How does the Catholic Church work? Miami Herald didn't get the memo

"Can't imagine where this piece goes, can you?" a faithful reader says in tipping us about a Miami Herald story. "At least they're clear in the headline."

They sure are. "Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski’s memo draws fire from marriage-equality groups," the headline says. Wenski, like other Catholic bishops, opposes same-sex marriage. So he's against "equality."

The story lede, too, reads like a DUN-dun-DUNNN!

After judges in Florida lifted the state’s ban on same-sex marriage this week, thousands of employees in Miami’s Catholic Archdiocese got a memo from their boss, Archbishop Thomas Wenski, that read as a warning: watch what you do or say, even after work or on social media, or you might lose your job.
Wenski’s note, after a brief reference to court decisions that he said “imposed the redefinition of marriage,” merely quoted from the employee handbook as a reminder to Church workers of longstanding policy: Every archdiocese employee, Catholic or non-Catholic, from ministerial leader to school teacher and custodian, is considered a Church representative and is expected to abide by Catholic teaching, and any conduct “inconsistent” with that can draw disciplinary action, up to termination.

As a frequent freelancer for the Florida Catholic newspaper -- and a former religion writer for the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale -- I was naturally interested in the story. I've known Wenski since he was an earnest young priest ministering to Haitian immigrants in the 1980s. He has always struck me as a John Paul II-type Catholic: tough on doctrine but warm toward people. So the image of a ruthless overlord seemed out of place.

I also note that the story appears on the Herald's "Gay South Florida" page. So I have to ask, as the logo above says: "What is This?" News? Editorial? Commentary? If the former, why wasn’t it in sections A or B of the newspaper? If the latter, why isn't it marked as such?

The Herald portrays Wenski a hardnosed prelate out of step with much of the flock and even some fellow Church leaders. It devotes an amazing six paragraphs to a blog post from the editor of U.S. Catholic magazine against Wenski's memo. It even tries to pit Wenski against a fellow Floridian:

Critics quickly contrasted Wenski’s memo with an op-ed piece in the Tampa Bay Times by his counterpart in the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, Bishop Robert Lynch. While reaffirming church doctrine that marriage is limited to a man and a woman, Lynch’s was a conciliatory message, calling for “respect and sensitivity” in its pastoral approach to same-sex couples.
The apparent contradiction could give Florida Catholics “whiplash,” said Lisbeth Melendez Rivera, director of the Human Rights Campaign’s Latino Catholic initiatives, in a statement that suggested Miami archdiocese employees could get in trouble for posting a congratulatory message on social media to a relative who married a same-sex partner.

Notice how the "contrast" between Lynch and Wenski became an "apparent contradiction" in a single paragraph. Note also how the article quotes only three words directly from Lynch's piece. And it then became fodder for commentary by a gay Latino leader.

The article also damages its own premise -- of a rift between the two bishops -- by quoting an e-mail from Wenski. He doesn't spell out what conduct constitutes a violation, or what kinds of measures he would take on violators; but he says that "any disciplinary action would be carried out with compassion":

“We always try to make any decision in a pastoral light — that is, in terms of an old prayer, we ‘seek not the death of a sinner but rather that the sinner be converted and live,’” he wrote.

So one bishop stresses a compassionate, "pastoral" approach, and the other urges "respect and sensitivity." This is a contradiction?

 Nov. 18, 2012

Archbishop Thomas Wenski waits at the entrance to St. Mary Cathedral to greet ABCD donors prior to the start of the ThanksFORGiving Mass.

Nearly 600 donors to ABCD (ArchBishop's Charities and Development appeal) were thanked personally by Archbishop Thomas Wenski during the first ThanksFORGiving Mass held the weekend before Thanksgiving. Three couples were honored for their work in faith, hope and charity, and a fourth received the archdiocese's highest award, the Primum Regnun Dei.

But most of all, notice the difference in titles: Bishop Robert Lynch versus Archbishop Thomas Wenski. As first among equals in the seven dioceses of Florida, Wenski's words carry more weight than Lynch's.

Again and again, the Herald article reveals problems in grasping the way the Catholic Church works. Like this sentence: "Alessi notes there have been no guidelines on what constitutes a firing offense by the U.S. Catholic hierarchy, leaving those decisions to local authorities."

The writer seems unaware that there is no U.S. Catholic hierarchy -- only an association, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, which meets to discuss common issues. Each bishop rules his own diocese and reports directly to the Vatican. BTW, the Herald didn't call anyone at the USCCB, even after extensively quoting the non-hierarchical Scott Alessi.

And after quoting the Latino director of the Human Rights Campaign, the newspaper might have interviewed a leader in one of the lay movements in the archdiocese. Movements like Caballeros Catolicos (Catholic Men), the Archdiocesan Council of Catholic Women -- or even Courage, the local group of gay Catholics. Their contact info is all on the same archdiocesan webpage.

It's not like the archdiocesan policy took anyone by surprise. Employees have had the handbook at least since 2010, when Wenski became Miami archbishop. Here's a longer excerpt:

"All employees should note that, because of the Church’s particular function in society, certain conduct, inconsistent with the teachings of the Catholic Church, could lead to disciplinary action, including termination, even if it occurs outside the normal working day and outside the strict confines of work performed by the employee for the Archdiocese."

Nor is the requirement some aberrant behavior of the archdiocese. Many companies expect certain behavior of their members. During my years with the Sun Sentinel, if I said or did something to embarrass the newspaper -- on or off the clock -- my editor would have asked me to explain it. And when the newspaper laid me off, I had to agree to "refrain from all conduct, verbal or otherwise, that directly or indirectly denigrates, disparages, damages the reputation, goodwill, or standing or otherwise conveys or causes to be conveyed an unfavorable impression of the Company."

But let's get back to my original question: "What is This?" Why is the Wenski memo being treated as a story mainly for gay readers, rather than the Catholic-interest page? Or perhaps as a general religion story for the religion page?

You may have guessed the answer by now: The Miami Herald doesn't have a Catholic or religion page. In fact, it's cut way back on religion news since 2011, when its last specialist, Jaweed Kaleem, left for the Huffington Post. Now you know why the Herald had trouble figuring out how the Catholic Church works.

Still, phones and websites aren't that hard to work. You would only need some curiosity, persistence and a willingness to cover the whole readership. Well, you'd also need to lack an agenda.

Photo: Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami. Courtesy, Archdiocese of Miami.

Please respect our Commenting Policy