We have covered more than a few of the mainstream media stories declaring that female priests are being ordained in the Roman Catholic Church. Since the Roman Catholic Church doesn't ordain females, we usually have a few nits to pick with the coverage. Earlier this month, Graeme Morton began a story for the Calgary Herald, horribly headlined "Calgary woman becoming priest: Campaign for reform feels 'prophetic'," this way:
On May 29, Monica Kilburn Smith of Calgary will be welcomed into the small worldwide community of female Roman Catholic priests.
Her ordination ceremony will take place in a United Church in Victoria and, of course, will not be recognized by the global Roman Catholic Church. However, Kilburn Smith and local supporters of major reform within the world's largest Christian church say it will be one more small step in a campaign to bring up questions, start discussion, open eyes and, eventually, win hearts.
"Many Catholics, both women and men, have been working for change within the church for centuries," says Kilburn Smith, a chaplain with the Calgary Health Region.
"But the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement is doing something tangible about it. It seems prophetic and courageous, something I feel called to be a part of."
The first ordinations of Catholic women as priests were held in 2002 in Europe. More than 50 women, including two other Canadians, have taken the bold step since then.
The lengthy article continues in such uncritical fashion. It does mention that "some women" who have been ordained priests have been excommunicated. But it doesn't manage to quote anyone explaining why the church does not ordain females. Instead, readers learn about "gender apartheid" The article gives readers the impression that these "bold" women are reforming the church and that the change is inevitable.
Perhaps the story wouldn't have been so laughably bad -- as these female priest stories so frequently are -- if the reporter had managed to consult Catholic doctrine or someone familiar with the same.
In fact, it was only this week that the Vatican restated a decree that people who are involved with illicit ordinations are excommunicated by their actions. Coverage thus far leaves a bit to be desired. For instance, the first Associated Press story I read, published on the Fox News and Washington Post sites and also in the New York Daily News reads:
The Vatican is slamming the door on attempts by women to become priests in the Roman Catholic Church.
It has strongly reiterated in a decree that anyone involved in ordination ceremonies is automatically excommunicated.
Is the door being slammed? Or was the doorway never even built? The metaphor is horribly inapt and misleading. A later Associated Press story by Victor Simpson was much better and had a much more interesting beginning. This CNN story, headlined "Vatican sends threat over women priests" was weak:
The Vatican announced Thursday in a general decree that it will excommunicate anyone who would attempt to ordain a woman as a priest and the woman herself.
According to the decree, the excommunications would take place with immediate effect.
The problem with these ledes is that they act like the decree is something altogether new. In fact, the decree was a reiteration -- and a clearer statement -- of long-held doctrine. The best article I saw on the matter was by Reuters' Phil Stewart. The headline -- "Vatican says will excommunicate women priests" -- suffers from the same problem I just mentioned. But the story gets the facts down quite well:
The Vatican issued its most explicit decree so far against the ordination of women priests on Thursday, punishing them and the bishops who try to ordain them with automatic excommunication. . . .
A Vatican spokesman said the decree made the Church's existing ban on women priests more explicit by clarifying that excommunication would follow all such ordinations.
Excommunication forbids those affected from receiving the sacraments or sharing in acts of public worship.
The article puts the decree in context and summarizes the theological arguments of the church. The article even digs down into different types of excommunication to explain how the renegade priests and bishops essentially excommunicate themselves:
Excommunication is usually "ferendae sententiae", imposed as punishment.
But some offences, including heresy, schism, and laying violent hands on the Pope, are considered so disruptive of ecclesiastical life that they trigger automatic excommunication, or "latae sententiae".
The decree says that women priests and the bishops who ordain them would be excommunicated "latae sententiae".
If only we could so easily excommunicate journalists who report this issue sloppily!