In many ways, I'm pleased by the way that religion journalism has improved over the years, even with large cuts in newsrooms and other pressures. But if there's one example of how religion journalism has not improved -- indeed, gotten worse -- it would have to be the way that the Roman Catholic WomenPriests stories are covered.
I believe I may have made a public proclamation that I will never cover another one of these stories. There have been so many, and they're hardly ever even halfway decent, and how many times can you say that? But now that this story has been sent in by everyone and their mother, I have to take a look. "This is an article where the Indy Star failed at covering the Catholic teaching of the priesthood," said one reader. "Ripe for your fisking: One of the most misguided Womynpriest stories I've ever read," said another. "You've gotta love this ... Not a single question about what constitutes 'ordination' or the validity of sacraments administered by this woman," said another.
Could it really be that bad? Well, to judge from the headline, yes:
Indy resident is first woman in Indiana to be ordained a Catholic priest A wife and former nun, she disobeys the church in hopes of changing it
Now, it's clear the copywriters intend to give the impression that a woman was ordained into the Roman Catholic Church. If it were some Catholic but not Roman Catholic Church that ordains women, we wouldn't have the subhed about how she's disobeying the church. Were any woman to be ordained into the Catholic church, that would be huge news. It's not even a possibility in the church, as we know, so it would be huge news. Did the Indianapolis Star stumble upon the biggest religion news story of the year?
Let's get the details. The story literally begins with something about anonymous but armed police officers stationed outside the sanctuary in case of a protest. Needless to say, a protest didn't happen. Why didn't a protest happen if a woman was being ordained into the Catholic Church? Wouldn't, like, all the Catholics in a tri-state area be there with pitchforks and stuff? Oh, what's that you say? You say she was ordained at a Unitarian Universalist Church and that Catholics care about this ordination about as much as they care about any other ordination in a UU church? Well, then, why did the story lead with that alarming anecdote about armed police officers? You don't know? I don't know either.
Okay, the name of the woman who is not Roman Catholic who was ordained is Maria Thornton McClain. Here's the point of the story:
The Roman Catholic Church does not recognize the ordination of women, but more and more women are answering the call as part of a reform movement.
On Sunday, McClain, 71, a former East Coast resident, aunt to several nieces and nephews, and wife of 31 years to Ed McClain, became Indiana's first woman to be ordained into the Catholic priesthood.
Baptized a Roman Catholic, McClain, a former nun, moved to Indianapolis in 1977 to become director of religious education at St. Pius X parish. She was ordained as a deacon last year and began preparing for the priesthood.
So to answer the question above, yes, this story is precisely as bad as everyone suggested. It completely fails to explain the office of the priesthood and there is no explanation of what constitutes "ordination" in the Catholic Church we're being told just ordained someone. The story is a mess. We do learn that the "event went off without disturbance" (you don't say!).
My favorite part is where the reporter says that Vatican II addressed relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the modern world but that earlier this month, Benedict "restated the church's ban on female priests." But?
We're told, definitively, that McClain "becomes one of more than 100 Catholic women around the world ordained as a priest." McClain herself is the source who explains to the reporter that "According to the Roman Catholic Church, we excommunicate ourselves through ordination." So at least that perspective was included in the story. In the last line.
So congratulations, Indy Star! In a hotly contested field of awful stories about Roman Catholic Womenpriests, you have managed to publish something particularly bad.
Perhaps related, I noticed that the editor of the paper wrote a column responding to the study on religion coverage, basically saying "yeah, we haven't done a lot on religion but we'll think about it." But then, separately, he announced his retirement. So I've decided to take his position. I talked to some people (OK, my mom and my girlfriends) and they have granted me the job. I start June 1. You can read all about it in tomorrow's paper!