How to cover the Womenpriests

Womenpriest ordinationOne of the biggest problems that your GetReligionistas face week after week can be stated this way: We know that many problems on the religion beat would vanish if reporters had more time to write and were given longer story lengths. Trust me, as a columnist who has for 20 years written to a plus-or-minus 10 words assigned length, I know that having room for one or two extra paragraphs of background information would really help.

That's why it's important to note when reporters -- even with short, short stories -- manage to avoid words that are wrong and use words that are as right as possible, given the realities of daily journalism.

So how does that apply to the whole issue of covering the Womenpriests movement and its fight with the Roman Catholic Church?

Once again, here is the kind of inaccurate language that we are trying to avoid, drawn from the Vancouver Sun:

The Roman Catholic Church should change the "unjust, discriminatory" law denying women the right to be priests, says a Catholic group pushing for reform.

Without the church's approval, the Roman Catholic Womenpriests Movement ordained two people, James Lauder of Victoria and Monica Kilburn-Smith of Calgary, as Roman Catholic priests Thursday at St. Aidan's United Church in Victoria.

Note again, that this is a "Catholic" group and that the women are becoming "Roman Catholic priests," although "without the church's approval." Enough said.

Is there any other way to write this story, one that is accurate to people on both sides? Consider this language, used by veteran Godbeat scribe Ann Rodgers of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

In a decree intended to close loopholes in canon law, the Vatican has said that any attempt to ordain a woman will bring automatic excommunications that can be lifted only by Rome.

It is aimed at a number of rituals worldwide, including one in Pittsburgh in 2006, that claim to have ordained women as Catholic priests. Experts say that because canon law is designed to be flexible and to favor the accused, and because no law previously dealt explicitly with penalties for attempting to ordain a woman, this decree is intended to eliminate all wiggle room.

It was signed by Cardinal William Levada of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

"Remaining firm on what has been established by ... canon law, both the one who has attempted to confer holy orders on a woman, and the woman who has attempted to receive the said sacrament, incur latae sententiae [automatic] excommunication, reserved to the Apostolic See," it said.

Now, was that so hard? This language takes seriously the movement's claim that it is doing what the Vatican says it cannot do. It does not state, as a given, that the action has been successful -- since that would require settling the theological issue.

Short, punchy news writing does require -- repeat, require -- reporters to write paragraphs that make them want to pound their heads on a marble sanctuary wall. Consider what a veteran, highly informed reporter like Rodgers must have felt like after writing this:

The Catholic Church teaches that only males can be ordained because Jesus chose only male apostles. Advocates for women's ordination cite a reference to a female apostle named Junia in the New Testament.

Oh there is so, so much more to it than that and, if you follow the national religion-writing scene, you know that Rodgers knows it. But, there is nothing in that paragraph that is wrong.

That's the rule: First, do no harm.

Please respect our Commenting Policy