Womenpriests: Press coverage in a familiar, strange mold

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To be honest with you, I feel like taking a short break from the Vatican beat — sort of. I predict news from Rome sooner rather than later. You think?

In the meantime, let’s flash back a bit to a recent post in which I praised The Toledo Blade for a better than average story on the WomenPriests movement (and better than average is not, alas, saying a whole lot).

The WomenPriests movement is, of course, is the latest in a long, long, long line of Catholic splinter churches built on extra-legal ordinations that can usually be traced to rites allegedly performed by anonymous bishops, splinter Old Catholic rites, or both. From the viewpoint of the Catholic Church, these women are simply liberal Protestants and, like it or not, the Vatican is in charge of determining who is and who is not a Catholic priest.

So what did the Blade do that drew our mild praise? It offered the following statement of the facts at the top of its report:

Deacon Beverly Bingle, a 68-year-old Roman Catholic woman from Toledo, will be ordained a priest by Roman Catholic Womenpriests today.

Her ordination at 2 p.m. at First Unitarian Church of Toledo, 3205 Glendale Ave., will not be recognized by the Diocese of Toledo, however. After she was ordained a deacon on Sept. 13, the diocese stated her participation “in an invalid and illicit attempted ordination” meant she was automatically excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.

Now, recall that I noted that the movement is formally called the “Roman Catholic Womenpriests,” which means the newspaper was right to pass along the claim of authority present in its name. However, the Blade also immediately noted that the Womenpriests deacon was, in fact, no longer a Catholic at all, according to the laws of the Catholic Church. The Womenpriests determine who is a Womenpriests priest and the Catholic Church determines who is a Catholic priest, in communion with Rome. That’s the facts of the matter.

So, it is important to note that the Blade followed this story to its liturgical end and covered the rites at First Unitarian. How did that turn out?

The basic facts, once again, were pushed to the top of the story:

More than 100 people were in the pews Saturday when Roman Catholic Womenpriests ordained the Rev. Beverly Bingle of Toledo a priest, an act not recognized by the Roman Catholic Church.

Ann Klonowski of Independence, Ohio, was ordained a deacon at the same ceremony at First Unitarian Church of Toledo.

Seventeen women from Roman Catholic Womenpriests, including ordained priests, deacons and a bishop, as well as candidates and applicants for ordination, stood at the end of the service to show their numbers.

Once again, that’s the basic facts of the matter.

This is where things get rather interesting.

The Rev. Dagmar Celeste, former first lady of Ohio and the first American to be ordained by Roman Catholic Womenpriests, was among them. She said that acceptance by the Vatican will come.

“It’s a matter of time, but it’s God’s time,” she said.

Two male clergy in their robes were part of the service. Metropolitan Archbishop M. Heckman, pastor of Holy Cross Reformed Catholic Church in Toledo, where the Reformed Catholic Church has its international headquarters, said he attended “to support Beverly in her ordination.”

Ron Crowley-Koch of Mt. Prospect, Ill., husband of the Rev. Mary Grace Crowley-Koch of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, also attended. Mr. Crowley-Koch said, “I was a priest at one time, but I fell in love with a nun, who is now my wife.”

This is quite helpful. Basically, this rite was supported by Womenpriests leaders, another tiny Catholic splinter group and by an ex-Catholic priest, married to an ex-nun who is now a clergywoman with Womenpriests. Unitarians took part too, of course.

In other words, no Catholic participation at all — so far — in terms of people in communion with Rome.

This leads us to the crunch paragraph, which GetReligion readers will note closely resembles language found in a Baltimore Sun story that I dissected long ago. Instead of quotes from local Catholic leaders, readers learn:

Fear was present in the sanctuary: there was an area where no photos were allowed. Sitting there were a professor from a Roman Catholic college, a nun and others. But in announcing the area, the Rev. Mary Ellen Robertson, a Roman Catholic Womenpriests member from Deltona, Fla., and Muskegon, Mich., said, “not many back there, I notice.”

And the name of the professor? The name of the Catholic nun? The names of any other Catholic officials who took part in this rite, in active opposition to the teachings of their church? Once again, the journalists present elected not to pursue the most important hard-news element of the story. Why?

The views of the Catholic church itself were present in this story in the form of one paragraph from a press release.

Interesting. Even with the clear and accurate opening on this report, the basic editorial approach demonstrated in this piece is (a) the Womenpriests will be allowed to make a case for the beliefs of their church (which is fine); (b) Catholic leaders will not be allowed to make a case for their beliefs, while representing the world’s largest body of Christian believers; and (c) journalists present will provide shelter for Catholic leaders present in this rebel alliance rite, even though their rebellion was arguably the most important news element in this event.

Strange? Or is this approach now normal?

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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.

  • Thinkling

    So long as the piece points out the total discordance between these denominations and the capital “C” Catholic Church, (b) is not crucial. But in that case, (c) is a big flub. Folks claiming membership in two mutually exclusive institutions, especially if they made a name for themselves in one of them, is big news indeed.

    Just an aside, my eyes were nicely opened when the writer of the pre-conclave fake bishop story compared some points about that story to those of typical womenpriests stories. I now see this story here, for example, in a whole new light. I learned something new, so consider it a job well done.

  • FW Ken

    I thought An Rodgers did the womenpriests think well:

    Eventually, “the church will allow married male priests, and following that they will allow women to be priests,” said Joan Houk of McCandless, a bishop in Roman Catholic Womenpriests, which claims that its clergy are validly ordained Catholics. The Vatican doesn’t recognize them and says they have excommunicated themselves.

    http://www.post-gazette.com/stories/news/world/what-a-pope-can-and-cannot-do-doctrine-limits-new-pope-on-changes-678697/

    Actually, there’s a lot in Ms. Rodgers article worth noting, in my opinion.

  • jcb

    A quibble: The Blade didn’t say she was “no longer Catholic at all, according to the laws of the Catholic Church.” It simply said that she had been excommunicated. My understanding is that the excommunicated are, under canon law, still Catholics.

    • Patrick

      Could you go into more detail about this?

      I thought that if you were excommunicated, you were literally out of the Church – therefore, not Catholic at all, and therefore etc. and what-have-ye.

  • Martha

    I note that “The Toledo Blade” (unlike the other media covering the attempted incursion into the cardinals’ meeting by Ralph Napierski) accepted that Ms. Bingle was indeed ordained as a deacon and then as a priest, that the Roman Catholic Womenpriests’ various churches or faith communities do indeed exist, and refrained from any jokes about their vestments (which is more than “The Guardian” managed to do, with a line about “The Swiss Guard – the Vatican’s official fashion police”).

    Looks like the Blade should be giving classes on how to cover a story to its bigger brethren!

  • cvg

    jcb, my question was what exactly does excommunication mean. I have an idea, but the story left me interested in a little bit more detail. Right now, I’m left assuming it just means unable to take communion.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    FYI, excommunicates are still Catholics, however they are forbidden under canon law from having any ministerial participation in any worship at all; celebrating or receiving any of the sacraments; and exercising any eccelesiastical function of any kind (canon 1331).

  • Suburbanbanshee

    But you can get back into communion with the Church at any time; you pretty much just have to say you’re sorry, and ask anybody capable of taking off the excommunication to have the excommunication taken off.

  • Pingback: Womenpriests again: The people vs. paper scenario


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