A priest by any other name?

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at a particularly bad story about Roman Catholic Womenpriests broadcast on NPR. The story was an absolute train wreck, written by someone who clearly was a fan of the Womenpriests but theologically illiterate about how ordination and excommunication work. Here was how it was teased on NPR.com:

Female Priests Defy Catholic Church At The Altar

Four more women were recently ordained as priests in the Catholic Church, risking excommunication.

When a story revolves completely around a disputed claim, it's good to at least mention those competing claims, much more how standing each side has. For instance, the Catholic Church might have something to say about what it means to be a priest in the Catholic Church. And yet nowhere in the entire story was an official within the actual Roman Catholic Church quoted. Great, great journalism, there.

Anyway, NPR has a new ombudsman named Edward Schumacher-Matos who says that many readers were upset with this story. This is not surprising. But he completely underestimates the significance of the problems with the story. He boils it all down to a few readers being upset that priests were called priests.

It's a thorny question that has divided many Christian denominations since they began -- who can be called a priest?

Um, first off, however thorny the question may be, this is not really a question that has divided Christian denominations, much less since they began. He provides no substantiation for the claim so I'm not entirely sure what he was thinking there. Anyway, we're then told that "Producer Lily Percy shared the story of four women who were ordained as Catholic priests in a Maryland church. Percy explained why the four Maryland women deliberately broke church laws, and she still decided to call the women 'priests' in her piece."

I mean, I don't even know how many of these women were even Catholic before this ordination ceremony, but on what grounds do we say that they were ordained as Catholic priests?

I'm much more interested in why we call them Catholic then why we call them priests. There are plenty of female priests throughout the world. Whether to call them that when their church bodies do is not a very interesting question. But whether to call people Catholic when the Catholic Church doesn't consider them to be such? I'd love to see the journalistic defense of that.

Percy was asked why she identified the group as she did and here's what she said:

"The Roman Catholic Women Priests identify themselves as Roman Catholics and as priests and as I was telling their story in the piece, I addressed them as such. Although the Vatican has said that any woman who tries to be ordained or any bishops who ordain women would be excommunicated, as of today, no member of the Roman Catholic Women Priests has personally and officially been excommunicated by the Catholic Church."

And this, my friends, is a great example of when to use Google. Had this reporter, I don't know, talked to a single Catholic or Googled how excommunication works, she wouldn't have made this embarrassing error.

The ombudsman asked readers what they thought and many responded. Here are a few of the responses:

Kevin Grierson (kgrierson) wrote:

This is about as poorly researched a piece as I've seen on NPR, and unlike others here, I think pretty highly of their reporting.

First of all, the Catholic church announced in 2008 that any woman who receives ordination excommunicates herself without further action by the church. No formal notification of excommunication is required. See Catholic News Agency (and gosh, that took me a whole 20 seconds to find online). These women are not Catholic priests, nor, sadly, are they members of the Catholic church.

I actually believe that the church should ordain women; however, it has chosen not to do so, as is its right. The fact that these women hold themselves out as Catholic priests does not mean that they are, in fact, Catholic priests.

From a legal perspective, just because someone goes through a ceremony does not mean that they get to hold a title conveyed by that ceremony if they are not eligible. Say I want to marry my sister. We go before a reverend authorized to perform marriages and say our vows. Are we married? No, the law says such marriages are void. Similarly, these women aren't priests no matter what they call themselves.

K Dondero (KDond) wrote:

You are really going to have a hard time as an ombudsman if you can't recognize bad journalism from the get go. If I decide to declare my residence as "England" & myself as the "Queen", is NPR going to recognize that? Those women excommunicated themselves under "latae sententiae". This does not require a formal act by the Catholic Church. Please do not play dumb & act as though this reporter researched anything.

Greg Keeler (GKeeler) wrote:

Is it NPR's role to support dissident women in the Catholic church? Or is it to report their actions? Accurate reporting would be something like "women who, after an ordination ceremony, claim the title of priest in the Roman Catholic church, despite invoking excommunication by doing so." ...

Now, NPR's reporter may not respect the officially stated rules of the Catholic Church, but that doesn't mean those rules do not exist. They're easy to Google, as other posters have demonstrated. I'm not Catholic, but I don't find it helpful as a listener if NPR muddies the waters by applying a title the women do not actually possess; the church gets to decide such a thing, not NPR. Just like my Presidential candidacy and the laws of the US.

David Holmes (flyfishguy) wrote:

While not a Catholic, it seems somehow wrong to me to refer to someone as a "priest" if they have not been officially appointed as one by the church to which they belong and where the church does not officially recognize them as such.

After all, if I claimed that I was a bishop or cardinal of the Church, and wasn't recognized as such, would NPR refer to me as Bishop David?

Perhaps the more neutral way of handling it would be note that these women act as ministers (if that's the case) and make it clear that the Church has not awarded them any official position.

Well there we go. This is not a difficult issue. There is no need to take sides when covering the story of four women who claim that they have been ordained priests in the Catholic Church. But to ignore reality is not the mark of a good journalist.

And I admit, I'm a bit worried that the ombudsman was so completely unaware of what, exactly, the problems with the piece were. Former NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard just left so we'll give Mr. Schumacher-Matos some time to get up to speed.

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