New York Times scoop! Catholic same-sex unions!

Talk about burying the lede.

The mainstream press has been on a tear ever since President Barack Obama announced that his liberal Christian faith had inspired him to change his beliefs on the definition of marriage. One of the most common stories, produced by news outlet after news outlet, has focused on the ways that this doctrinal issue has divided various groups of believers.

This is a totally valid story to be covering, since believers on both sides of this issue are separated by centuries of doctrine and tradition. Here are the pivotal paragraphs in a typical New York Times report. However, when reading this passage, prepare yourself for the stealth blockbuster:

Mr. Obama’s declaration last week that he supports same-sex marriage prompted ministers around the country to take to their pulpits on Sunday and preach on the issue. But in the clash over homosexuality, the battle lines do not simply pit ministers against secular advocates for gay rights. Religion is on both sides in this conflict. The battle is actually church versus church, minister versus minister, and Scripture versus Scripture.

The dividing lines are often unpredictable. There are black churches that welcome openly gay couples, and white churches that do not. Some Presbyterian churches hire openly gay clergy members, while others will not. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is a sin, but there are Catholic priests who secretly bless gay unions.

Did you catch that last reference? If, in fact, the Times has factual material about Catholic priests blessing same-sex relationships and unions then this is clearly the most important news angle in this piece. This is a major news story, buried deep in a related news report.

However, note that this claim (which I do not doubt, by the way) appears with absolutely no context, no attribution, no clue as to the source of this information. The Times does not even claim to be printing this information based on anonymous sources who requested protection from the Vatican. This is most strange.

I don’t know about you, but this passage immediately made me think of the following quotation:

Readers of The New York Times demand to know as much as possible about where we obtain our information and why it merits their trust. For that reason, we have long observed the principle of identifying our sources by name and title or, when that is not possible, explaining why we consider them authoritative, why they are speaking to us and why they have demanded confidentiality. Guidance on limiting the use of unidentified sources, and on informative description of those we do use, has appeared in several editions of our stylebook, including the current one, and in our Integrity Statement, dating from 1999.

This is, of course, the top of a report on The New York Times Company’s policy on the use of confidential sources. The key is that, when editors approve the use of a confidential source, reporters are still supposed to provide readers with as much information as possible in order to explain why they should trust this news story.

But wait, since we are dealing with a story that is about religion, linked to a “social values” issue on which all urbane, intelligent citizens would be in agreement, this may be one of those cases in which — under the Bill Keller revelation — that the Times no longer needs to play by conventional journalism rules about bias and fairness. That’s the ticket.

You remember the Keller doctrine, right? Here’s a reminder, with the recently retired editor discussing (video source here) whether his newspaper now openly plays an advocacy role on behalf of liberal policies and beliefs:

“We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes — and did even before New York had a gay marriage law — included gay unions. So we’re liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal.”

Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor “Democrats and liberals,” he added: “Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don’t think that it does.”

Now, there are other passages in this recent Times story that merit discussion. For example, pro-gay rights scholars compare scriptural references to sexuality with those describing slavery, yet the story offers no material describing traditional Jewish, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Protestant viewpoints on that issue.

You know, the usual stuff. Once again, however, one must ask it — post Keller confession — the leaders of the Times believe they have any responsibility to accurately report the views of those who dissent from the newspaper’s approved religious doctrines.

Still, this story does appear to include a major innovation, one that appears to violate the newspaper’s policies. So let me ask: “What is the source of the information reflected in the following statement? I refer to this sentence: ‘The Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexual behavior is a sin, but there are Catholic priests who secretly bless gay unions.’ ”

Is this statement based on anonymous sources? If so, how can they best be described, so that readers have a chance to evaluate the validity of this claim?

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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.

  • Bill

    Maybe they’re Womenpriests.

  • Christian

    There are a number of “Catholic” but not “Roman Catholic” churches in the US. Who knows which among them may “bless gay unions.”

  • tmatt

    Bill and Christian:

    Could be, but that would be easy to say briefly. No would there would want to protection of anonymity. Right?

    I think the context is clear: Rome teaches this, but some priests do something else.

  • Julia

    Suggestion: Source is an attendee who does not want to be identified as it might give a clue to the identity of the priest which would get him into trouble with his bishop.

    There is an organization where you can find a laicized Catholic priest to perform weddings and preside at funerals. Recently a local obituary identified an ex-priest by name as the person to preside over a funeral. There have been accusations in my diocese of a priest performing a religious wedding of an elderly couple who did not want to lose government benefits – in addition to being improper, this is also illegal because of agreements by the Vatican to respect the civil laws of the countries in which priests function.

    BTW In the Catholic church, once a priest always a priest.
    A laicized priest is forbidden to ever perform as a priest again. However, if he does the results are illicit though valid. This is a murky area and may be what is going on in New York City. Or it could be a priest in good standing operating under the radar.

  • Chris M

    “However, if he does the results are illicit though valid.”

    This assumes all other criteria for the validitiy of a sacrament are present as well.

  • Stan

    I have known Roman Catholic priests who bless same-sex couples. I didn’t know this was a secret.

  • Thinkling

    Here is an example of such a priest. If you go to my website and search for his name you will find a lot more information about this issue (disclaimer: the website is decidedly not neutral towards this priest).

  • Fr Theodore

    The implication of the article is that current Roman Catholic priests in good standing are blessing same-sex unions without the approval or knowledge or their ordinary.

    Also, the Lutheran Church is Madison is now identified as being ELCA.

  • tmatt

    Fr. Theodore:

    It looks like I didn’t catch the ELCA reference later in that report. Just to be careful, I am removing that part of the post.

  • Julia

    Chris M:

    This assumes all other criteria for the validitiy of a sacrament are present as well.

    Agreed. Thanks for pointing that out.

  • AuthenticBioethics

    I don’t think the issue is as big a deal as one might think. Or more precisely, maybe the big deal is somewhere else. As tmatt himself said, I don’t doubt that their are Catholic priests supposedly under the authority of Rome who bless same sex unions. What I find telling, however, is the lack of parallelism in the list of yea-nay couplets when it comes to including the Catholic Church. Some (non-Catholic churches) “welcome” gay couples that you’d expect would not, and vice-versa. Some “hire” gays and others not. And what you have here is an attempt to bust some stereotypes and the language is rather tame.

    But when it comes to the Catholic Church, it turns into a story of “sin” and “blessing.” And frankly, these days, the sentence doesn’t belong in a paragraph to support the statement, “The dividing lines are often unpredictable.” Whatever else the existence of dissenting priests might be, it is not unpredictable.

    So this sentence sticks out like a sore thumb to me, and I have to wonder as to why the paragraph was crafted the way it was. It could be just a rush job and the writers and editors simply were not being too careful. It could be carefully constructed, though, to make a point.

    Regarding these dissenting priests, a few points of clarification for some of the other commenters.

    It is important to note that “blessing” a same-sex union is not the same as performing a wedding ceremony. A priest can “bless” just about anything; it would be improper and ineffectual, however, to bless any activity that is a sin.

    Now, from a standpoint of canon law, yes, “a priest is always a priest,” but the sacraments he performs may not be valid except under certain circumstances. In any case, a wedding would not be valid if the priest does not have faculties, because he is only a witness while the couple are the actual ministers of the sacrament. Because the circumstances of the ceremony would not be right, the validity of the sacrament is harmed. Perhaps someone with a better background in Canon Law can offer more precision, but that’s how I understand it.

  • tmatt

    So absolutely NO ONE is concerned about the journalistic issue, the fact that this info is used without attribution or explanation?

  • Stan

    tmatt, since I know from my own experience that the statement is true–that some Roman Catholic priests in good standing do in fact secretly bless same-sex couples–I do not see a journalistic problem. Perhaps the reporter should explain that the names of the priests cannot be revealed because they would be subject to discipline and perhaps even excommunicated, but I suspect that that is understood and goes without needing to be said.

  • tmatt

    Since I know from my own experience that the statement is true—that some Roman Catholic priests in good standing do in fact secretly bless same-sex couples—I do not see a journalistic problem.

    Actually, that is irrelevant to the journalistic subject at hand.

    Perhaps the reporter should explain that the names of the priests cannot be revealed because they would be subject to discipline and perhaps even excommunicated, but I suspect that that is understood and goes without needing to be said.

    No, under the NYTs policy, that is precisely what the editorial team needs to explain — so that the readers can take that into account.

    If the story had included the kind of info required under the policy, I would not have written the same post.

  • Spencerian

    I, for one, am VERY concerned about the lack of attribution, TMatt.

    This example is the reason why GetReligion exists. It shows a reporter’s (and publisher’s) fundamental failure to give factual attribution to religious sources. In this case, it’s not from ignorance but from a newspaper that clearly lacks a desire to report and more of a desire to give opinion. In fact, if they did give their source, it would have furthered, not weakened, their assertion. It would have been a great “take that!” piece at the Catholic position and be factual to boot.

    Such a source would also bloody the nose of the priest involved, his diocesan bishop, and the Church. But at least we wouldn’t shoot the messenger as we must do to the NYT. “Shoot” is a bit understating here. It’s more like emptying the magazine and asking for reload.

  • Jay

    While I agree with Spencerian, I think people are missing tmatt’s original point. At Bill Keller’s NYT, both its writers and readers would take for granted that “open-minded” and “tolerant” clergy would ignore the doctrine of their church and do what the NYT would consider to be the right thing.

    At the NYT, a priest doing so is a dog-bites-man story, because any right-thinking non-bigoted, non-homophobe would do so. Bill Keller doesn’t know anyone who opposes gay marriage, so (like Hubert Humphrey) it will certainly succeed.

    While it’s not odd that the NYT editors didn’t enforce their own policy, it does seem odd that a religion pro like Laurie Goodstein would do this. However, as a reporter if there’s a lazy way out and my editors aren’t going to bust my chops, perhaps I’ll just drop in a sentence rather than go to the trouble of finding a source for my speculation.


  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    So much relevant pertinent information is lacking that, though there may be some renegade priests doing Gay “marriages,” I wonder if this story is more to cause trouble than to give genuine news information.

  • MrsO

    I am concerned about what the NYT is doing. What can be done?

  • Jeff

    “I am concerned what NYT is doing. What can be done?”

    Stop reading The New York Times and stop reading publications that take their cues from The New York Times. …

  • http://!)! Passing By

    AuthenticBioethics raised a good journalistic point about the insertion of Catholic priests violating their vows into the paragraph about “unpredictable” situations. I agree that the NYT has made an allegation on it’s own, without attribution or proof, and that’s a concern. But their making it in that context seems especially gratuitous.

    I should say that, as a Catholic, I have no problem believing that in the present environment, priests perform same-sex blessings, perhaps even representing the ceremony to the couple as real matrimony. I would note that all sorts of people representing themselves as a “Catholic priest”, and not just womynpriests. I used to know a fellow who did just that. I received Communion from him, in fact, before learning that he was, in fact, a schismatic who founded an “Ecumenical Catholic Church” in communion with Utrecht. It happens, and one hopes religion reporters are savvy enough to recognize Catholics in Communion with a bishop who’s in Communion with the bishop of Rome.

    a religion pro like Laurie Goodstein would do this.

    Would that be the same Goodstein who worked so hard to link the pope to American child abuse cases? Which were, in fact, handled quite well? And she did this during Holy Week? THAT Laurie Goodstein?

    Sorry, but an elephant never forgets. :-)

  • Will

    Yes, and the one who asserts that most Episcopalians “have never heard” of the Anglican Communion.

  • Warren

    @ Jeff 9:36pm

    I’ve often wonder the same – what can be done?

    Here’s my two cents worth. The local Church should request an immediate clarification. A clarification would necessarily include a distinction between Catholics in communion with Rome (e.g., Maronites, Melkites, Ukrainian Greeks, etc.) and those who are not in communion with us – e.g., Old Catholic Church, Liberal Catholic Church, etc. If a news organization refuses to print a clarification, then a demand should follow.

    In addition to the above mentioned action, the Church should also lodge a formal complaint with the Society of Professional Journalists and any additional pertinent journalistic standards organizations.

  • Ed M.

    Those priests who do so are Excommunicated by the own actions and they know it.This is propaganda on the NYT part and they know it. …