CBS discovers the Catholic priest shortage

I am reaching back a bit into my guilt file — stories I want to cover but for one reason or another have not touched. But the recent flurry of news stories about women priests and the Catholic clergy shortage led me to pull this item out of my bag.

The CBS Evening News reported earlier this year that there is a shortage of Roman Catholic priests in the United States. This may be news to some, I suppose, but the story has been getting a bit long in the tooth. However, the news “hook” CBS used in its segment was that the church was using Anglicans to plug the gap — hence the title: “Catholic Church turns to Anglicans to fill U.S. priest shortage.”

Yes, there is a shortage of Catholic priests in the United States.

No, the shortfall is not being met by using Anglicans.

Catholic dioceses in the U.S. and Europe are importing priests from India, Africa and Asia to meet pressing pastoral needs — this story has been told hundreds of times over the past few years in the secular press. A recent example of such stories is this well written piece in Der Spiegel reporting on an Indian priest’s acculturation to Germany.

The article begins with a recitation of the problem, profiling a Milwaukee priest who has the pastoral charge of seven congregations.

Sunday is anything but a day of rest for Father Tim Kitzke. On the Sunday we followed him, the priest said Mass at three different Milwaukee churches, held a luncheon for dozens of parishioners and baptized a baby. Kitzke and one other priest are in charge of seven churches in the Milwaukee Archdiocese. There used to be a time when 14 priests covered the seven churches. “It’s not only — maybe not the old model … but it’s the old reality,” he says.

The number of Roman Catholic priests in the United States has steadily dropped from nearly 59,000 in 1975 to just under 39,000 last year. But the number of Catholics in the United States has increased by 17 million. Asked if he worries, Kitzke says, “Definitely, yes, we obviously need more priests — that goes without saying, we need more vocations.”

The segment offers facts and figures on the priest shortage and then transitions to a former Episcopal priest who joined the Catholic Church and has since been ordained a Catholic priest.

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So this renegade Polish priest and an Episcopal bishop walk into a bar …

OK, not really. But you know how we’re always going on about stories that make people not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church seem like they are, in fact, affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church? Well, here’s a great example of a religion journalist doing it right. Here’s the very top of St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend explaining part of a complicated scenario:

It has stood up to three Catholic bishops. It has weathered a decade-long legal storm. It has embraced doctrine far afield from its Roman roots.

Now St. Stanislaus Kostka Church is on the verge of aligning with a different denomination entirely, joining forces with the Episcopal church.

Awesome, right? The piece is chock full of good information, including doctrinal issues and the technicalities of a possible change. We learn that the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri has announced the possibile union and what it would mean for the historically Polish church (they’d get to keep their own rites and identity or choose to use Episcopal liturgies).

We get the background on where things stand on the near-interminable legal battle between St. Stanislaus and the St. Louis Archdiocese. The latter had appealed a 2012 decision that granted St. Stanislaus control to its own lay board, but later dismissed the appeal. Here’s how the tricky issue of affiliation is handled:

As part of the agreement, St. Stanislaus agreed to abstain from representing itself as affiliated with the Roman Catholic church. In the eyes of the Vatican, the church lost that affiliation in 2005, as part of a battle with then-St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke.

The Rev. Marek Bozek, the former Roman Catholic priest who has led St. Stanislaus since parishioners hired him in 2005, in violation of Roman Catholic canon law, was unavailable for comment Tuesday.

But in a “September Reflection” letter posted on the parish’s website, he makes reference to the issue — posting a photo of Smith’s visit last month to the church to meet with parishioners.

Bozek said the church has lacked that kind of authority, and has been “struggling to survive without a bishop for over nine years.”

“One cannot be a Catholic without having a bishop,” he continued, citing a description of a bishop’s ministry in the “Book of Common Prayer.” “It is my hope that by the time this process is completed, we, St. Stanislaus Parish, will have a caring and wise bishop and that we will be a part of a diocese.”

I also like how we learn about St. Stanislaus’ need for a bishop, although it would be nice to know the particulars of why one is necessary. We then hear from parishioners about their mixed feelings about such a move (and that the Episcopal Church is just one of the contenders for affiliation).

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Invincible ignorance on the Anglican Ordinariate

In this age of citizen journalism, blogger news, free content and PR driven stories there still remains a place for professional religion writers — reporters who know the topic they are covering and understand the rules of the journalistic craft.

This story from the Huffington Post highlights the journalistic shortcomings of the new media. Entitled: “Catholic Church, Facing U.S. Priest Shortage, Now Using Anglican Converts To Serve Parishes” begins with a false assumption that distorts the story, while missing the real news taking place.

The article begins:

Facing a priest shortage, the Catholic Church in the United States has started turning to former Anglican leaders to fill empty parishes.

The number of Roman Catholic priests in the U.S. has dropped by about 20,000 since 1975, while the number of Catholics has increased by 17 million, CBS reports.

The shortage was stretching thin the abilities of Catholic priests, and the Catholic Church was “supersizing” as it tried to accommodate more Catholics at a dwindling number of parishes, according to a 2011 study by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate for the Emerging Models of Pastoral Leadership project.

Allowing converted Anglican priests to join the church was seen as a way to solve this shortage problem.

If the first and fourth sentences of this story are true, this is a major scoop for the Huffington Post as the assertion the Anglican Ordinariate is a scheme to replenish the ranks of the clergy has been hotly denied by the Vatican. The reasons given by Pope Benedict for creating the Ordinariate, to create a home for former Anglicans within the Roman Catholic Church while preserving liturgical patrimony, have never included clergy recruitment. If this were the true reason, it would paint Pope Benedict as being disingenuous — what the British press would call being “not entirely straightforward”—e.g., a flaming liar.

And the evidence of this presented by the Huffington Post– the killer quote that blows this tory wide open — there is none.  The Huffington Post makes an assumption and treats it as fact. The remainder of the article collects an assortment of quotes and statements from other newspapers but offers nothing else.

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The Magic Circle and the Soho masses

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The line between criticism and carping is not always clear. A story may appear to be well written, well sourced, balanced and complete to a casual reader. The same story, however, may appear naive, incomplete or wrongheaded to someone who has knowledge or opinions on the issues.

An article in Wednesday’s Guardian entitled “Gay mass services in Soho abolished by archbishop of Westminster” illustrates this problem. Taken on its own terms, this article is very good. However, to those who have been following the Soho masses controversy in the Catholic Church in England, this story prompts a “yes, but …” reaction, as it is written in the belief that the Roman Catholic Church is a unitary structure with a common doctrine.

While that may be true on paper, that is far from true in practice. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales (BCEW) does not and has not shared the same views on social and moral issues as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. For those unencumbered with a knowledge of English ecclesiastical intrigue, the Catholic Church may appear a monolith — it isn’t. But is it fair to critique an article in a general interest newspaper for not telling the story to the satisfaction of those in the know?

The lede to this story begins:

The Archbishop of Westminster, head of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, has ordered that special fortnightly “Soho masses” for gay and lesbian churchgoers in central London are not appropriate and are to be axed.

The services, intended to be particularly welcoming to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered Catholics, had been held at Our Lady of the Assumption church in the West End for six years with the blessing of senior clergy but had attracted criticism from traditionalists.

The story then moves to analysis, noting this will be seen as a victory for “traditionalists” within the church. And the curtailment of the Soho masses comes as the church battles the coalition government over its plans to introduce gay marriage in England and Wales.

The article gives a clear summary of the announcement made by Archbishop Vincent Nichols, reporting “the archbishop is said to believe that the pastoral care of the lesbian and gay church community should now be uncoupled from the sacrament of Mass, and that the [gay] community should not be singled out to have ‘special’ masses.”

The Catholic Church will continue to offer “pastoral care” to gays and lesbians “on Sunday evenings at Farm Street Church of the Immaculate Conception in Mayfair.” And in an interesting twist, the church that hosted the Soho masses will be turned over to the use of the “Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the body set up by Rome to cater for those who have defected from the Church of England to the Catholic church.”

The article notes the existence of the Soho masses had angered traditionalists who saw the services as a challenge to the church’s teaching on human sexuality, and then cites extracts from the archbishop’s letter that re-iterates the church’s teaching on these issues. The story closes with quotes from two conservative Catholic critics of the Soho masses, who welcome the news.

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