Defying the archbishop in Seattle?

In the Pacific Northwest, some Roman Catholic churches in the Seattle area have declined to circulate a petition calling for a referendum on Washington state's new same-sex marriage law.

From Reuters to ABC News, the churches' decision to steer clear of the political battle has drawn national media attention.

The key news peg: Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain, citing the "critically important" nature of the issue, encouraged — but did not demand — the gathering of signatures in parishes.

The Seattle Times produced the best report that I have seen on the controversy. However, its coverage failed to address a number of relevant questions.

The top of the Times' story:

Priests at a number of Roman Catholic parishes in the area have said no to the gathering of signatures for Referendum 74 at their churches — putting them at odds with their archbishop on a statewide ballot measure seeking repeal of Washington's same-sex marriage law.

The majority of parishes in Western Washington are expected to make the petitions available — some as soon as this Sunday, following Mass, according to a spokesman for the Archdiocese of Seattle.

But pastors of at least three prominent Catholic churches in Seattle — St. Mary's Church, St. Joseph Parish and St. James Cathedral — have notified members that the petitions will not be made available there.

In an item posted on St. James' website, the Very Rev. Michael G. Ryan said he decided not to permit the petitions after a discussion with the pastoral team. He said he believed allowing the petitions would "prove hurtful and seriously divisive in our community. In saying this, I do realize that there are some who will be disappointed with this decision."

The decisions by pastors come two weeks after the Most Rev. J. Peter Sartain, archbishop of Seattle, sent a lengthy letter to parishioners outlining his support for Ref. 74 and explaining why he believes defending traditional marriage is important.

The Seattle newspaper story and other reports give the impression that the priests disagree with the archbishop on the issue of same-sex marriage. That may be true. But another possibility could be that they support the church's teachings on marriage but differ on the wisdom of inserting parishes into the political process, right?

A few simple journalistic questions would help much of the coverage I have read. Questions such as: Why did you decline to circulate the petition? What do you believe concerning same-sex marriage? Do you see your action as defiance of the archbishop?

In two paragraphs filled with potentially meaty information, the Times fell short in providing attribution (the "How do you know this?" details so important to quality journalism):

Sartain's position is in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which has traditionally opposed same-sex marriage, despite support from 56 percent of lay Catholics for such unions. In states from Maine to California, the church has advocated — to some degree or another — against such unions.

Yet in supporting the gathering of signatures in local parishes, Sartain went further than other bishops, some of whom more recently have backed off their opposition to same-sex marriage, or even come out in support of arrangements such as civil unions. Still, his recommendation was not a dictum, and he left it to the discretion of pastors to decide for themselves and their parishioners how best to handle the matter.

What's the source of the 56 percent figure? Why should I trust it?

Who says Sartain has gone further than other bishops? Who are the bishops who have backed off opposition to same-sex marriage? Which bishops have come out in support of civil unions? (A few examples are given later in the article, but the source appears to be a gay-rights advocate, not church leaders themselves.)

A reader sent GetReligion a link to a  Seattle Post-Intelligencer item on a Catholic priest applauded for shunning the anti-gay marriage drive, as the online-only newspaper characterized it.

The congregation at Seattle’s Our Lady of the Lake Catholic Church gave the Rev. Tim Clark a standing ovation Sunday when he announced that the parish would not gather signatures for a referendum to repeal same-sex marriage.

The parish became the sixth in Seattle to opt out of the petition drive for Referendum 74 that has been endorsed and foisted on parishes by Archbishop J. Peter Sartain.

“I am happy to report that Our Lady of the Lake parishioners have been overwhelmingly and, thus far, unanimously supportive of the decision I made NOT to gather signatures in support of this Referendum,” Clark wrote in response to an e-mail.

“The standing ovation experienced during one of the Masses says less about me and much more about the health of this parish.  I only wished the archbishop could have experienced the sustained applause — the ‘sensus fidelium’ — of the people.  He needs to listen to this ‘voice.’ That is my prayer.”

"Smell the bias," wrote the reader who shared the link.

If indeed a standing ovation occurred, I don't think it's biased to say so. It's simply reporting (although the term "foisted" does nothing to counter the reader's perception). However, full reporting would require interviewing some of those who stood and asking why they did so. The Post-Intelligencer neglected to do that, much less seek comment from the archbishop on the priest's statement.

I'm not sure if that's bias or just bad journalism.

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