Where do we begin, when it comes to talking about the recent flurry of news reports about the Roman Catholic Church and the proposed -- repeat, proposed -- "ban" on the ordination of homosexual priests? We are still at the trial balloon stage. But if we want to talk about this as a journalistic subject, which is the purpose of this blog, we should probably start with (cue: drum roll) Andrew Sullivan. No, we don't need to talk about his views of Catholic theology of sexuality. No, Sullivan recently launched into another topic that actually hits closer to home for journalists. Take it away Andrew (this gets long, but the content is crucial):
Money quote from a new piece in the Catholic newspaper, the Tablet: "Most gay priests, like myself, have been prevented from speaking about our own experiences, and sharing with our parishioners our rewarding lives as celibate men. Most have been formally silenced by bishops or religious superiors on the topic, so the Church can deny our existence. (That is the reason for my pseudonym: I would much prefer to write under my own name.) And many who have not been formally silenced fear reprisals from their bishops and some parishioners. As a result, the only public model of the 'gay priest' is the notorious paedophile.
To which Sullivan responds:
There is a solution to this. It's called courage. I am actually tired of hearing from all these gay priests who refuse to use their names and give blind quotes to the press. Memo to them: your silence is empowering Benedict and the forces of bigotry. You have a choice now: come out to your congregations, explain your lives, stand up for yourselves and the pope, or continue to be scapegoated, exiled, punished. . . . Don't quit; come out and fight; force the bishops to fire you in the daylight of the press and the people. If all gay priests did that, up to a third of the clergy could call the Vatican's bluff. The time for hoping this will blow away or that somehow you can avoid facing it is over. And your time has come.
The journalism hook in this is obvious.
In the wake of recent scandals -- in the priesthood of the newsroom, not the church -- all kinds of journalistic bishops have been confessing the sins of their institutions and promising to do better in the future. The New York Times is merely one such Principality and Power. Part of this journalistic "crisis of faith" is a commitment to avoiding, whenever possible, anonymous sources.
Sullivan is right. This is a story in which more of the Roman Catholics who want to overturn the teachings of their church on sexuality need to step forward and be quoted. We are already seeing waves of MSM stories that are built on anonymous quotes. The logic is natural. These men cannot speak without being punished. If we quote them on the record, we will be hurting their cause. Thus? What do you do?
The result, in a Chicago Sun-Times piece, sounds like this:
"Flying in the face of reality and scientific evidence, rather than dealing with the real issue of psychic immaturity in priests who are either gay or straight -- which is clearly the problem for pedophiles . . . -- they are going on a witch hunt to get rid of all the gays," said the priest, who requested anonymity. "It would be funny if it weren't so sad.
"Why stop at seminaries? Why not deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops and cardinals? Are they going to be asked if they are homosexuals and if they are, be forced to resign their positions?" he said. "If that happens, there will be many empty offices, many empty parishes and many empty sees."
Once this game has started, the National Review Online folks can turn to anonymous sources and print something that sounds like this:
I was in the seminary from 1984-87 and can personally attest that the homosexual problem was huge. Conservatively, I would estimate that at least half the seminary was homosexual. The problem with this is that seminaries get a reputation as centers of homosexuality and the priesthood becomes known as a homosexual profession. Who wants to be associated with that?
Another problem comes with the simple temptation of homosexuals living exclusively with other men. This is comparable to a straight seminarian living with Sports Illustrated swimsuit models. You can imagine the scandal and temptation that would lead to. Once that gay undercurrent starts, it's virtually impossible to control it and gay and straight cliques form amongst the students and faculty. (Trust me, I've seen them.)
But we all know that this battle will, for the American Catholic elites, be fought out at the level of the New York Times news and editorial pages.
The Catholic establishment in North America is, in many ways, a very conventional oldine progressive church. There are many men and women there who fiercely oppose Catholicism's ancient doctrines on sexual morality and want to see them modernized. They teach in seminaries and universities and hold jobs in church bureaucracies and ecclesiastical offices both local and national. This is true in all of the mainline religious groups, as anyone who can read a newspaper knows.
But the Times is supposed to be cutting down on anonymous sources. Right? But how do you quote the Catholic left on this story without giving these men and women the safety of anonymous-source status? If they speak up, they will be quoted on the record in Rome as well as in newspapers and broadcasts.
It is early in this story, but a crucial piece so far was Laurie Goodstein's recent "Gay Men Ponder Impact of Proposal by Vatican." The gay men, of course, are seminarians and priests. Thus, the story opens:
Word that the Vatican is likely to issue instructions soon that could bar most gay men from joining the priesthood has set off a wave of anger and sadness among some gay priests and seminarians who say they may soon have to decide whether to stay or leave, to remain silent or to speak out.
"I do think about leaving," said a 30-year old Franciscan seminary student. "It's hard to live a duplicitous life, and for me it's hard not to speak out against injustice. And that's what this is."
In telephone interviews . . . with gay priests and seminarians in different parts of the country, all were adamant that their names not be used because they feared repercussions from their bishops or church superiors.
I have many questions about this situation, even though I understand the logic.
Stop and think about this for a moment. Where do these anonymous sources come from? What groups and causes do they represent? Would conservatives making anonymous claims be treated by elite MSM reporters in the same manner? Is it fair to allow one side in such a hot debate to remain cloaked, while the other is defending its views in a harsh spotlight?
Or how about this question: Does the Vatican have a right to attempt to ordain men who actually believe the teachings of the church? This leads to another question, which I am sure we will continue to see journalists ask (and they should): Is the proposed Vatican policy an effective way to attempt to screen out men who do not believe the teachings of the church?
Stay tuned. There are, I think, many more trial balloons ahead.