Your friends here at GetReligion are not big on reading the tabloids, but we have received a few notes from people asking what we think of the tabloid-esque coverage of Father Alberto Cutie, the famous "Father Oprah" of television and South Beach. Clearly some newsrooms cannot help themselves, when it comes to the man who is the sexy priest. I mean, this story finally made it to the New York Times, which is rarely called a tabloid.
However, the surprise to me is that some reporters have handled this like pros and have searched for the issue inside the racy story. And what is that issue? Clearly it is that Cutie's fall has left some conservative Catholics, especially Hispanics, wondering about the mandatory celibacy rule. Some of them are wondering out loud.
But first, a round of applause for the Miami Herald for getting a simple fact right, a simple fact that Godbeat veteran Richard Ostling often cites as one of the most annoying errors that he keeps seeing make it into print. And what is that mistake? As Ostling told me, when I was reporting my chapter in "Blind Spot":
Journalists often report that Rome does not ordain married men.
"Now it would be accurate," said 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."
Thus, the Herald team -- which is all over this story, naturally -- slips in this quick reference:
With few exceptions, Catholic priests are celibate, which means they don't marry, and refrain from sex. The Roman Catholic church has left the policy virtually unchanged for the past 900 years, saying it allows for a dedication to God and the church without distraction.
And there you have the heart of this story. According to the Herald, and others, the fall of this celebrity priest is underlining the degree to which Catholics feel conflicted about the celibacy rule. In other words, why are the majority of priests required to be celibate, while a few Catholic priests are not? If and when conservative Catholics -- pounded by years of scandals about sexuality and the priesthood -- start saying this, you have a story.
The latest is that Cutie has gone on television (click here for the CBS coverage) and, in English, said very simply: "I'm not sure what I'll do next." Keep trying that link, because it has been running really slow all day.
Meanwhile, the newspaper has asked local Catholics what they think and I was able to open that report:
Despite declaring he is not ashamed of being with the woman he loves, the Rev. Alberto Cutie remains highly popular among Miami-Dade Catholics, who overwhelmingly oppose the church's long-standing policy of requiring a celibate clergy, a poll conducted for The Miami Herald over the weekend has found.
Among the poll's findings: A substantial majority -- 74 percent -- of those surveyed, including Hispanics and non-Hispanics, oppose the Roman Catholic Church's prohibition of priests marrying or having any type of sexual relations. Only 22 percent said they supported the prohibition, while 4 percent said they were unsure or gave no answer.
That majority was even larger -- 81 percent -- when those polled were asked whether they thought priests and nuns should be able to marry because the "celibacy requirement for Catholic clergy is antiquated and no longer viable.''
Number the Washington Post among the other newspapers that have spotted the celibacy issue in this tabloid feast. Here's a recent lede by godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein:
His audience is reportedly in the tens of millions. His relationship advice in his books, TV and radio shows has spurred the nickname "Father Oprah." Hispanic Catholics and believers across Latin America follow the handsome priest whose parish is the Miami beachfront. But will the Rev. Alberto Cutie actually shift the centuries-old debate on celibacy?
The Post adds:
The apparent public support for Cutie mirrors polling on celibacy and the priesthood. A Washington Post-ABC News poll last year found that 36 percent of Catholics favored the church's policy, while 60 percent opposed it. Peruvian author and television host Jaime Bayly told 24 Horas Libre that there is nothing "immoral or perverted" about being a young man "healthy with desires. He is perfectly capable of loving and serving God, and loving a woman."
However, once again the coverage suffers from a common problem -- assuming that there is one unified body of people out there in the pews that can be called "the Catholics."
There are all kinds of follow-up questions that have to be asked by these pollsters if they want to chart any sign of movement on this issue. At the very least, they have to separate Anglo and Hispanics. Then they need to separate frequent Mass attenders from people on the far edges of the flock.
They also have to realize -- look at that Herald question in particular, which pasted together two radically different issues when it asked "Catholics" about their views on the "prohibition of priests marrying" or "having any type of sexual relations." The latter is a much bigger issue than the former, in terms of ancient traditions and doctrines.
Stay tuned. Hopefully the Herald site will be running smoothly again soon.