The Sun mourns death of a liberal priest

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.

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.

  • Mike

    I understand your concern about the lack of clarity about his status as a priest, especially given the existence of the “partner.”

    But I’m confused by your rant about liberal Catholics and the Sun. Are you saying that they shouldn’t have run an obituary about this guy? That they wouldn’t have written an obituary of a young man who died of cancer who ran a conservative Catholic organization? That the obituary represents some sort of endorsement of this man or his causes and an attempt to further a liberal bias?

  • tmatt

    My post clearly states that his work was important and worthy of coverage.

    I simply wanted clarity on crucial facts about his life and relation to the church.

    But, yes, if this was the obit of a conservative priest whose life involved clashes with the church and clear points of controversy, I would expect the Sun to underline those facts, not to hide them.

  • Mike

    Well, they clearly laid out some uncertainty so I’m not sure it was hidden. It seems likely that either his family or the Sun decided an obituary was motvthevplace to lay out the controversy and it appears his home diocese wasn’t saying much. What do you propose the obituary writer should do if no one was talking? Beyond saying he hadn’t resigned, that he hadn’t performed a mass since 2008 and that he had a partner, what would satisfy you that bias wasn’t playing a role in the obituary?

  • dalea

    Obituaries are news but with a different audience than those who pick up the paper today. They are going to be read, indeed combed thru, by people a hundred years from now. People who want to know the major themes and events of the lives of their ancestors. Every geneologist I know delights in finding a great great grandparent’s obituary and are particularly thrilled at the long drawn out Victorian ones. Which is my response to the general question, obituaries are today’s news writen for people yet unborn.

  • sari

    What is meant by partner, a term usually reserved for same-sex partners? Was he cohabiting or was more an exclusive dating relationship?

  • dalea

    This biography does not seem all that strange. I have known several RC religious who were on leaves of absence, like Fr/Mr McNally. It seems to be the practice, as oppossed to doctrine, of the church to allow religious some flex time when they begin to have doubts about their calling. As one priest explained it: the diocese would rather I go off and experiment somewhere far away than at home. Which does make administrative sense; it is better to let priests, monks and nuns who are having doubts and are tempted to do so somewhere else instead of in front of the faithful they would be serving. This was particularly the case with priests who were interested in being openly gay: they were sent far away and let loose. The unusual feature in this story is the his partner is a woman. Some of the priests did try out secular life and returned to their diocese after a year or two.

  • Joe K

    From a RC perspective, priests take vows and are ‘married’ to the Bride of Christ (i.e. The Church) for life. In a very real sense priests are married, and many will wear a ring to signify this reality.

    It would be similarly awkward if Mr. Smith, a local business leader had an affair with another woman, Mrs. Jones. While still living in sin he dies of cancer. The obituary would indeed be … ahem, awkward. Is he the husband of Mrs. Smith or the partner of Mrs. Jones? Charity would suggest avoiding the airing out of dirty laundry.

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    The Official Catholic Directory 2012 lists a Father Edward F. McNally, ordained in 1995 for the Diocese of Syracuse, as absent on leave — which is what one would expect of a priest who is dying of a lingering disease. While I think it sloppy of the reporter not to have said when he was ordained, there’s nothing here that I find disturbing. I know a number of priests who dress in street clothes when they’re not engaged in liturgical duties. It’s also not uncommon for priests to take leaves for reasons ranging from caring for a dying parent to falling in love and trying to figure out what they’re going to do about it.


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