It’s a question that journalists debate from time to time in major newsrooms: To what degree are obituaries news stories?
Other questions quickly follow this one: To what degree should an obituary cover any controversies or painful elements of a person’s life? To what degree should an obituary be written with the family of the deceased in mind, as opposed to the interests of readers? Are things different if we are talking about the lead obit in the day’s news, the most prominent person being profiled?
One more time: Are we talking about a news story or not?
You can see all of these questions tugging at the editors in The Baltimore Sun‘s obituary describing the death of a young leader in local Catholic social services. The headline is totally normal, with no hints of complications:
Rev. Edward F. McNally, Franciscan Center director
Roman Catholic priest directed outreach center since 2010 for those in need
Yet, in the photo used in the online edition, as opposed to the small photo in the printed newspaper, McNally is shown standing at work in secular business attire, complete with Oxford button-down collar and tie, cellphone on his belt. He is the perfect image of the young urban professional, as opposed to being a Franciscan or even a diocesan priest.
The lede is strangely and carefully stated:
The Rev. Edward F. McNally, a Roman Catholic priest who later became executive director of the Franciscan Center, died Saturday of lymphoma at the University of Maryland Medical Center. The Mount Washington resident was 46.
“Ed had volunteered here when he was a seminarian at St. Mary’s. Afterward, he saw an ad in the paper for executive director of the Franciscan Center and applied,” said Sister Ellen Carr, former interim director of the center and now a member of its board.
So what, precisely, does the lede say?
The bottom line: Was this young man ordained as a priest, before leaving the priesthood and entering another form of service to the church and the larger community? Yet the headline still identifies him as a priest. The story never clearly answers this question, while offering lots of information about his studies in business, the decision to earn a law degree, his work teaching comparative religion, etc., etc. There are lots of hints, but no clarity.
Toward the end of the obituary there is this additional — once again, very carefully worded — information linked to his work at the Franciscan Center.
In a 2010 interview with The Baltimore Sun, Mr. McNally explained how he confronted the mission of the center. “We operate as a community effort. We get donations and help — time, talent and treasure — from parishes, high schools, universities, foundations and individuals,” he said. …
Mr. McNally, who was diagnosed in July 2011 with the cancer that eventually claimed his life, stepped down as the center’s executive director on a medical leave earlier this year.
Mr. McNally offered his last Mass at the time of his mother’s death in 2008. Mr. McNally had not formally resigned the priesthood but was on official leave, said the Rev. Timothy Elmer, chancellor of the Diocese of Syracuse.
So he never officially resigned the priesthood, yet he is “the Rev.” in the headline and “Mr.” in the text of the story. Finally, the story features another significant voice:
“He was vitally interested in social justice issues and was very politically oriented,” said his partner of a year and a half, Jennifer Maurer of Mount Washington, who is a clinical social worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital. “He was also into fitness and cycling, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to ride 20 or 30 miles at a time,” said Ms. Maurer.
So was this very committed, very political Catholic social activist a priest, or not? Was he married, or not? His ministry, of course, was in Baltimore. What was his status with the local church during his tenure as the leader of a Catholic ministry in this area? What is going on here?
In the end, I know that there are many conservative Catholics in Maryland who are convinced that the Sun, in its news coverage, actively opposes the Catholic faith — period. There are times (click here) when it is tempting to think that.
However, I think it is more accurate to say that the Sun serves as the official public-relations voice of liberal Catholics who live, work and worship in this overwhelmingly secular- and progressive-Catholic region. The goal seems to be to promote and protect the careers and work of Catholics whose views on doctrinal and public issues are acceptable to the newspaper.
Thus, the Sun is not anti-Catholic. It’s increasingly pro-liberal Catholic and, often, this bias is clearly stated. In this case, it’s hard to name the forces that shaped this complex obituary.