Warning! Mixing theology, canon law and ink is difficult

When it comes to the nuts and bolts of journalism, the task that terrifies my students the most is attempting to paraphrase the complicated words of experts into prose that can be understood by the proverbial average American sitting at his or her breakfast table with a cup of coffee.

This is especially hard when the journalist in question knows little or nothing about the complicated matters being discussed by said expert.

Things get even trickier when the expert is highly skilled in speaking in an unknown tongue linked to a lofty profession — such as law, biology, philosophy, theology or, well, baseball.

First, the journalist has to get the words down accurately — in a recording or in dense, accurate notes.

Second, the journalist has to understand the words. Journalists must know what they don’t know and humble themselves enough to ask follow-up questions that yield understanding and, this is crucial, anecdotes and simple explanations that will build bridges to readers.

Finally, the journalist has to translate the words, slicing away layers of verbiage to reach the core information that can accurately be linked to the news issue being discussed. Journalists must attempt to say, accurately, in 50 words or so what experts would prefer to say in 500.

This is terrifying stuff, which is why journalists often seek user-friendly experts who, well, can speak ordinary English. There is a reason that, for a generation or two, religion-beat specialists have said that the formula for an A1 religion story consisted of “a poll, three local anecdotes and a quote from Martin Marty.”

On to the case at hand. The bottom line: If you put theology and law together you get Canon Law — a truly terrifying prospect.

This brings me to a blog post from Catholic scholar Edward Peters in which he describes a recent train wreck on the other side of a reporter’s notebook. Alas, this is a case in which the actual news report seems to be hidden behind a firewall at Newsday, which means I can only link to Peters’ take on the incident and a letter to the editor that followed in which the canon lawyer was accused, wrongly, of error because his words were inaccurately paraphrased.

The key is that Peters provided his answers — the topic is the possibility that women could be ordained as deacons — via email, which means he has the verbatim material. Thus, he explains at his “In the Light of the Law” website:

Over many years of trying to respond to secular reporters’ questions about religious, especially canonical, topics, I have adopted the practice of responding, in writing, time-permitting, but in a timely manner, to specific questions about canon law and Church life. (I don’t answer questions like “What does canon law say about marriage?” Not any more, I don’t.) And, I keep copies of my answers. Occasionally, as now, they are useful.

So, the reporter above contacted me in a professional manner by email, asked for a few minutes by phone to discuss female deacons, whereupon I suggested his sending a few written questions, to which I would respond within 24 hours. He sent me two good questions, and I promised written answers within 1 hour. Which I did.

It’s crucial to read the scholar’s answers, which are remarkably short and to the point:

(1) What is your opinion of the suggestion to have women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church?

The suggestion has no merit. It rests on several misunderstandings of the nature of holy Orders in the Catholic Church. It is true that in recent decades the Magisterium has spoken with greater clarity in pronouncing against the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood than in regard to deacons. Some people take from recent Roman statements on priesthood some wavering on the question of female deacons. But such language was, in my opinion, simply a showing of care not to preclude research into “deaconesses” of the ancient Church. But, whatever exactly ancient “deaconesses” were, they were not, I am convinced, clergy in the modern sense of the word, and thus appeal to them as precedents for female deacons today is bootless.

(2) What are the chances in your opinion this could actually happen?

I see no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate. The ceremonies that one sees from time to time purporting to be such ordinations are, first, of zero sacramental effect in the Catholic Church and, second, subject to severe penalties because of the confusion and disruption they introduce into the lives of the faithful.

The key point is that Peters based his answers on sacramental theology, not on canon law. He nods towards historical issues and gives his opinion on the theology in this matter. At no point does he refer to Catholic canon law.

Alas, according to Peters (if anyone can access the original, please let me know) the resulting Newsday story quoted him as saying:

“But canon law expert Edward N. Peters, of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, sees ‘no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate’ because canon law forbids it.”

And that’s that. Peters was not amused.

Period. End of quotation.

Pffft. No nuance, none of my recognition that the other side has an argument, and, worst of all, the misrepresentation that my opposition to female clerics rests on positive canon law, instead of, as I expressly stated, in the theology of the sacrament of holy Orders.

As it turns out, the canon lawyer on the other side of the issue — Msgr. John Alesandro — was not amused with the answer that Peters was alleged to have provided and wrote the newspaper to say so. In this case, the text is not hidden behind a digital firewall. Alesandro writes, responding to the anti-Peters:

The article “Backing women deacons” [News, Sept. 27] contains a statement from a canon lawyer that “‘there is no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate’ because canon law forbids it.” It is true that current canon law forbids it, but that is irrelevant as to a future decision by the Holy Father. To conclude that there is no possibility is quite a leap.

The question of whether women can be validly ordained as deacons is a doctrinal one, not canonical. The real question is whether the prohibition of such an ordination is, when applied to diaconate, repeating an unchangeable doctrinal teaching or, alternatively, expressing a legal prohibition that can be altered — something that has happened in many areas of law in the past.

In his web post, Peters notes that Alesandro’s task was an easy one: “What I said — correction, what I was reported as having said — was as shallow as it was rigid. My kids could have refuted it.”

Peters does not believe that he was the victim of a conspiracy at Newsday or that this error was rooted in any kind of overt bias. The problem is that the Newsday team tried to make the issue simpler than it was. In the end, he was quoted as saying something that he did not say.

Now, the question is whether Peters is to blame, to some degree, because his email did not include words to this effect: “Warning! Please note that I am basing my opinion on sacramental theology, not on canon law.”

Is there a correction out there somewhere, perhaps behind a firewall? GetReligion readers, how would you word the correction?

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  • T.B.

    I’ve been noticing in recent political coverage ( I know that is off-topic for this blog) this same dangerous tendency of journalists to present para-phases, as if they were direct quotes. The example above is exactly what I mean. What is so difficult about maintaining that to quote someone requires repeating their exact words, or at least using ellipses and italics when you divert from them, and when you paraphase make that fact clear and the paraphrase accurate? The ideal paraphase should be asked of the person paraphased if at all possible. That means asking them something like: so your point is that ‘ . . . ‘ ; is that correct.

  • tmatt

    Journalists have to paraphrase. That is the reality. Running paraphrase quotes past the speakers is also out of the question, unless the reporter on his or her own simply does that to be cautious in a rare case.

    As a rule, journalists need to paraphrase roughly three to four times for every time they have the space to direct quote. It’s the reality of the business and the WWW age, and shrinking attention spans, demand shorter stories in many cases.

    Experienced, trained beat reporters know how to paraphrase accurately. It’s a basic skill of the craft.

    • Matt R

      The problem is that he didn’t paraphrase correctly. Instead of canon law, he needed to say ‘according to sacramental theology’ or something to that effect.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    How would I word the correction? The Daily News needs to man up and say it like it is: “Dear Reader, we inaccurately paraphrased a comment by Dr. Edward Peters. He did not say that he ‘sees “no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate” because canon law forbids it.’ Instead, he said the possibility does not exist because, ‘It rests on several misunderstandings of the nature of holy Orders in the Catholic Church.’ But because our reporter and editors aren’t able to grasp difficult religious concepts, we boiled it down to what we thought our readers would think he was saying or what we think they should think he was saying.”

  • tmatt


    No chance on the second half of that. Get real.

    Try again. No straw men, please.

    • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

      Not a straw man, tmatt, but a facetious statement of what I think these guys are really thinking.

  • Thinkling

    I have to wonder if this is not simply a failure to c0mmunicate.

    Well OK of course it is. But I strongly suspect the reporter asked Dr. Peters specifically because he was a canon lawyer, and wanted that angle. Dr. Peters is one of the most highly regarded canon lawyers in the States. Without any clarification for or against being a law perspective, the reporter probably thought “this is what this prominent canon lawyer told me, ergo…”

    Both parties could have done better to avoid that confusion. The reporter could have been explicit about the legal angle. Dr. Peters could have gave a caveat like you suggest. While certainly the buck stops with the reporter, I cannot imagine Dr. Peters has never been involved in that kind of confusion before.

  • deiseach

    I agree that in this instance it was a legitimate mistake. Dr. Peters probably should have made it clearer that he wasn’t addressing the question on canon law grounds. On the other hand, had he said that, the story might have ended up saying “Canon lawyer says it’s perfectly legal and the Pope should do it”, so six of one, half a dozen of the other.

  • While the reporter may have been disappointed in Dr. Peters’ answers, I did not detect any kind of animosity in the (mis)quote. Surely there is a way to misquote Dr. Peters or spin his answers toward a malicious end, but trying to make him look foolish by ascribing to him the silly notions that canon law is immutable and that positive (in Dr. Peter’s sense) law is what is at stake, because that would be lost on most people.

  • Darren Blair

    I can understand Peters being upset; I myself was misquoted in a newspaper article.

    All you can do is raise a stink, hope the reporter makes a correction, and speak to people individually if they ask.

  • Deacon John Saturus

    It might be a good idea to insist to reporters ahead of time that, if they’re going to quote you, you get to check the accuracy of the quote/paraphrase before the article goes into print.

    • Deacon John — very few reporters will allow what you suggest, which amounts to prior review. (Most reputable papers have policies forbidding prior review.) And even if they did allow that, who knows whether the paraphrase will be re-paraphrased by an editor or copy editor down the line?

  • Charles

    A similar problem happened with the Buddhist lesbian communion stories in the Washington Post. Peters offered a detailed analysis according to the initial reports. While the story continued to develop, the Post kept it simple – repeating Peters’ points without the nuance that became ever more relevant as more of the story was revealed.