That Gray Lady Catholic same-sex unions scoop 2.0

It’s time for a Catholic culture wars flashback.

Let’s set the way-back machine for last summer, when the Womenpriests movement held one of its ordination rites in Baltimore. As one would expect, this event was glowingly covered — sort of — by The Baltimore Sun. I focused, in posts at the time, on this particular passage:

Andrea Johnson, presiding as bishop, ordained two women from Maryland, Ann Penick and Marellen Mayers, one from Pennsylvania and one from New York in the sanctuary of St. John’s United Church of Christ. The church was filled with family members — including husbands of three of the ordinands — and friends, including some who are employed by the Archdiocese of Baltimore but who support the ordination of women. Photography was limited to protect the privacy of those attending the ceremony.

I noted, with two clicks in Google, that one of the ordinands was a former faculty member/campus minister at one of most powerful Catholic schools in our region — Archbishop Spalding High School. This fact was not included in the news story. And what about the fact that the Sun agreed to abide by the instructions not to photograph the audience. In mean, who would be present who needed the safety of anonymity? I wrote at that time:

… (I)t sounds like the Sun agreed not to photograph the congregation in order to protect the privacy of Catholics — Catholic educational leaders or diocesan staff, perhaps — who could not afford to make public their support of the Womenpriests movement. I don’t know about you, but that seems strange — unless editors had decided to protect those individuals as sources for the story. If that’s the case, perhaps that should be stated?

I bring this up because of some of the reactions I have heard — in or comments pages and through private emails — to my post that ran with the headline, “New York Times scoop! Catholic same-sex unions!” The post focused on a story that included lots of clearly attributed quotes and information from religious leaders in quite a few churches that are being rocked or even divided by conflicts over homosexuality and the definition of marriage.

That’s good. Journalists like clearly attributed information.

But then there was this passage in the Times report:

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.

The story offers no attribution for the final claim, which is an A1 story in the making if I have ever seen one. The story also, and this is the key, does not offer any context for this claim or information about its source, including why the source of needs to remain anonymous — or in this case, not even mentioned. The information simply shows up.

Does this matter? Well, I noted that this would appear to violate a New York Times editorial policy document that states, in part:

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.

As you would imagine, conservative Catholics were not amused by this episode.

Over at the CatholicCulture.org website, Phil Lawler made the following observations:

It is, regrettably, easy to believe that some Catholic priests are giving their blessing to homosexual unions. But if that is the case, these priests are clearly acting in defiance of the Church: the institution they claim to serve. That defiance would constitute a major news story, not merely an observation to be made in passing. … The Times appears to be protecting dissenting priests from ecclesiastical discipline.

Any Times reporter who actually witnessed a Catholic priest blessing a homosexual union, or heard a credible first-hand report of such an event, should have written a news story about it, and that story should have appeared on the front page. That didn’t happen. Why not? I can think of only three possible explanations:

The Times reported something as fact when it had no solid evidence. Terry Mattingly and I agree that’s unlikely.

The Times had solid evidence of priests blessing gay unions, but withheld that evidence because the priests demanded anonymity. That’s possible. But as Mattingly points out, the Times ordinarily informs readers when a report is based on information from someone who requests anonymity.

The Times knows of priests who have blessed same-sex unions, and those priests have not requested anonymity, but the Times has decided not to identify them anyway. This seems to me the most likely explanation.

My assumption is that the second option is closest to the mark, in a scenario that resembles the Sun Womenpriests story mentioned earlier. In other words, the newspaper is actively participating in the story and shaping information in a way that protects one side of the debate from retaliation by the other.

Yes, I know that this happens in political stories all the time. My office is on Capitol Hill. However, this is precisely the scenario that the Times ethics policy addresses — which is why, in order to build and retain trust — the policy requires reporters and editors to give readers as much information about confidential sources as possible (short of a clear, named attribution). Yet that did not happen in this case.

GetReligion readers have, in comments or privately, offered another interesting explanation.

The Times report clearly implies that the Catholic priests performing these same-sex union blessings are, in fact, Catholic priests in good standing. However, perhaps this is not accurate, and the priests in question are either ex-Catholic priests or members of movements (think Womenpriests) that claim to be Catholic, yet the final doctrinal authorities on this issue (as in Catholic bishops) disagree. Yet, why wouldn’t the newspaper simply state that this is the case. Why not give credit to, so to speak, this Rebel Alliance?

I want to propose another scenario, one based on my own experiences in newsrooms and past conversations with liberal Catholics, including journalists. What if the source or sources for this information are, in reality, liberal Catholics and ex-Catholics IN THE TIMES NEWSROOM? They know about these rites or have participated in them, yet they do not want to betray their own liberal priests? Thus, the reference is simply stated as fact, because the people in the know are actually involved in the news process.

Surely the Times staff includes more than its share of ex-Catholics and liberal Catholics. What was the label that former editor Bill Keller pinned on himself in his infamous post-Sept. 11 column (the one that compared the Vatican with Al Qaeda) that ran under the headline, “Is the Pope Catholic?” He said, “I am what a friend calls a ‘collapsed Catholic’ — well beyond lapsed.” I would be shocked if Keller was alone in his own newsroom.

How would a reporter include that information in a story, in an attempt to honor the Times policy?

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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.

  • http://Herbely.com Herb Ely

    What does “blessing” mean? Praying with a couple privately? A public ceremony? Or does the reporter mean a sacramental celebration?

  • Fr Theodore

    The most likely answer is that the priest is performing a “church” blessing to civil ceremony that has already been completed. If the priest completed the entire ceremony, he would have to sign it, and it would become public record. If priest’s are doing this secretly, they would be unlikely to want to do that.

  • Mark

    I want to propose a far simpler (and therefore much more likely to be correct) scenario: by “bless,” the author of the article simply meant “approve of” or “support.” As in, “there are Catholic priests who secretly give approval to those in same-sex unions.”

  • sari

    tmatt,
    Yes, the Times should either attribute or provide a reason for failing to attribute. The source really doesn’t matter, since the basic reason is to provide anonymity to someone whose life might be negatively effected by being outed.

    That said, I disagree with your reasons for naming names. Insofar as being a priest is a job and insofar as the the priests have done nothing to transgress civil law, the Times has no business outing anyone. The R.C.C. fought hard to hide the identities and protect the reputations of priests who broke both religious and civil law when they molested minors, and many supported its decision. Whether or not one supports the priests’ actions in this instance, the paper has not right to deprive them of their livelihood.

    A simple explanation for failure to attribute would have been sufficient. Papers do it all the time.

  • Fr Theodore

    sari,

    I don’t think Tmatt was demanding names. He just wanted, and I think rightly so, that the NYT indicate how they knew Catholic priests were blessing same-sex weddings. It is also obvious that they should have clarified what “blessing” meant, as we are now forced to speculate on what these unidentified clergy actually did.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    JERRY:

    Sorry, but you are simply wrong on that. Most of the claims in that paragraph are even demonstrated in the story itself. Others — such as PCUSA wars — are easy to document.

    Please send me a URL for a report in MSM or church media about Catholic priests in communion with the bishop of Rome who are blessing gay unions. Anyone who has that happening with on-the-record facts has a national story on his or her hands.

    I am willing to debate the meaning of the term “bless.” But saying that a priest blesses something implies way more than the word “approves.” Bless is a liturgical term in that context, implying, at the very least, prayers of blessing.

  • sari

    Fr Theodore,
    My impression was that tmatt was asking if the NYT should have adhered to its own written policy re: attribution or if, by ignoring its policy, it sought to shape public opinion on the matter -and- whether or not the priests alleged to have blessed same sex unions were indeed Catholic priests by any reasonable definition. Those are reasonable questions.

    The reporter also erred when s/he failed to distinguish between blessing a union and performing a marriage ceremony, especially one forbidden by canon law, which left many readers with the mistaken impression that the two were synonymous. Still, when outing a source harms the source, sources tend to dry up. From experience, people can sympathize with others’ situations, even situations with which they disapprove. That may be exactly the priests’ position.

    We should expect the Church, not the Times, to out renegade priests.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    For the record: I don’t the NYTs had to have sources ON THE RECORD, with names, in order to print this story. My post makes that clear.

    However, follow the URL and read the NYTs Co. statement. The story needed some information describing the source of such a newsworthy claim.

    If someone finds a story with clear attributions that shows why it is common knowledge that Catholic priests perform same-sex union blessings, please let me know. I’ve been following that issue since the mid-1980s and must have missed this coverage.

  • bob

    Further, aren’t such things as ordinations ( in the case of the female rite described earlier) and marriages supposed to be “public” rites? That is, if they’re done in secret they lose validity? Not only inventing rites out of thin air, but denying the legitimacy of them in the same breath. Another thing the stories leave out. They assume that one can invent not just an order of ordained or married people but also invent a church where it can happen. More of a story, really.

  • sari

    Another thing the stories leave out. They assume that one can invent not just an order of ordained or married people but also invent a church where it can happen.

    And yet, historically, that’s how many religions start, from Terah, the idolmaker, to Avraham to Jesus to splits in the original church. It is not at all uncommon for upstarts to be excommunicated from or denigrated by the founding institution.

    Is it the paper’s job to determine the validity of any given religious group or is its job to report information?

  • Richard M

    “…the Roman Catholic Church remains more diverse than they would like.”

    I suppose the same was true of the Church during the Arian crisis.

  • Kristen

    This is why I read this blog – thanks for a great post…never thought about it that way…and it has implications beyond the Grey Lady in Gotham…Pew found that, what, 10% of American adults are lapsed Catholics…

  • Julie

    I work in a news room. I am a Catholic and I overhear first hand blatant and sometimes vicious anti-Catholicism from the editors. I overheard one such editor salivating over a proposed story that would make a local Catholic church look bad, the story offered to him by a butt kissing ex-Catholic reporter, who got it from an anti-Catholic person living in a heavily Catholic town, who called him with it. Following up, the reporter found the story to be incorrect so didn’t pursue it. But ethics and fairness seem to fly out the window when it comes to the Catholic Church, from liberal, anti-racist, “tolerant,” and self-described “progressive” editors.I have no doubt this plays out across the country in other news rooms. The sentiment seems to be so ingrained I think such reporters and editors are sometimes unaware that they are being unfair. Sometimes they are aware.

  • Martha

    tmatt, I think your theory is probably close to the mark. I doubt that the newspaper does have actual evidence of Father X performing a ceremony of blessing in the parish church of St. Tibulus for Susie and Mandy Brown-Jones-Smythe, but it’s much more likely to be something along the lines of “Dave Y or Jill Z told me that they personally know/attended/heard about it from a friend who was there and he or she is a devout Catholic!”

    So it easily turns from “I’ve heard from people that they know people who know about this” to “Unspecified Catholic priests somewhere or other unspecified do this”.

  • Mouse

    Sounds like nothing but hearsay to me. One hopes it’s not true, but it’s in any case nothing but the Times’ usual modus operandi of trying to make it look like these things could somehow be acceptable in the Church. Which we all know they can’t.

  • R.S.Newark

    The Times has been setting subversive ‘traps’ for years. They may come forward with some subversive cleric somewhere after bate-ing religious people with a doubtful statement. Then attempting to appear more knowledgeable than a church.

  • Defender

    It is quite possible that the NYT is conveniently confusing Roman Catholic priests who remain true to the Church’s teachings with those of organisations such a Rent a Priest, who at their website claim that they are:

    –quote–
    …a lay organization that locates, recruits, and promotes the availability of married and other resigned Roman Catholic priests to fill the spiritual needs of God’s people. According to church law (canon law), “Once a priest, always a priest.” Therefore, married priests are not “ex” or “former” priests, they are still priests. In fact, Canon Law says they cannot refuse to ministry to someone who asks (Canon 843).
    –unquote–

    It is also possible that tehir idea of a Catholic priest would be those at Spiritus Christi in Rochester NY, which calls itself “a Christ-centered Catholic Community reaching beyond the institutional church to be inclusive of all.” Its ‘priests’ include Mary Ramerman and James Callem.

    In both cases the people there call themselves ‘Catholic Priests’, a psuedo-title that would fit well within the shady reporting of the Times. Revelation of the people in question, would then totally discredit the story.


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