It's just three little paragraphs in today's Independent under the headline "Women May Join Papal Swiss Guard," but it contains so many mistakes, both when it comes to religion and when it comes to journalism. The problems begin with the very first words:
Women may be as far as ever from gaining the right to become priests or even altar girls in the Catholic Church, but the Vatican's gates creaked open a chink this week when the new head of the Pontifical Swiss Guard said that female soldiers could join its ranks.
True, women cannot serve as Catholic priests but, as our reader Hugo Mendez points out, altar girls have been allowed since 1994. The reporter for the Independent could have checked his newspaper's own files to learn of the Vatican ruling that year. If not, he could have just asked any church-going Catholic girl. To her, altar girls are just part of life.
The journalistic error was using an ambiguous phrase like "female soldiers could join." That can be read as either "they now have permission to" or "someday they might be allowed to."
If you read on, you'll find it is the latter. In fact, the whole story hinges on this quote from the commander of the guards: "It could be possible. I can imagine them having one role or another."
In other words, there's nothing here but speculation.
It is also curious why anyone would associate the Swiss Guard, who have a ceremonial function in Vatican City, with the liturgical function of serving at the altar. But then it was just three little graphs in the Independent, and I've already written double that number, so I will end.