That deacon and CBS veteran sacks a Womenpriests ‘story’

Should visitors to GetReligion choose to search our archives for the term “Womenpriests” they will find eight pages of results, most of them dedicated to dissecting alleged news reports about this tiny splinter movement on the left side of the world of American Catholicism.

I say “alleged” because most of these stories resemble public relations essays, rather than news reports that take seriously the beliefs of people on both sides of this issue. In at least one case (“If Womenpriests were rabbis“) it appeared that the Baltimore Sun team actually cooperated with the organizers of a Womenpriests ordination rite to help protect local Catholics (some on the payroll of the real church) who attended the event. For a few other hot links to past coverage, including the work of GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway, click here, here, here and here.

Now, Deacon Greg Kandra — scribe at the fine weblog “The Deacon’s Bench” — has taken his turn at pounding his head, as a veteran journalist, on this particular wall. For those not familiar with his work, Kandra is a former CBS Evening News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. So when this Catholic clergyman chooses to dissect a report from a CBS affiliate, his commentary has a unique level of clout.

This is poor on so many levels. Reporter Maria Medina should be embarrassed. My only conclusion is that it’s sweeps month and the affiliate is desperate for ratings.

Offered as another in his occasional series called “Great moments in journalism,” Kandra called this post, “How NOT to report on women priests.” It helped that the CBS affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., published a transcript of its alleged news story on the movement officially known as “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.”

Let’s let the deacon walk readers through this primer on how not to do this job. Here’s a few choice samples:

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What NOT to teach a metro reporting intern

In a perfect world, an internship with a major American newspaper would bolster the lessons learned in Journalism 101.

In such a setting, an intern would receive real-world experience and gain a better understanding of the importance of reporting fully and fairly on all sides of a story.

I fear that the Chicago Tribune may be teaching a different lesson — namely, that a colorfully written piece can make it on to the front page, even if it’s thinly reported and reads more like an editorial than an unbiased news report.

As Exhibit A, I present a Page 1 story from this week that ran with this main headline:

Her 9-decade dream: women as priests

The top of the story:

When Sister Vivian Ivantic was a little girl, she knew she had a calling. She came home from first grade and announced to her mother that when she grew up, she wanted to become a priest or a nun.

And it was then, more than 90 years ago, that she discovered women cannot become priests in the Roman Catholic Church.Ivantic became a sister instead and remained optimistic that priesthood would one day be an option for Catholic women to pursue.

On Sunday, after a Mass at St. Scholastica Monastery in West Rogers Park marking her 80th anniversary in the religious community, Ivantic made it clear that she hasn’t given up on the idea, even as she turns 100 on Wednesday.

With a mischievous grin on her face and a fist in the air, she called on the Catholic Church to allow female ordination, a yearning that likely won’t be fulfilled for her but an opportunity she hopes will at least be available to younger women.

“We need women in church offices. It won’t come in my lifetime, but it will come,” she said.

Read the rest of the story, and it’s an ode to the need for WomenPriests.

In a newsroom concerned about basic journalistic values, an editor would have recognized the one-sided nature of the story and sent it back to the intern for more reporting.

The editor and the intern would have talked about the need to tell the full story — to quote someone, be it a bishop or a scholar, who could explain Catholic beliefs on the priesthood and gender and respond to the sister’s comments.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead, the Tribune ran the one-sided story on the front page and then included the intern’s Twitter handle at the bottom, so that readers such as myself could click it and see her describe the nun as a “rockin’” role model “pushing for women priests.”

Not to overdo the whole journalism thing, but in a perfect world, the writer wouldn’t take sides on a story she reported. Nor would she retweet a post hashtagged #ordainwomen from the director of the Women’s Ordination Conference. That might give the impression of bias. Then again, the Tribune did that already by publishing a Page 1 editorial.

My concern, I should stress, is with the newspaper, not the intern. The intern deserves better from her superiors.

NPR: true tolerance=open marriages

I’m just catching up on some email but last week a former reporter submitted a story for review with the note “You must do a GR post about the unbelievable NPR story today by Lourdes Garcia-Navarro on an excommunicated Catholic priest. It’s insane.” He wasn’t the only one. Other reporters and readers also noticed it as particularly deserving of a GetReligion glance.

It’s kind of like if The Onion did a parody of all of those bad Roman Catholic WomenPriests stories we have fun with. It begins:

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Today, in Brazil, Pope Francis led the first public Mass of his first international trip. He travelled to a basilica that is deeply symbolic for Brazil’s Catholics. In a sermon, Francis spoke of helping the young turn away from what he called the idols of money, success, power, pleasure. He addressed thousands who had waited in the rain for his arrival.

Throughout the Pope’s Brazil trip, he has been greeted with excited throngs, but also protests.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTESTERS CHANTING)

SIEGEL: This past Monday, in Rio, pro-gay marriage activists mounted a bare-breasted demonstration. Same-sex unions have become a big issue in the region. NPR’s Lourdes Garcia Navarro has this profile of a rebel priest whose message of tolerance got him excommunicated.

Emphasis mine. So, what tolerant message got this “rebel priest” excommunicated? You’ll want to read on to find out! You really need to read the full transcript (or affiliated story) to get the full beauty of this particular piece, but we learn from correspondent Lourdes Garcia-Navarro that Roberto Francisco Daniel “looks cooler than your typical priest.” His doctrinal deviations included opposing church teaching on homosexuality, of course, but also:

DANIEL: (Through translator) The Catholic Church is one of hypocrisy, and because of what I heard in the confessional, I decided to engage in the debate.

NAVARRO: Padre Beto not only believes in gay marriage, but is in favor of divorce and of open marriages where either party can have an extramarital affair as long as husband and wife agree… Equally, he says, how can we, in this day and age, expect people to be chaste before matrimony?

DANIEL: (Through translator) I would have young people in their 20s confessing as if it were sinful that they had sexual relations with the person they were going to marry before they said vows. Sex is the most natural thing in the world. How can someone get married without first knowing their partner sexually? That’s absurd nowadays. The church is more worried about genitalia than human life.

NAVARRO: Padre Beto was repeatedly warned by the church to stop making his views public, to recant and repent. Things had become so tense he had decided to resign his ministry. But his superiors beat him to it. A few months ago, without warning, they convened an ecclesiastical hearing where he was informed that he was being excommunicated.

DANIEL: (Through interpreter) It never even crossed my mind that they would excommunicate me.

NAVARRO: Padre Beto says he fell foul of the ultraconservative elements in the church who were outraged by his opinions. He says, though, since he’s been stripped of his priestly duties, he’s gotten a lot of support in the community. He is still a devout Catholic, he says, who stands by his priestly vows. But in many ways, he is now freer to voice his opinions.

Wait, what? What? What?

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Nice art (but few facts) about Baltimore Carmel nuns

Every now and then, the editors who run major newspapers get this urge to run a story that simply jumps out at readers and proclaims, “This Is A Religion Story!”

These stories are especially popular if they feature beautiful art of religious people wearing religious clothing walking around doing clearly religious things. This is one reason why you see way more A1 feature stories about Hindus and Episcopalians than you do about Southern Baptists and Mormons, even in newspapers in places like Dallas or Atlanta. Ever tried to take colorful photos for a story about a Baptist preaching conference? Ah, but that Catholic conference on Latino liturgical dance? Bingo.

Often, this journalistic fact of life yields good stories.

Often, this journalistic fact of life yields bad/weak stories.

When small evangelical magazines and/or public-relations offices run this kind of story, journalists have been known to call them “happy little Jesus stories.”

When major newspapers run these stories, the result is often PR for a group that is in favor with the editors.

I returned from my recent trip to the Southern Highlands and discovered, in my large stack of Baltimore Sun newspapers, an A1 story in the publication’s “Hidden Maryland” series that contained some interesting material, some nice details and an unusual lack of facts related (just maybe) to some major news stories. This was surprising, for me, because the reporter (I know from experience) likes to ask a lot of questions. Maybe news was not part of this assignment as envisioned by the Sun editors?

Anyway, this feature ran under a headline that tells you quite a bit about the approach and the photography:

All work and all prayer at Baltimore Carmel

The nuns at the Towson area monastery aim to ‘share contemplation with the people’

Here is a key piece of background material:

Turn left at a little white sign south of Seminary Avenue, cruise up a wooded lane and park near a fieldstone mansion, and you’ll find yourself on the 27 quiet acres that serve as home to Baltimore Carmel, which descends from the first community of religious women formed in the 13 colonies.

“Oh, there’s a whole other world back here — that’s one way to put it,” says Sister Monika Bies, a German native who joined the community in 2001. “It’s more interesting than you might guess.” …

One of 65 Carmelite monasteries in the nation, Baltimore Carmel houses 18 nuns and two postulants (aspiring members), women ranging in age from 33 to 93. Their ex-professions include dentistry, nursing, education and the law. Their spiritual focus is prayer, and their roots go a long way back.

Now, numbers are important in a story like this, as are long-range trends in an era when many Catholic orders are aging and, in some cases, veering close to extinction.

It’s good to know something about the present, and the story includes a few facts that describe the present — a few, but not the key ones.

How many of the sisters are, let’s say, under 60? How large was this community, let’s say, in the years between 1950 and ’60? What are the statistical trends that describe it’s future? In some cases, 20 would be a solid community. In some cases, 20 would be a dangerously small number in comparison with the past. Which scenario is unfolding here?

As you would expect, the story does deal — a bit — with the impact of the Second Vatican Council.

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Hey Washington Post: There’s only one (gay) Islam? Really?

Anyone who has been paying attention to debates about the future of the Boy Scouts of America knows that, when it comes to issues linked to homosexuality, there is no one “religious” perspective that journalists need to cover. Even within individual religious traditions — such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or the Roman Catholic Church — there are people who read the same texts and come to slightly different, or glaringly different, conclusions.

On the Christian left, for example, there is no one pro-gay theology.

On the Christian right, there is no one monolithic camp that opposes homosexuality to the same degree or for the same reasons.

It helps to see some of this written out in clear English. Thus, for a decade-plus I have recommended a helpful, and rigorously balanced, book by a gay evangelical writer, the Rev. Larry Holben, who is now an Episcopal priest. It’s called “What Christians Think about Homosexuality: Six Representative Viewpoints.” For a quick summary, in the form of two Scripps Howard News Service columns from 2000, click here and then over here.

But I raise this subject for the following reason. The other day, the oh-so-edgy Style folks at The Washington Post served up several thousand words worth of public-relations-grade material about a recent “LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.” This is one of those giant, unavoidable features that is supposed to slap humble readers in the face, starting with the photography and, of course, the symbolic details at the very start:

There was speed dating, a talent show and a baby naming.

But there was also a locked Facebook page. And a strict rule: Attendees should not disclose the retreat’s exact location.

That’s because the 85 people who gathered in the Pennsylvania woods over Memorial Day weekend had come from 19 states and three countries for a somewhat surprising event: a three-day LGBTQ Muslim and Partners Retreat.

Some wore T-shirts that read, “Muslim + Gay = Fabulous.” They prayed. They attended workshops about pioneering progressive Muslims. Ever heard of Isabelle Eberhardt, a.k.a. Mahmoud Saadi, a convert to Islam who challenged gender norms at the turn of the 20th century? And they held discussions on struggling to reconcile their faith with their sexuality, and their sexuality with their faith. (Many folks said that they face Islamophobia from inside the mainstream LGBTQ community.)

Having covered a few off-the-record events myself over the years, I think it would have been best if the Post team members had done what my editors always asked me to do under those conditions — which is to clearly state the precise conditions under which a reporter was allowed into this secret gathering. In this case, all readers were told is this:

This was the third such retreat, and it was sponsored this year by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity, founded in January to address the needs of LGBTQ Muslims. Another sponsor was Muslims for Progressive Values, a Los Angeles-based group formed in 2007 that parallels, to some extent, Unitarian Universalism and Judaism’s reform movement, and which has nine chapters across the country and abroad.

The Washington Post was invited to attend — the first media organization to be given access.

So were some sessions off limits? Were certain participants pre-selected by the organizers to talk to the Post? Did some representatives of the newspaper take part in the conference, as well as cover it? Was the Post, in effect, (I’m thinking about the degree to which The Baltimore Sun has all but cooperated in Womenpriests rites) a participating organization in the event?

The article also makes it very clear that the version of Islam featured in this event is quite different than traditional forms of the faith.

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Why was Vatican mentioned in Womenpriest story?


The editor will be announced in an LA Daily News board meeting. The printing press, symbolizing publishing, will be made out of lollipops. The staff will agree to follow the direction of “our editor and blackjack dealer.”

But the real departure from Los Angeles Times tradition will be evident when Maria Eitz approaches the computer to write her first story.

Does any of that make sense to you? How about this lede to a story that ran in the Los Angeles Times this week?

SAN FRANCISCO — The priest will be ordained in a purple Lutheran church. The Communion bread, symbolizing the body of Christ, will be gluten-free. The congregation will pray to “our mother our father in heaven.”

But the real departure from Roman Catholic tradition will be evident when Maria Eitz approaches the altar Sunday for the laying on of hands that turns parishioner into priest.

So, according to the logic here, you can deny transubstantiation, get ordained in, literally, a Lutheran church (no, not my kind!), and get all gender-weird about God the Father and that’s totally cool and not even a “real” departure from Roman Catholic “tradition?” In what world? Why is Roman Catholic even mentioned here? Seriously?

Also, these aren’t items of tradition, but doctrine. Someone who doesn’t understand the difference between Christian doctrine and Christian tradition has no business writing a story on non-Catholics getting ordained in non-Catholic ceremonies. Period. When editors and reporters are so unfamiliar with Christian doctrine — and tradition — that they produce stories such as this, we all lose.

These stories have been so bad for so long that I’m beginning to wonder if journalists didn’t, like, sign a pact with some agent of journalism darkness to see how much idiocy could be spread under one story topic. It’s just that bad.

Take the headline:

Women becoming priests without Vatican’s blessing
Small numbers of Catholic women are ignoring the ban on female priests and are ordained without the church’s acknowledgment.

The Roman Catholic church is an organization that sets it’s own rules. This headline makes no more sense than saying:

Auto mechanics becoming professors without UCLA’s blessing
Small numbers of auto mechanics are ignoring the rules on who becomes professors and are given tenure without UCLA’s acknowledgement

or

Golfers becoming infielders without Yankees blessing
Small numbers of golfers are ignoring MLB rules and are being named infielders without the Yankees’ acknowledgment

I’m sure you could do better than me at this game.

The story is riddled with errors and weirdness.

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From Reuters: Another by-the-book Womenpriests story

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At this point, it seems that mainstream journalists have decided that the Womenpriests movement deserves a slow-rolling wave of coverage in which (a) it will clear that the women are operating outside the official borders of the Roman Catholic Church, but (b) the viewpoints of movement leaders will be quoted as gospel truth when it comes time to discuss why the nasty male church leaders believe what they believe.

For most reporters, appears that this is now a story in which only one side needs to be approached for in-depth quotes.

Yes, there is also a possibility that Catholic officials have decided to refuse all interview requests. However, I am convinced that if this was the case, journalists would be telling us that (with the standard, “A spokesperson for Archbishop Nasty Male declined comment when asked about the courageous work of the brave women who are willing to listen to the voice of Christ Sophia”).

The other day, I took a look some of the pre-event coverage of the ordination of Rosemarie Smead in Louisville, Ky. Now, Reuters has produced a story on the ordination rite itself that is a five-star classic of the genre.

Let’s walk through the top of this story:

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky (Reuters) – In an emotional ceremony filled with tears and applause, a 70-year-old Kentucky woman was ordained a priest on Saturday as part of a dissident group operating outside of official Roman Catholic Church authority.

Where did this rite take place? In a liberal Protestant Church. Readers have to dig pretty deep into the story to find that out.

Rosemarie Smead is one of about 150 women around the world who have decided not to wait for the Roman Catholic Church to lift its ban on women priests, but to be ordained and start their own congregations.

Another interesting feature of this report: The Reuters team somehow managed to avoid using the actual name of the movement behind the event — Womenpriests. The implication is that these are dissident Catholic churches, not fledgling parishes in a separate movement. This is implied, of course, in the lede with the “operating outside of official Roman Catholic Church authority” language. But why not use the actual name of this schismatic movement?

Later on, readers are told:

The ordination of women as priests, along with the issues of married priests and birth control, represents one of the big divides between U.S. Catholics and the Vatican hierarchy. Seventy percent of U.S. Catholics believe that women should be allowed to be priests, according to a New York Times/CBS News poll earlier this year.

And who are these “American Catholics”? Might they be Catholics on the fringe of the church? The key number, of course, would be the number of PRACTICING American Catholics who are in favor of changing church doctrines on the priesthood. They are out there, but much smaller in number.

Now it is time, as usual, to quote several pieces of paper representing the views of the church establishment:

The former pope, Benedict XVI, reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s ban on women priests and warned that he would not tolerate disobedience by clerics on fundamental teachings. Male priests have been stripped of their holy orders for participating in ordination ceremonies for women.

In a statement last week, Louisville Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz called the planned ceremony by the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests a “simulated ordination” in opposition to Catholic teaching.

“The simulation of a sacrament carries very serious penal sanctions in Church law, and Catholics should not support or participate in Saturday’s event,” Kurtz said.

And what about this church traditions involved in this issue? What does church history say?

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Womenpriests again: The people vs. paper scenario

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Anyone who has ever worked on the religion beat knows the drill.

You are writing a story about a controversial topic, a topic that people in the establishment of a religious body are not anxious to talk about. The rebels, on the left or the right, are anxious to tell their story.They will talk your ear off, as long as you don’t ask them any challenging questions.

Meanwhile, the establishment leaders — on the left or the right — just want the subject to go away. Rather than granting an interview or two, they hand out a printed press release making the usual old arguments against the rebels.

In other words, you end up with a story in which real people get to debate a piece of paper. It is rarely a fair fight.

I think this is what happened in the following Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal story about another ordination in the Womenpriests Movement, but I am not sure about that.

(By the way, the movement’s website spells their name “Womenpriests,” as opposed to “Women Priests” or “WomenPriests.” I keep seeing variations, but, in the future, “Womenpriests” it will be here at GetReligion — unless they change it again.)

The top of this story hits all the familiar points, in a people vs. paper scenario. But here is my question: Did the real Catholic officials refuse to tell their side of the story or did the newspaper’s leaders make a decision to turn this into a people vs. paper scenario? In other words, did the Courier-Journal team refuse to talk to the Catholics, or did the Catholics refuse to talk to the Courier-Journal? More on that later.

But here is the usual personal-voice opening for a Womenpriests story:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Rosemarie Smead sees herself as preparing all her life for the step she’s about to take.

She was brought up a devout Catholic. She lived for a short time as a cloistered nun. She has theology and counseling degrees. She marched for civil rights in Selma, Ala. — then worked with troubled children there for years. She forged a career as an Indiana University Southeast professor, training school counselors.

Now the petite 70-year-old from Bedford, Ky., is preparing for what she freely admits is a flagrant defiance of Roman Catholic law — specifically Canon 1024, which restricts the priesthood to baptized men. …

Smead is scheduled to be ordained by the dissident Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. The service will take place in a Protestant sanctuary.

It will be the first such ordination in Louisville by the decade-old Women Priests group, which has been holding such services around the world.

“It’s illegal, but it’s valid,” said Smead. “In order to challenge this law, we have to break it.”

The story includes other information. Active Catholics support church teachings on this subject, while inactive Catholics want to see women ordained. And the pieces of paper from the local archbishop say what they say. No humans are interviewed on the side of the church.

It is also interesting to note — once again — that the story does not question in any way the apostolic succession of the women bishops, nor does it talk about the role of Old Catholic splinter groups in the history of the Womenpriests ordinations.

Instead, readers are simply told:

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