That deacon and CBS veteran sacks a Womenpriests 'story'

Should visitors to GetReligion choose to search our archives for the term "Womenpriests" they will find eight pages of results, most of them dedicated to dissecting alleged news reports about this tiny splinter movement on the left side of the world of American Catholicism.

I say "alleged" because most of these stories resemble public relations essays, rather than news reports that take seriously the beliefs of people on both sides of this issue. In at least one case ("If Womenpriests were rabbis") it appeared that the Baltimore Sun team actually cooperated with the organizers of a Womenpriests ordination rite to help protect local Catholics (some on the payroll of the real church) who attended the event. For a few other hot links to past coverage, including the work of GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway, click here, here, here and here.

Now, Deacon Greg Kandra -- scribe at the fine weblog "The Deacon's Bench" -- has taken his turn at pounding his head, as a veteran journalist, on this particular wall. For those not familiar with his work, Kandra is a former CBS Evening News writer with 26 years, two Emmys and two Peabody Awards to his credit. So when this Catholic clergyman chooses to dissect a report from a CBS affiliate, his commentary has a unique level of clout.

This is poor on so many levels. Reporter Maria Medina should be embarrassed. My only conclusion is that it’s sweeps month and the affiliate is desperate for ratings.

Offered as another in his occasional series called "Great moments in journalism," Kandra called this post, "How NOT to report on women priests." It helped that the CBS affiliate in Sacramento, Calif., published a transcript of its alleged news story on the movement officially known as "Roman Catholic Womenpriests."

Let's let the deacon walk readers through this primer on how not to do this job. Here's a few choice samples:

1. There’s the hyperbolic writing: “ ... a new practice emerging that could change Catholicism forever.”

Well, actually, no. It’s not a practice, and it’s not really new. It’s a splinter movement by a small minority of dissident Catholics who are not recognized by the Catholic Church and, in fact, are automatically excommunicated for attempting ordination. And what is the evidence, please, that this “could change Catholicism forever”?

2. There’s the freaky lack of logic: “She’s one of a very small, yet growing group of women ordained in the United States to be a priest. But being ordained isn’t easy since the church refuses to ordain women.”

That last sentence makes no sense.

There's the central point, once again. The women are ordained, but they are being ordained into a small, functionally Protestant body known as "Roman Catholic Womenpriests."

Now there is a potential story for journalists to follow up on, should they be interested in the status of this new denomination. Has any liberal mainline Protestant body that ordains women -- The Episcopal Church leaps to mind -- formally recognized the apostolic succession of the female bishops who are claiming to ordain these female priests? Should liberal Protestant bodies take this step, how would that affect their ecumenical relationships with the real Church of Rome?

Back to the deacon:

4. There are the fuzzy, unverifiable statistics: “There are now 124 woman priests worldwide according to the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.”

That’s a best estimate from a biased source. Which means, optimistically, a little more than a hundred women in a church with a billion members and a worldwide priesthood numbering over 400,000, according to the most recent figures. Significant? Hardly.

5. There’s the sloppy, irresponsible reporting. At no point in the story is there even an attempt to offer balance. We never hear from a spokesperson for the Diocese of Sacramento, who can offer the official church response, refute their contention that they are ordained and explain why the church does not recognize these ordinations; we never hear from an expert in canon law, who can put this event into canonical context; we never hear from a historian or scholar who can add perspective; we never hear from any tradition-minded Catholics who can offer another point of view.

At the end, Kandra sums this matter up:

If the reporter had presented this story to me, I’d ask a number of questions:

What is the official church’s response to this? Did you interview a spokesperson for the Diocese of Sacramento? What is the official Catholic teaching about ordaining women? How many people do these women serve? Haven’t they been excommunicated? How do they feel about that? Are the people they serve concerned at all about the fact that they’ve also been excommunicated? Has Pope Francis said anything explicitly about the ordination of women? What’s the median age of these women? Where do they come from?

His final kicker is bit too brutal for GetReligion's taste. You can read that one on your own.


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