What we have here is a really interesting New York Times story about a significant development among liberal mainline Protestants in Belgium that could end up spreading to other parts of Europe. It seems that, in response to the hellish clergy-abuse scandals in the Catholic church in their land, small circles of Catholics have decided to leave the church and start their own independent Protestant congregations that offer an interesting blend of free-church, egalitarian church government and their own versions of catholic, small "c," liturgies.
The end result sounds like a blend of the United Church of Christ and a liberal Lutheran body, such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It's kind of hard to tell, however, if this new Belgium church has any kind of hierarchy at all. It sounds like a network of free churches.
So what's the problem? Well, you can see the train go off the rails in the opening paragraphs:
BUIZINGEN, Belgium -- Willy Delsaert is a retired railroad employee with dyslexia who practiced intensively before facing the suburban Don Bosco Catholic parish to perform the Sunday Mass rituals he grew up with.
"Who takes this bread and eats," he murmured, cracking a communion wafer with his wife at his side, "declares a desire for a new world."
With those words, Mr. Delsaert, 60, and his fellow parishioners are discreetly pioneering a grass-roots movement that defies centuries of Roman Catholic Church doctrine by worshiping and sharing communion without a priest. Don Bosco is one of about a dozen alternative Catholic churches that have sprouted and grown in the last two years in Dutch-speaking regions of Belgium and the Netherlands. They are an uneasy reaction to a combination of forces: a shortage of priests, the closing of churches, dissatisfaction with Vatican appointments of conservative bishops and, most recently, dismay over cover-ups of sexual abuse by priests.
OK, for starters, I doubt that Delsaert grew up hearing a Mass that included this sentence: "Who takes this bread and eats, declares a desire for a new world." The other problem, of course, is that he is not an ordained Catholic priest and the rite at which he is assisting is not a Catholic Mass. Thus, he may be leading a flock in a Belgium Catholic Church, a new independent body, but it is not part of the Roman Catholic Church.
These believers have every right to form their own congregations and to do whatever they want to do -- as independents (in other words, as Protestants). The Times has every right to report about their activities. Like I said, this is a fascinating, timely and, in a way, truly tragic story. The scandal in Belgium is what it is. I used the word "hellish" for a reason.
The problem, once again, is that the Times is not interested in the actual facts of the story, in terms of doctrine and church history.
The train officially crashes with the following passage.
In the view of Rome, only ordained priests can celebrate Mass or preside over most sacraments like baptisms and marriage. "If there are persons or groups that do not observe these norms, the competent bishops -- who know what really happens -- have to see how to intervene and explain what is in order and out of order if someone belongs to the Catholic Church," the Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, said. ...
"Something is beginning to crack," said the Rev. Gabriel Ringlet, a priest and former vice rector at the Catholic University of Louvain, which is considering dropping the "Catholic" from its name. "I think the Belgian Catholic Church is starting to feel something exceptional for the first time in 40 years. A lot of Catholics are waking up and speaking out."
The key is this phrase -- "In the view of Rome."
You see, the Times has decided that the views expressed by the Vatican and by Pope Benedict XVI are simply one viewpoint in the wider Catholic world. Doctrines that have been in place for 1,000 or 2,000 years are merely optional. Thus saith the Times.
Sorry, but to be a Catholic priest in the ancient Catholic church requires being in Communion with the pope of Rome. That is not a controversial statement. It's a fact of history.
Journalists should cover disputes about the actions of Rome and the debates that result. Journalists should accurately report the views of those who dissent from Rome and, yes, accurately report their claims -- the Womenpriests come to mind -- that they are still Catholics.
However, it's totally bizarre to say that "in the view of Rome" these independent believers are not Catholic priests who are leading Catholic rites.
This is not breaking news, folks. This is like saying that you can have an Eastern Orthodox priest who was not ordained by a bishop who is part of a canonical Eastern Orthodox church, serving under an Eastern Orthodox bishop. This is like saying that a Messianic Christian who calls himself a rabbi is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi simply because he says that he is an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. Would editors at the Times do that?
This is like saying that someone can play for the New York Yankees without the legal permission of the New York Yankees. Or try this: Start your OWN gender-neutral New York Yankees squad and try to show up and play the canonical Red Sox team. Let's see how the Times handles that one.
It's like saying that you can play in the New York Philharmonic without being hired by the hierarchy of that great organization. It's like saying you are an editorial writer at the New York Times without the blessings of the bishops of the Times and getting on their payroll.
"In the view of the Electoral College of the United States of America," radio talk superstar Glen Beck is not the president of the United States. That's true, of course, but what's the point of saying that? Beck is not the president of the United States. That's a fact.
The authority of the Electoral College is not in doubt, in terms of the basic facts of journalism. Ditto for the publisher of the New York Times or the owner of the New York Yankees.
Neither is the ecclesiastical authority of the Vatican, in terms of the basic facts of journalism.
It's great to cover this kind of controversy. It's great to accurately quote both sides. But there is no need for the leadership of the Times to go post-factual on us and drift off into the postmodern mists of journalistic heresy.
PHOTO: St. Rombouts Cathedral, seat of the Catholic hierarchy in Belgium. The headquarters of The New York Times.