Several years ago, while working on my contribution to the book "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion," I called up one of the patriarchs of the religion beat, Richard Ostling, to discuss the craft that he practiced so well for many years at Time and then with the Associated Press. These days, of course, his "Religion Q&A" pieces are featured once a week here at GetReligion.
We started off by discussing the most basic subject -- sins of commission.
For Ostling, the bottom line was clear: If you can't trust journalists to get their facts right, then why trust them at all? This passage is a bit long, but essential:
"Sometimes we are talking about things that can get complicated. ... But it isn't good when people read their newspaper and say, 'Wait a minute. That's just wrong.' "
Here's a prime example, a mistake that Ostling has seen countless times in news reports. ... Journalists often report that Rome does not ordain married men.
"It would be accurate," noted Ostling, "to say that the overwhelming majority of men ordained as Catholic priests are not married. It would even be accurate to say that 'almost all' priests are not married. But what about Eastern Rite Catholicism, where you have married priests? Then there are the married men who have been ordained in the Anglican Rite, who used to be Episcopal priests. You have a few Lutherans, too.
"Now some people would say that little mistakes like this do not matter all that much. Well, they matter to the people who read the story and know that what they are reading is wrong. What does this say about our journalistic standards?"
This brings us to a short report from KMOV.com in St. Louis that has some fact checkers quite stirred up in the Catholic blogosphere. Of course, they also appealed to your GetReligionistas for a small bit of justice. Here is most of that story:
(KMOV) -- The Maronite Catholic Church is set to ordain its first married priest on Thursday, and it's happening in St. Louis.
Deacon Wissam Akiki will be ordained at St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral at 6:30 p.m. He will be the first married priest to be ordained into the Maronite Catholic Church. A spokesperson says Pope Francis made an exception for him to be ordained.
The Maronite church is one of several Eastern Rite churches that acknowledge the Pope in Rome as the highest authority.
But just wait a minute, I can hear careful readers muttering, that's an Eastern Rite Catholic church? Don't they allow clergy to marry before they are ordained as priests?
As in the examples cited by Ostling, KMOV was only a few words away from accuracy. As the New Advent online guide to many things Catholic notes, concerning Maronite practices:
From the New Advent online site on the Maronites:
Priests without parishes are celibate and dependent on the patriarch. The others are married -- that is to say, they marry while in minor orders, but cannot marry a second time. There are about 1100 secular priests and 800 regulars. ... The married priests of the rural parishes are often very simple men, still more often they are far from well-to-do, living almost exclusively on the honoraria received for Masses and the presents of farm produce given them by the country people.
Right. But as you can tell by that language, this is how the tradition has been lived out in the old country, such as in Lebanon. In the United States, the practice has been different.
Thus, the team at USA Today published a slightly different, but accurate, story that stated:
In a move that could open the doors for more wedded priests in some Catholic churches across the USA, a married Maronite deacon will be ordained Thursday as a priest in St. Louis.
Deacon Wissam Akiki, who serves St. Raymond's Maronite Cathedral, will be the first married Maronite Catholic in the United States to become a priest, said Bishop Elias Zaidan of the Maronite Eparchy of Our Lady of Lebanon of Los Angeles, which has its headquarters in Missouri.
"In the Middle East, it is normal (for a priest) to be married," Zaidan said Tuesday. "Here, this is the first."
The crucial words, of course, were "in the United States." The USA Today report continues to give an admirable amount of information about this branch of the Catholic church and its history. Bravo.
Meanwhile we must ask the editors at KMOV for a correction. Please.
And be careful out there.
IMAGE: Stained glass in a Maronite Catholic sanctuary.