Exciting development in Womenpriest coverage

In many ways, I’m pleased by the way that religion journalism has improved over the years, even with large cuts in newsrooms and other pressures. But if there’s one example of how religion journalism has not improved — indeed, gotten worse — it would have to be the way that the Roman Catholic WomenPriests stories are covered.

I believe I may have made a public proclamation that I will never cover another one of these stories. There have been so many, and they’re hardly ever even halfway decent, and how many times can you say that? But now that this story has been sent in by everyone and their mother, I have to take a look. “This is an article where the Indy Star failed at covering the Catholic teaching of the priesthood,” said one reader. “Ripe for your fisking: One of the most misguided Womynpriest stories I’ve ever read,” said another. “You’ve gotta love this … Not a single question about what constitutes ‘ordination’ or the validity of sacraments administered by this woman,” said another.

Could it really be that bad? Well, to judge from the headline, yes:

Indy resident is first woman in Indiana to be ordained a Catholic priest
A wife and former nun, she disobeys the church in hopes of changing it

Now, it’s clear the copywriters intend to give the impression that a woman was ordained into the Roman Catholic Church. If it were some Catholic but not Roman Catholic Church that ordains women, we wouldn’t have the subhed about how she’s disobeying the church. Were any woman to be ordained into the Catholic church, that would be huge news. It’s not even a possibility in the church, as we know, so it would be huge news. Did the Indianapolis Star stumble upon the biggest religion news story of the year?

Let’s get the details. The story literally begins with something about anonymous but armed police officers stationed outside the sanctuary in case of a protest. Needless to say, a protest didn’t happen. Why didn’t a protest happen if a woman was being ordained into the Catholic Church? Wouldn’t, like, all the Catholics in a tri-state area be there with pitchforks and stuff? Oh, what’s that you say? You say she was ordained at a Unitarian Universalist Church and that Catholics care about this ordination about as much as they care about any other ordination in a UU church? Well, then, why did the story lead with that alarming anecdote about armed police officers? You don’t know? I don’t know either.

Okay, the name of the woman who is not Roman Catholic who was ordained is Maria Thornton McClain. Here’s the point of the story:

The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize the ordination of women, but more and more women are answering the call as part of a reform movement.

On Sunday, McClain, 71, a former East Coast resident, aunt to several nieces and nephews, and wife of 31 years to Ed McClain, became Indiana’s first woman to be ordained into the Catholic priesthood.

Baptized a Roman Catholic, McClain, a former nun, moved to Indianapolis in 1977 to become director of religious education at St. Pius X parish. She was ordained as a deacon last year and began preparing for the priesthood.

So to answer the question above, yes, this story is precisely as bad as everyone suggested. It completely fails to explain the office of the priesthood and there is no explanation of what constitutes “ordination” in the Catholic Church we’re being told just ordained someone. The story is a mess. We do learn that the “event went off without disturbance” (you don’t say!).

My favorite part is where the reporter says that Vatican II addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world but that earlier this month, Benedict “restated the church’s ban on female priests.” But?

We’re told, definitively, that McClain “becomes one of more than 100 Catholic women around the world ordained as a priest.” McClain herself is the source who explains to the reporter that “According to the Roman Catholic Church, we excommunicate ourselves through ordination.” So at least that perspective was included in the story. In the last line.

So congratulations, Indy Star! In a hotly contested field of awful stories about Roman Catholic Womenpriests, you have managed to publish something particularly bad.

Perhaps related, I noticed that the editor of the paper wrote a column responding to the study on religion coverage, basically saying “yeah, we haven’t done a lot on religion but we’ll think about it.” But then, separately, he announced his retirement. So I’ve decided to take his position. I talked to some people (OK, my mom and my girlfriends) and they have granted me the job. I start June 1. You can read all about it in tomorrow’s paper!

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  • Jeff

    They should have run this story on the funny pages, since the notion of the UU’s ordaining a Catholic priest — and a woman, no less — made me laugh out loud!

  • R9

    The post has been updated, the headline is now

    “Indy woman seeks road to priesthood”

  • Martha

    “Because the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize the ordination of women, many serve in house churches, celebrants of weddings and baptisms, or chaplains of prisons or hospitals.”

    I would have loved a tiny bit more of information here, to wit: how do these womenpriests get accredited as chaplains for prisons and hospitals? They’re not Roman Catholic priests, I have no idea what organisational set-up the WomenPriest Movement has in place for recognition by the government as a church or religious entity, and presumably even prisons in Texas want some piece of paper licensing the person as a minister of religion (rather than just ringing up, saying “Hi, I’m the Reverend Billy-Bob and I’m very interested in becoming a prison chaplain. Why yes, I can start on Tuesday!”

    I would also love to know the position of other denominations on hosting these events, because surely the Lutherans or Methodists or whomever would look askance if the local RC parish started hiring out the hall to permit people to ordain themselves, their spouses and their parakeets as Lutheran pastors? Then again, this particular instance was a UU church and if I pitched up at the door with a paper bag over my head, a goat, three gerbils and announced my intention to invoke Dagda and Rameses the Great from their spacecraft in orbit around Regulus to ordain my parakeet as a fully-accredited invocator of sacred energies, they’d be lined up handing out the cheese and wine and taking photos for Facebook :-)

  • Bull Schuck

    So they at least get points for changing the headline and apparently the text. I also saw at the top of the story today “Note: A correction has been made to this story from the original post on IndyStar.com and the publication in The Indianapolis Star.”

    And then the line about banning women’s ordination included an actual quote,

    But earlier this month, Pope Benedict XVI restated the church’s ban on female priests, rhetorically asking, “Is disobedience a path of renewal for the church?”

    So, all in all, maybe this is a teachable moment for the reporter and the Indy Star.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    The church where this supposed ordination occurred is a United Church of Christ. The woman’s first “mass” is in a Universalist church facility. The “ordaining” bishop, being a woman, is also a non-Catholic. How on earth can this be seen as a Catholic ordination? As you point out, Mollie, that’s the essential flaw with these stories. And if a similar claim happened in any other context, the claimant would not get any press for being a nut-job.

    So my question is: Why does the press give space to these people at all? Can’t be because the claim is so clearly valid. Has to be another reason.

  • Kristen

    Most likely they covered it because the womynpriests themselves, anxious to stir the pot and get SOME kind of reaction rather than a yawn…sent out a press release, hounded the reporter, or both…or even wrote half of it to be helpful, made ley interviews available, provided pics, quotes, whatev.

    The things that most Catholic chanceries seem to fail at, the women priests take the time to do…and they get the coverage since no one at the paper really has time to be fooling with religion articles anyway, except when they are already on their way to retirement…apparently…

  • Jon in the Nati

    I really like to think that there is not any animus here; that this is just bad reporting. What I don’t understand is the complete lack of any kind of curiosity (even idle curiosity) on the part of the reporter. No one ever asked something as simple as “Hey, if you’re Catholic, why is this shindig being held in a UU church, rather than any of the hundred Catholic parishes in the Indy archdiocese?” Or, “If you’re Catholic, why are you not being ordained by a Catholic bishop we’ve actually heard of?” How are there NO QUESTIONS at all being asked?

    People mistake “bad reporting” for “being out to get the Church” because when the reporting is bad enough, it basically looks like animus.

    This is one is inexcusably bad.

  • Bill

    Mollie, I’m sorry to have to tell you that 100 other women have already been appointed editor of the paper in ceremonies held in Kinko’s across the nation.

    BTW, maybe it’s different here in Texas, but aren’t all policemen in the US armed? Or maybe they were special womenpriest police, sworn in at a ceremony at a sorority house at Oberlin.

    I have to go now. The Empress of the Western Star is calling me to take the trash to the dump and give it to the Conductor of the Berlin Symphony Orchestra.

  • Jeff

    News Flash: Sara Palin just appointed Rush Limbaugh her successor as (a) Chair of the DNC, (b) President of The National Organization for Women, and (c) Popessa of The Church of Planned Parenthood.

  • Martha

    Bill, are we not all, in a very real sense, the editors of our own newspapers?

    If Mollie feels called to this arduous position of service, I for one can only support her in her struggle to attain full equality with Indianpolis editors of newspapers. For too long, the geographical bias towards editors of Indiana newspapers actually having to be employed by newspapers based in Indiana has gone unchallenged. Bravo for her brave and principled choice to help people in the state of Indiana and anyone who has been marginalized to reclaim their right to develop their journalistic life and to follow stories!

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I think the media butchers stories on Womynpriest “ordinations” for two reasons. First, the almost total illiteracy many reporters have with regard to religion. And second, the overwhelming bias media personnel have on this particular issue.
    As for the ignorance of the media–sometimes it is laughable. A reporter on the Weather Channel the other day was interviewing a couple that had survived a tornado. They had their baby with them. So the reporter asked them the baby’s name. Answer: Isaiah. The reporter looked puzzled at such a name and asked where did they come up with such a name as that.
    Now it was the couple’s turn to look VERY puzzled–The Bible, of course.

  • Bill

    Martha, I am chastened. You are right. When any one of us is not editor, none of us is editor. You and I will not be editor until Mollie is editor. Even the editor is not editor until we are all editors.

    PS. (Martha, Mollie seems like such a nice, sensible girl – despite all the nasty things she and Michele Bachman said about the Pope back in 1530. Why on earth does she want to be an editor?)

  • John Pack Lambert

    Is it just me or are Catholic womynpriest the only example of this sort of coverage in the media of late? There are several other Churches that do not ordain women as priests (Mormon, Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox are the three that come to mind off the top of my head), so why is the womynpriests movement only going after the Catholic Church? Or is it that there are other womynpriests movements and the media does not cover them?

  • Sean

    I have to say that, as a resident of Indianapolis, the flaws in this story are not at all a surprise, and not because it’s a story about a “woman catholic priest” or whatever. This paper, while it has some good reporters, is very uneven. The Indy Star doesn’t just not get religion, it doesn’t get a lot of things.

  • Will

    It has frequently been noted here how Eastern Christian in the US remain “invisible”– particularly as they do not fit the “Catholic-Protestant-Jew” procrustean bed. How many times have you heard “If you’re Christian and you’re not Catholic, you’re Protestant”?

    I am surprised that the “news media” have not been going after the Mormon angle, now that they no longer have the “Negro doctrine” to work on. But then, with the priesthood being routinely conferred on nearly all male members, the LDS do not have similarly visible “ordinations” of their priests.