Wait a minute: First EVER married Maronite Catholic priest?

Several years ago, while working on my contribution to the book “Blind Spot: When Journalists Don’t Get Religion,” I called up one of the patriarchs of the religion beat, Richard Ostling, to discuss the craft that he practiced so well for many years at Time and then with the Associated Press. These days, of course, his “Religion Q&A” pieces are featured once a week here at GetReligion.

We started off by discussing the most basic subject — sins of commission.

For Ostling, the bottom line was clear: If you can’t trust journalists to get their facts right, then why trust them at all? This passage is a bit long, but essential:

“Sometimes we are talking about things that can get complicated. … But it isn’t good when people read their newspaper and say, ‘Wait a minute. That’s just wrong.’ ”

Here’s a prime example, a mistake that Ostling has seen countless times in news reports. … Journalists often report that Rome does not ordain married men.

“It would be accurate,” noted Ostling, “to say that the overwhelming majority of men ordained as Catholic priests are not married. It would even be accurate to say that ‘almost all’ priests are not married. But what about Eastern Rite Catholicism, where you have married priests? Then there are the married men who have been ordained in the Anglican Rite, who used to be Episcopal priests. You have a few Lutherans, too.

“Now some people would say that little mistakes like this do not matter all that much. Well, they matter to the people who read the story and know that what they are reading is wrong. What does this say about our journalistic standards?”

This brings us to a short report from KMOV.com in St. Louis that has some fact checkers quite stirred up in the Catholic blogosphere. Of course, they also appealed to your GetReligionistas for a small bit of justice. Here is most of that story:

(KMOV) – The Maronite Catholic Church is set to ordain its first married priest on Thursday, and it’s happening in St. Louis.

Deacon Wissam Akiki will be ordained at St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral at 6:30 p.m. He will be the first married priest to be ordained into the Maronite Catholic Church. A spokesperson says Pope Francis made an exception for him to be ordained.

The Maronite church is one of several Eastern Rite churches that acknowledge the Pope in Rome as the highest authority.

But just wait a minute, I can hear careful readers muttering, that’s an Eastern Rite Catholic church? Don’t they allow clergy to marry before they are ordained as priests?

As in the examples cited by Ostling, KMOV was only a few words away from accuracy. As the New Advent online guide to many things Catholic notes, concerning Maronite practices:

From the New Advent online site on the Maronites:

Priests without parishes are celibate and dependent on the patriarch. The others are married — that is to say, they marry while in minor orders, but cannot marry a second time. There are about 1100 secular priests and 800 regulars. … The married priests of the rural parishes are often very simple men, still more often they are far from well-to-do, living almost exclusively on the honoraria received for Masses and the presents of farm produce given them by the country people.

Right. But as you can tell by that language, this is how the tradition has been lived out in the old country, such as in Lebanon. In the United States, the practice has been different.

Thus, the team at USA Today published a slightly different, but accurate, story that stated:

In a move that could open the doors for more wedded priests in some Catholic churches across the USA, a married Maronite deacon will be ordained Thursday as a priest in St. Louis.

Deacon Wissam Akiki, who serves St. Raymond’s Maronite Cathedral, will be the first married Maronite Catholic in the United States to become a priest, said Bishop Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, which has its headquarters in Missouri.

“In the Middle East, it is normal (for a priest) to be married,” Zaidan said Tuesday. “Here, this is the first.”

The crucial words, of course, were “in the United States.” The USA Today report continues to give an admirable amount of information about this branch of the Catholic church and its history. Bravo.

Meanwhile we must ask the editors at KMOV for a correction. Please.

And be careful out there.

IMAGE: Stained glass in a Maronite Catholic sanctuary.

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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.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    One good thing about this posting and the stories quoted is that the word “clergy” was not bounced around with the word “priest.” So often these two words are erroneously used interchangeably–for variety’s sake I presume.
    Yet there is a big difference. A member of the Catholic clergy is a man who has been ordained–not necessarily to the priesthood.
    For deacons are ordained by a bishop and are considered to have received holy orders. Also, married men in the Latin Rite can be ordained deacons.
    Thus it is proper to say there are many married “clergy” in the Catholic Church (we may soon outnumber ordained priests in the U.S.)–but there are few married priests..
    Also, Latin Catholic deacons can assume 90% of the duties or ministries of a priest–even be administrators of a parish.
    It is good to see some in the media trying to get things right..

  • Julia B

    I’m in the St Louis TV area and saw this on-line – so I made a point of watching the news tonight. Somebody must have alerted the TV station to its mistake because the reporter did go out of her way to say that it was the first in the US. Since she was reporting live from inside the church, I’m guessing it was a St Raymond’s parishioner.

    • Darren Blair

      As the saying goes, “Never blame malice where ignorance will suffice.”

      In this case, it sounds like the original reporter misunderstood what was taking place, hence the later correction once the facts were out.

      • Gonzalo Palacios

        Isn’t ignorance the Devil’s weapon? Re read Genesis 1-3, Gonzalo T. Palacios, Ph.D.

        • Darren Blair

          People who suffer from ignorance tend to be more likely to repent than those who suffer from malice. I’ve seen this first-hand.

  • Julia B

    The 10 PM news had another story after the ordination with nice film and statement that this had not happened in about a century in the US. The Catholic encyclopedia at New Advent was written in about 1911 or so. It’s my understanding that Latin Rite bishops in the US forbad Eastern Rite married priests in former times because they thought it would cause resentment among the Latin Rite priests. I’m thinking there might be an old rule on the books that needed to be removed concerning this situation – especially since the Latin Rite is ordaining married men who were formerly Anglicans and Lutherans. Somebody on the news report said that an appeal was made to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops who forwarded the request to Rome where Francis approved the change.

  • Julia B

    The Post Dispatch had a mostly admirable story today and spoiled it with this gem:

    “Unlike the Orthodox Catholic Church, Eastern Catholic churches recognize the authority of the pope and are in communion with Rome.”

    What the heck is the “Orthodox Catholic Church”! I miss Tim Townsend.

    http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/metro/with-pope-s-blessing-married-man-is-ordained-catholic-priest/article_3df4bb22-020a-5639-86ba-4f56ce04a1e3.html

    • tmatt

      WOW. Missed that one.

  • Julia B

    One last thing: the reporter missed an interesting religion tidbit.

    “Mayor Francis Slay was on hand and presented Akiki with a key to the city, noting that wherever his ministry took him, he would always be welcomed back to St. Louis.”

    I just happens that Mayor Slay is himself from a notable Maronite family and I have heard that he attended seminary for a short period as a young man. So this must have been a very important development to him. The opportunity to ask was missed.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I think it would be interesting for someone, someday to write about why he would be the first married Maronite Catholic priest in the U.S. The history with that is one that has caused long-lasting divisions between the Eastern and Western lungs of the Church, and it is particularly galling for the Eastern rites who quite often feel they have their rights trampled on by the U.S. Latin-rite bishops.


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