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.

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Lo! A better-than-average Womenpriests story

Your GetReligionistas, as the divine Mrs. MZ once stressed, are way, way, way past the point where we joyfully go out of our way to write about the journalism issues linked to the mainstream media coverage that is, from time to time, poured out on behalf of the Womenpriests movement.

Some readers have been tempted to think that we do not believe that this movement is worthy of coverage. This is nonsense, of course, since GetReligion has been arguing since Day 1 that the mainstream press rarely does enough to cover doctrinal and cultural trends on the Religious Left.

Others have suggested that we only want the Roman Catholic Church’s viewpoint covered on this issue. That’s nonsense, as well. This is a hot-button issue and the press needs to find articulate, informed voices on both sides.

We have, however, argued that journalists have gone too far — often — when they describe the women ordained in these rites as Catholic priests.

The women should be quoted making their case, on this subject, but the historical reality is that the Catholic Church gets to decide who is and who is not a Catholic priest, just as the leaders at The New York Times get to determine who is and who is not a columnist for The New York Times. On one occasion I asked if journalists would call men ordained by the Southern Baptist Convention rabbis simply because the SBC said they were rabbis. President Barack Obama gets to decide who serves on his cabinet, etc., etc.

All of this raises a basic journalistic question: What does accurate coverage of a Womenpriests event look like?

Well, take a look at the following effort from The Toledo Blade, taking it, of course, from the top:

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.

The diocese has released a similar statement in advance of today’s ceremony, reminding that Deacon Bingle is excommunicated and that Ann Klonowski, a woman from the Diocese of Cleveland who will be ordained a deacon at the same ceremony today, will lose her standing in the church.

However, the Reverend Bingle, as she can be called with today’s ordination by Bishop Joan Houck of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, not only will participate in the ceremony; on Sunday, she will start holding weekly services as a priest for the Holy Spirit Catholic Community, a church she’s starting that will meet at Unity of Toledo. …

Now, the one thing that I would challenge in that material is that I think it is proper for journalists to note that the legal name of this movement, of this splinter church that is making its own claims of Catholicity, is “Roman Catholic Womenpriests.” The name confuses the issue, that that’s who whole point, isn’t it?

So what else is right and what else, alas, is wrong in this story?

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I’ve been named a PBS reporter!

This story came to my attention via the great, seemingly omnipresent Rocco Palmo, who tweeted out:

PBS “report” declares Womenpriests as “Catholic priests”: http://to.pbs.org/V2y2BB  On a related note, we’re all PBS reporters.

We’ve seen lesser media outlets decide that various women are “Catholic priests” (in a way that we can only assume they wouldn’t also decide that I’m a Yankees pitcher or the about-to-be inaugurated president of the United States even if groups were calling me such). But PBS? And not just PBS but the usually fantastic Religion & Ethics Newsweekly? Say it ain’t so!

The hard-hitting report begins:

SAUL GONZALEZ, correspondent: At a Los Angeles ceremony, a group of Catholic women is about to commit an act of religious faith, but because they are women it’s an act the Vatican has condemned as a grave crime against the Roman Catholic Church and what the church sees as its divine laws.

“Bishop Olivia and members of the community, I am honored to testify on behalf of Jennifer’s readiness to be ordained to the priesthood.”

GONZALEZ: In a faith that prohibits females from becoming priests, these women are rebels, gathering here this afternoon to ordain this woman, Jennifer O’Malley, as a Catholic priest.

(to Jennifer O’Malley): Do you love the Catholic Church?

JENNIFER O’MALLEY: I do. It’s who I am, so I can’t leave. You know, I’ve gone to other churches and they’re beautiful, but I’m Catholic, and I can’t separate myself from that.

Oh wait, what’s the opposite of hard-hitting?

I would not be entirely surprised if this was run as a press release, rather than a news report. It’s actually even more of an advocacy piece than I’m accustomed to from lesser media outlets. It rivals this Scientology “sponsored content” that ran in The Atlantic. But at least that was marked as sponsored content and not passed off as news.

“Do you love the Catholic Church?”

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