdinand the Bull smelled the flowers, I can smell the bias.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    And there’s even more bias from the same author: New Vatican job for Archbishop Sartain: Make nuns toe the line.

    “The ‘Assessment,’ its wording resembling a command for orthodoxy and obedience by a government espousing secular ideology, drew a bill of particulars against the LCWR.” I don’t see how this guy can get away with this kind of opinionating and still be called a journalist.

    “…said the Congregation, successor to what was once the Inquisition,” said the journalist, with the obvious purpose of conjuring up fears of the rack and thumbscrews in reader’s minds.

    “He now faces a test of politics and ambitions, on the home front with dissent on Referendum 74, and nationally with American nuns who have resisted the Vatican’s fabled ‘three D’s'– the demand for discipline, dogma and docility.” The “fabled ‘three D’s'”? Those are so fabled that a Catholic journalist of more than 25 years has never heard of them.

    This is schlocky advocacy, not journalism.

  • Martha

    I thought the “three Ds” were “dogma, doctrine and discipline” (in descending order of importance) – I never heard of “docility” in such a context (and I agree, I never heard any phrase corresponding to “the fabled three Ds” either).

    You don’t suppose that “docility” has to do with “holy obedience”, one of the vows that religious used to take, do you? Probably not, it’s just the Vatican “slamming”, “condemning” and “cracking down” for no good reason once again!

    Speaking of the reform of the LCWR, I can’t wait to see the reporting on that; I’m betting Fr. Thomas Reese will need a long vacation to recover from the strain of dealing with all the journalists ringing him up looking for quotes (seeing as how, as I’ve said before, he’s the only priest in the U.S. with access to a telephone as far as I can make out from all the newspaper stories that routinely quote him whenever they need “In response to this, Fr. X commented…” on stories to do with the Church).

  • Julia

    The news about Sartain getting the job to crack down on nuns is starting to get press attentions.

    Here’s the Washington Post:

    The church appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee “reform” of the women’s organization.

    NETWORK, a Washington, DC lobbying group founded by Catholic sisters in 1971 was singled out as “silent on the right to life”; the organization’s head said the group was not consulted during the inquiry. She said that its focus on poverty, immigration and health care stems from its founding mission.

    “I think we scare them,” Sr. Simone Campbell, a lawyer who serves as the executive director of the lobby said of the church’s male hierarchy.

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/under-god/post/vatican-report-us-catholic-sisters-nuns-hold-serious-theological-errors/2012/04/18/gIQAWSarRT_blog.html?tid=sm_twitter_washingtonpost

    The paper focused on male v. female.

    Conflicts between Catholic sisters and nuns and the male episcopate have become a familiar theme in Catholic life as of late.

    Interesting that the paper thinks nuns are “clergy”.

    Campbell sees the current tension between male and female Catholic clergy as a part of a post-Vatican II democratic evolution within the church, but worries that the male leaders fail to recognize the “witness of women religious.”

  • Julia

    Should have pointed out the scare quotes around the word reform. I guess the reporter doesn’t buy the official story that the church wants to correct problems in the US women’s religious orders.

    The church appointed Archbishop Peter Sartain of Seattle to oversee “reform” of the women’s organization.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    Mollie posted this morning on the nuns story. Just FYI.

  • Julia

    I checked out some of the other pieces by Joel Connelly and found this piece, titled:

    A Catholic’s Easter lament: Dogmatic, tone-deaf bishops

    http://www.seattlepi.com/local/connelly/article/A-Catholic-s-Easter-lament-Dogmatic-tone-deaf-3465228.php

    It appears that the Seattle paper is allowing Mr Connelly to use his forum as a means of venting his personal animus against the local Catholic church.

  • LewisFan

    Julia @ 23 – The article you link to is pretty obviously an opinion piece.

  • Julia

    Why would a newspaper allow someone on its staff to write very heated opinion pieces on a particular topic and then allow that same staffer to write supposed news articles on the same subject?

  • John D

    Since this blog prizes accuracy in reporting (with which I certainly concur), I feel I should correct Deacon John M. Bresnahan and his misunderstanding of the amendment process for the Massachusetts Constitution. He claimed that:

    the state constitution allows the state legislature to keep a referendum off the ballot if a microscopic number of legislators oppose it.

    The process actually works the other way.

    In order to amend the Massachusetts Constitution, a measure must receive the support of 25% of the legislature (in Bay State parlance, that would be the General Court) in votes held during two successive legislative sessions. If a proposed amendment can obtain this (low) level of support, it is then sent to the electorate for approval, where it requires a simple majority of voters in that election.

    The measure passed in its first vote with only a 12 votes beyond the 50 needed. At the moment when passions ran highest on this issue, just a few more than 25% of the legislature voted to approve it.

    In the year that followed, supporters of same-sex marriage made gains in the legislature. Several of those who voted for the amendment lost their seats. My parents’ representative voted for it then announced that he would not stand for reelection.

    When the measure came up for a second vote, it failed to receive 25% of the vote, getting only 45 votes in support.

    Bresnahan’s “microscopic number” was 151, or 77% of the legislature.


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