Times and Catholics: Call to journalistic action

Once again, we face the same question when discussing a New York Times news feature about the Church of Rome. I get the Times on tree pulp on weekdays at my office on Capitol Hill, but not on weekends. The rest of my interaction with the world's most powerful newspaper takes place online. This sometimes leaves me wondering precisely how certain news stories were played in the analog edition.

For example, can someone out there in reader-land tell me if an "analysis" label graced the Times print edition of the recent story that ran under this headline: "Catholic Group Based in Chicago Leads Protest Against Church." Surely it ran with an "analysis" tag, because it certainly isn't a traditional, American model of the press news report. At times, it reads like a public relations release.

I just love the cutline on the main photo, which is a totally stereotypical pic of Catholic hands holding a rosary. No, it's not the photo with this post, but it's one totally like it. The cutline says:

The Roman Catholic Church in the United States is divided on the ordination of women. The group Call to Action, based in Chicago, supports such a policy.

Actually, Catholics in America are somewhat divided on the issue of the ordination of women (much more so the ordination of married men) but the Catholic CHURCH in the USA, in terms of its governing institutions, is not divided on the issue. If one includes seminary faculty, there are some cracks. But the cutline makes this sound like, oh, the Anglican Church's local, national and global wars about the moral status of sex outside of the sacrament of marriage.

The story flies its PR flag high, right at the top:

It’s a long way from the Vatican to Roscoe Village, but a group based in that North Side neighborhood is leading a high-profile protest among American priests that challenges the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on ordination of women.

The group, Call to Action, an organization for reform-minded Catholics, has collected signatures of more than 150 priests -- including 8 in Chicago -- on a petition defending a liberal priest, the Rev. Roy Bourgeois, who is being threatened with dismissal for his public support for ordaining women. In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church.

“We just got on the phones and started telling priests, ‘We’ve got to support Father Roy,’ ” said Nicole Sotelo, 33, a leader of Call to Action, which bills itself as the nation’s largest organization for reform-minded Catholics.

Two things, out of many:

(1) "Reform" is one of the most loaded words in the journalism dictionary, because it already assumes that one side is right and the other wrong. "Reforming" financial practices is one thing. Certainly, reforming clerical policies that protect lawbreakers is an appropriate use of the word. But "reforming" the doctrine of the male Catholic priesthood, which is unbroken in the ancient churches of the east and west?

Now this is an issue that journalist must cover fairly and accurately, because debates are taking place in some circles. But who gets to decide who is "reforming" who? Unbiased language is urgently needed there, rather than simply using Call to Action's own pet phrases.

(2) The story states this as fact: "In an increasingly conservative church, the rebellion has been hailed as a remarkable moment for liberals in the church." Let's simply nod at the passive voice sourcing. Nod. Now, what does the word "church" mean in this sentence? Is this the whole global Catholic Church? Is it the American church culture? Are we talking about Chicago?

It is significant that a small number of priests are putting their names semi-publicly on the record in support of the Womenpriests movement. That's a story. It's important that some priests are doing that (especially if they are not retired). Now, assemble a list of bishops -- the only people who can ordain priests -- who are signing on with the Womenpriests movement and you will have a "rebellion" in an accurate sense of the word.

The story includes a long unattributed summary of Catholic activism in Chicago, a city with a rich history in this regard. It is, of course, a totally one-sided list, ending with:

In the ’80s and ’90s, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, the head of the Archdiocese of Chicago, was a leading national voice in opposition to the death penalty.

These days, the Rev. Michael Pfleger invokes the Catholic mission and obligation in pushing for social causes that serve the poor and reach out to blacks, even as his style sometimes draws the wrath of his boss, Cardinal Francis George.

Smooth, isn't it. The former cardinal was a good man (opposition to the death penalty, of course, is common among many conservative and orthodox Catholic bishops, as well) and the new one is, well, sort of a racist for opposing the "style" of a priest who reaches out to African Americans?

So what else is Call to Action up to?

Besides the ordination of women, the group calls for equal rights for gay men and lesbians, giving priests the option to marry and accepting back into the fold divorced Catholics who have remarried.

Call to Action has also focused on protecting church workers, citing cases of Catholic employees’ being dismissed for holding views contrary to Vatican orthodoxy or belonging to organizations like Planned Parenthood deemed unacceptable by the hierarchy.

Gasp. You mean that Catholic organizations might have a right to hire workers who do not actively oppose "Vatican orthodoxy," which I assume would mean centuries of church teachings? The church may want to opt out of employing those who oppose what it teaches to be truth? I am sure that academic groups, scientific groups and political groups would never do such a thing.

From a strictly journalistic perspective, note the paragraphs rolling by in opinion essay form, almost totally free of attribution to on-the-record voices.

But wait, there is one conservative voice:

Although many Chicago priests and nuns belong to the group, Cardinal George has kept his distance. “The archdiocese has no relationship with Call to Action,” said Susan Burritt, the spokeswoman for the Chicago Archdiocese, “and therefore has no comment on Call to Action’s policies or statements.”

Unlike, of course, Bernardin. There is no discussion of the facts about how the late cardinal did or did not support this particular group. The implication is that he backed them.

Later on, there is a fact paragraph that also deserves some two-sided unpacking:

The organization has 57 chapters and 25,000 members nationwide. Nuns and priests account for about 30 percent of the members who attend the group’s annual conference.

How many people attend those conferences? How many nuns and priests are we talking about and, oh, what is the average age in this crowd?

Toward the very end, another conservative does appear (not counting Pope Benedict XVI). This produces the ultra-strange ending to this essay:

The Rev. Anthony Brankin, the longtime pastor at St. Thomas More Church who now serves at St. Odilo Church in Berwyn, is an outspoken conservative and critic of Call to Action. Father Brankin describes members of the liberal Catholic movement as lost souls, disenfranchised by both their own church and a larger society that views Catholicism as largely irrelevant.

Pope Benedict XVI has spoken of a more faithful church, even if that means it becomes smaller.

Father Brankin said: “Really, when you think about what has happened in modern society, who but aging feminist nuns and their hangers-on clerics even cares whether women should be priests or not?”

But the activists at Call to Action note that while church leaders might not be open to dissent, they seem to be paying attention.

So conservative dioceses are shrinking and the progressive ones growing, right? The orders led by liberal nuns have waves of young sisters and the conservative orderss are shrinking and aging, right? The same thing is true with priests, from diocese to diocese?

This story, in other words, covers one half of a debate, while using very few on-the-record facts on that side. The viewpoint of pro-Vatican Catholics is totally missing. There are facts over there, too, that needed to be included. What we need here is some additional journalism to complete the picture. The reporter could even attempt to report facts that would make activists on both sides upset or nervous.

That is, if this is a news story, as opposed to an "analysis" essay or even an editorial.

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