What is this “American Catholic Church,” anyway?

What we have here is kind of a Son of the WomenPriests story — with an interesting twist.

When covering the WomenPriests, mainstream reporters have used some very awkward language suggesting, to be blunt about it, that the WomenPriests are valid Roman Catholic priests for the simple reason that they say that they are valid Roman Catholic priests.

The implication is that the Catholic Church is not in charge of declaring who is and who is not a priest in the Catholic Church. As your GetReligionistas have stressed in our posts on this topic — click here for a small library — this is something like a journalist saying he is a columnist at The New York Times for the simple reason that this reporter has decided that he is a columnist at The New York Times. Does the Divine Mrs. M.Z. Hemingway play shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals? If she proclaimed this to be true, would major newspapers print her claim as truth?

This brings me to a short political story in The Austin America-Statesman in which it was crucial to clearly present the ecclesiastical status of a man who was once a Catholic priest and, now, is a different kind of priest.

The shock, this time around, is that the American-Statesman team comes very, very close to getting an A-grade for its efforts on this journalistic equation. Here’s the top of the story:

Austin school board newcomer Dr. Rev. Jayme Mathias narrowly defeated incumbent Sam Guzman early Wednesday morning to represent District 2, an area of East Austin deeply affected by last year’s school board decision to convert a neighborhood school to an in-district charter school run by an outside organization.

That controversial move made the unseating of a board member less surprising than it might have been.

What was a surprise was Mathias’ post-election comment to a reporter that he will be the first openly-gay school trustee, something he hadn’t mentioned during his campaign. However, people involved in the election — including his opponent — said they knew Mathias is gay, and it wasn’t an issue.

Now, that first reference to the man’s name is a bit strange. Most newspapers reserve “Dr.” references for people with medical degrees. Is that the case this time? It’s hard to know. Also, shouldn’t that be “the Rev.” Jayme Mathias? Some papers, in this case, would even say “Father” Jayme Mathias.

However, this man’s clerical status is a bit complex. However, that doesn’t mean that it could not be described in simple, brief, accurate language, in keeping with the fact that the religion element of this story is of secondary importance. Thus, readers are told:

Mathias, a former Roman Catholic priest, is the first non-Hispanic to represent District 2 since the school district moved to geographic representations in 1992.

“I’ve been ministering among the Hispanic community my entire adult life,” said Mathias. “I speak Spanish fluently. I’ve been so immersed in this culture, it’s absolutely part of who I am.”

Mathias said that in March he joined the more progressive American Catholic Church, which allows priests to marry or live in domestic partnerships. He is now pastor of Holy Family American Catholic Church.

Did the newspaper need to call the local Catholic diocese for clarification in this case? Probably not.

Did the newspaper — to provide clarity for readers — need to add at least one sentence, or phrase, about the history and size of the American Catholic Church?

I think that it would have helped. Why? Well, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. How many people are in this American Catholic communion? It’s hard to tell, but it appears there are 24 small parishes in this fold — in the world. Total global membership of 2,000 or so?

This would be an interesting detail to know, if the goal is to explain the pilgrimage of Mathias. All this would take is a sentence or two. That’s all.

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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://nathaniel.themccallums.org Nathaniel McCallum

    Don’t they have the order mixed up? I have always thought that the proper styling is “the Reverend Dr. …”

    Also, I’m surprised at your recommendation for “Father.” I’m fairly certain this is not correct, as a presbyter’s title is “Reverend.” “Father” is not a title, but an honorific. An analogy of this would be “President Barack Obama” versus “the illustrious Barack Obama.” The first is a title, the second is an honorific.

  • Bull Schuck

    Nah, I’m OK with it. It’s a political story. The part about the Dr. Rev. is probably something that the Dr. Rev. indicated to the reporter as the proper title. And as for calling the local Diocese or putting in some commentary about the size of the American Catholic Church, I think that would have unbalanced the piece. The ministry quote needed some clarification and I think they covered that quite nicely. Yes, color me surprised. I’d give them an A.

  • sari

    Austin-AmericaN Statesman.

    The author covers the local education beat, usually pretty well.

  • FW Ken

    Covering the school board election, gay-identity, and religion in one article was a crunch. I got enough religion in this case: it was clear he left the Roman Catholic Church for another group, alike the womynpriest stories. I was able to satisfy my curiosity about his group with a quick google. I would have liked more info on the board race.(I lived in Austin for a long time), but locals probably got what they need. I am having a hard time believing this fellow its the first openly-gay board member. its Austin, for heaven sake.
    :-)

  • kcthomas

    What does it mean when this priest said that he will be openly gay? Does it mean that he has sex with men ? So he established a new church in America to include people who desire to be openly gay( not secretly). We can admire his courage and leadership


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