Oh dear. Just as the rumors about Newsweek are becoming more positive, the news product offered by Time is suffering. Last week we looked at a very poor piece of journalism about female priests in non-Roman Catholic churches. And we looked at the odd defense offered by the reporter. Many journalists -- some on the record, some in private correspondence with us here at GetReligion -- wondered just how this story made it to publication.
Here's the predictable lede in Tim Padgett's story:
Like any good priest, Judy Lee knows how to use a Bible story. One of the readings for Roman Catholic Masses on a recent Sunday, from the Book of Wisdom, recounts how the Hebrews defied the pharaoh by worshipping God "in secret." That passage resonates at the house in Fort Myers, Fla., where Lee is conducting Mass for 25 Catholics gathered in front of a coffee-table altar in defiance of the Pope. "Rome says you'll be thrown out of the church for being here," says Lee, "because I'm a woman."
Lee, 67, considers herself a validly ordained Catholic priest. The Vatican disagrees. "The Catholic Church ... has no authority to confer priestly ordination on women" because Jesus had no female Apostles, Lee was told in a letter from the local bishop, the Rev. Frank Dewane — who also informed her that she had been excommunicated for ignoring that doctrine. Lee's reply: "Rome can impose all the rules it wants on women, divorced people, gay people. But it can't stop us." (See the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.)
She and the more than 100 other women who claim to be Catholic priests in the U.S. and abroad can thank the church for one thing: its hysterical response to their movement -- in July the Vatican branded female ordination a delictum gravius, or grave crime, the same label it has given pedophilia -- has elicited enough attention to lift their profile out of the catacombs. As TV-news trucks waited outside, Nancy Corran, 37, took holy orders on July 31 at the Mary Magdalene Apostle Catholic Community, a five-year-old San Diego splinter parish with 150 members. Rome's latest decree, says Corran, "was outrageous even for the church." Says Cathleen Kaveny, a professor of law and theology at the University of Notre Dame: "It's a sign the church knows this isn't going away."
That's the hope of Roman Catholic Womenpriests, a group founded eight years ago in Europe. It has since ordained women like Lee and Corran in more than 20 American states and Canada. Womenpriests and other organizations promoting female Catholic clerics, like the Women's Ordination Conference, don't expect to change Vatican doctrine anytime soon. But their growing following signals that Catholics, already incensed by the never ending clerical sexual-abuse crisis, are losing patience with Rome's refusal to let women into the leadership of a church to which more than 20% of Americans belong. "We're the Rosa Parks of the Catholic Church," says Bridget Mary Meehan, a Womenpriests bishop and former nun. "We no longer accept second-class status in our own religion."
I think it's funny that in our criticism of the previous piece, we joked that they were making everyone out to be Rosa Parks. But apparently that was too subtle for now we have the quote which spells it out.
There are not, however, any quotes that provide balance or context. I'm sure everyone's favorite part in the excerpt above is Padgett's dramatic claim about Vatican "hysteria." I mean, I think we can all agree that the Vatican didn't think through the public relations problem of referring to female ordination as a grave crime in the same document that declares pedophilia a grave crime, and if I were running a campaign against Rome, I'd sure as heck make a big deal of that. But reporters should not be in the business of running campaigns against the Catholic Church. Or if they're going to, they should at least do it more substantively and fairly. Even at the time the norms were issued, the Vatican took pains to distinguish the two, pointing out that violations of the sacrament are one type of grave crime and moral violations are another type of grave crime. But it's not even like these are new inventions of doctrine. The Catholic Church has never approved of female ordination.
And what else to point out? Oh, I don't know. How about how if the Vatican does not recognize you as "a validly ordained Catholic priest," then you are not "a validly ordained Catholic priest."
The story is an unbelievable puff piece. We learn that most of the women who claim ordination are highly educated and have done years of rigorous work. But we do not hear from a single person who can explain why the church does not ordain women. Instead we hear that Catholics "consider the church's logic . . . to be as thin as a Communion wafer." There's lots of characterization of the views of unidentified church leader and plenty of "critics say" type writing. The reporter tells us, for instance, that "critics feel . . . the Vatican is forgetting decency."
It's all bad. I want to quote each and every paragraph, because they're not just bad, they're deliciously bad. It's like that old Saturday Night Live skit with Tom Hanks called "The Gross-Out Family." Someone finds some old milk and then everyone in the family tastes it. That's what I want you to do. I want you all to go read the Time story so we can all share in this moment.
But I'm saving the best for last. This is the actual last paragraph of the piece:
Numbers may force Rome's hand. Since 1985, the number of U.S. Catholic priests has plunged almost a third, to fewer than 40,000; more than 3,400 American parishes are without a resident priest, up from 1,051. To replenish the ranks, the church will probably let male priests marry before it ever ordains women. But the female priests say this should be about doing the right thing, not just the numerical thing. That's the chant from their makeshift altars -- and with an unintentional assist from Rome, they're finally being heard.
Riiiiiiight. You know, ever since I came up with my theory that these frequent womenpriest stories are part of some Bulwer-Lytton-type newsroom contest for who can write the worst one, I've come to enjoy reading them. And this one is no exception. I must say that Padgett's ending was just the kind of strong finish in awfulness that the committee is probably looking for.