Ordination by media

womenpriests2Here at GetReligion, we're fond of highlighting danger zones where the media struggle to understand religious issues. And we try to help reporters see nuance, or find angles they may not have considered. But sometimes a story is so poorly written and reported that one look at the headline brings forth waves of despair and exasperation. Such was the case with a puff piece by Philadelphia Inquirer writer and editor (for 23 years!) Edward Colimore. The headline? "Female Catholic priest has first Mass."

Colimore writes about a woman who was ordained by a non-Roman Catholic group to become a priest in a non-Roman Catholic church. He quotes only supporters of the woman, including her son. Nobody who frowns on the practice or advocates for the Roman Catholic teaching on female ordination is included in the story. Nobody. He cheerleads her throughout the entire article. He implies, repeatedly, that she is Roman Catholic. Here's how it began:

Eileen DiFranco sang the hymns, prayed and took Communion as she had done at countless other Catholic Masses.

But yesterday, for the first time, she led the service as an ordained priest -- and received a warm reception from hundreds of Catholics and others.

It's hard to pick what to pull out from the story because it is so consistently bad, congratulatory and misleading. He mentions that DiFranco was ordained by a group calling itself Roman Catholic Womenpriests and that dioceses have pronounced such ordinations invalid, but it's cursory. He then goes right back to rah-rahing DiFranco. This was one of my favorite quotes for him to include in a contentious news piece:

DiFranco's son, Ben, 17, who attends La Salle College High School in Wyndmoor, said his mother's service as a priest "is going to be a catalyst for women being ordained in the church."

"A couple of my friends say she is not a priest, that her ordination was not valid," said Ben DiFranco, who assisted his mother at the altar during the Mass. "But I also have friends who are really for it."

Oh, well, I guess if DiFranco's son and his friends are for it then we don't need to talk to anyone else. Good reporting there, Skipper! The thing is that Colimere's readers destroyed his article in a series of questions to him that were posted in an online forum. Kudos to the Inquirer for making such responses possible. Each reader who complained about the article did so in unbelievably cordial terms. And in each case, Colimere flubbed his response, avoided responsibility for his errors and generally didn't get it. Here are two questions, one response:

[Question:] About your story on the woman, claiming to be a Catholic priest, having her first "Mass." I don't want to beat you up; I assume you're trying to be fair in this. But I'd ask you to appreciate that the validity of her ordination is akin to someone, showing up in the United States, claiming to be ambassador from Britain -- only that's not what the Foreign Office in London says. For that matter, it is akin to someone claiming to be a Philadelphia Inquirer reporter; only the Philadelphia Inquirer says otherwise. . . .

[Question:] In your answers above, you say that you make it clear that Mrs. Difranco isn't a Roman Catholic and belongs to a community of 20 people who aren't Roman Catholic and which rents space in a church that is not Roman Catholic. Why is it newsworthy, then, that someone who isn't a Roman Catholic has been part of some sort of service that is not part of the Roman Catholic Church?

[Answer:] Though not Roman Catholic under Vatican authority, the Old Catholic Church of the Beatitudes in Lansdowne conducts itself largely as a Roman Catholic church -- with the same sacraments, liturgy and confession. It also has drawn members/visitors from other Roman Catholic churches and Sunday's Mass was attended by many from a Roman Catholic church in Germantown. The ordination and first Mass -- though not recognized by dioceses across the country -- was of interest to a segment of readers. We reported the event and left it up to people to make their own judgments about its value. As you point out, we indicated that the members of the Church of the Beatitudes rent space in a United Methodist church and held the Mass in another United Methodist church. Readers will make up their own minds about the issues involved.

The questions and answers are all very interesting -- particularly because after writing an article that blatantly diminishes the fact that no Roman Catholic organization was involved in the ordination of the woman, Colimere acts as if he had made that perfectly clear. As if the readers were to blame for not picking up on the facts.

And I also love his line alleging that Roman Catholics and non-Roman Catholics use the same sacraments. I suppose the reporter means that both the Womenpriests and the Roman Catholic church administer Holy Communion and Baptism, etc. But to toss it off as the same sacraments, when Rome obviousy doesn't consider the Womenpriests to be administering valid sacraments, is to be ignorant or to be taking sides in this story, which is not Mr. Colimere's place. Where are the voices for the other side?

This really was a low point for coverage of this issue. I'm not familiar with Colimere, but I hope this isn't normal. The kind way in which his readers tried to correct him makes me think he makes mistakes like these infrequently. Either way, I hope he isn't so quick to dismiss his readers next time they offer such gentle words of wisdom.

It's also worth noting that Inquirer reporter Susan Snyder wrote about the ordination of eight women by the organization. Her reader responses are also interesting.

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