RNS story on Burke's feminism comments is laced with snark

Cardinal Raymond Burke

If you were to ask me the easiest part of writing for GetReligion, I would say it is coming up with items for "What is this?" --  the label we give to stories that are presented as hard news, but are so biased as to be indistinguishable from commentary. 

Religion News Service, which lately has unfortunately become a reliable source for "What is this?" items, presents another example of the genre with "Cardinal Raymond Burke: ‘Feminized’ church and altar girls caused priest shortage." The story's facts are straight, but the language is charged in such a way that it manipulates the reader into making negative conclusions about the cardinal. 

Understand, I am not denying that many readers could take offense at the cardinal's comments. Personally, I'm with Madeleine Teahan of the U.K. Catholic Herald, who notes the disconnect between his identifying discipline and strength as "manly" qualities while painting men as passive victims of feminists. But if I wanted a commentary on Burke's interview, I would read a story in the "commentary" section of the news outlet (as is Teahan's). RNS, however, markets its piece under the news label (though it did in fact run a commentary on Burke's interview as well; more on that in a moment). 

The first two paragraphs of the story are factual, though there are the little digs that Catholics have grown accustomed to seeing in stories about Burke:

(RNS) Cardinal Raymond Burke, a senior American churchman in Rome who has been one of the most outspoken critics of Pope Francis’ push for reform, is roiling the waters yet again, this time arguing that the Catholic Church has become too “feminized.”
Burke, who was recently demoted from the Vatican’s highest court to a ceremonial philanthropic post, also pointed to the introduction of altar girls for why fewer men are joining the priesthood.

Right away, Burke is set in opposition to Pope Francis, who has "demoted" him. Readers are prepared to dislike him before they even read his comments.

 Then the comments come:

“Young boys don’t want to do things with girls. It’s just natural,” Burke said in an interview published on Monday (Jan. 5). “I think that this has contributed to a loss of priestly vocations.
“It requires a certain manly discipline to serve as an altar boy in service at the side of (a) priest, and most priests have their first deep experiences of the liturgy as altar boys,” the former archbishop of St. Louis told Matthew James Christoff, who heads a Catholic men’s ministry called the New Emangelization Project.
“If we are not training young men as altar boys, giving them an experience of serving God in the liturgy, we should not be surprised that vocations have fallen dramatically,” Burke said. ...

RNS pauses to insert a factoid -- a misleading one, however:

The Catholic Church dropped its ban on girls assisting the priests during Mass in 1983...

That is only technically accurate; the 1983 Code of Canon Law did not prohibit female altar servers, but it was not until 1994 that the Vatican affirmed that women could in fact serve.

The story continues:

In the interview, Burke also blamed gay clergy for the church’s sexual abuse crisis, saying priests “who were feminized and confused about their own sexual identity” were the ones who molested children. 

RNS then dings Burke on that last comment:

Researchers have disputed that claim, and experts note that the reported rise in the number of gay men entering the priesthood since the 1980s coincided with a sharp drop-off in abuse cases.

The story's reporter, David Gibson, has been tracking the abuse crisis for a while, and I don't doubt that he has some grounds for making his attribution-free assertion (which seems to come from the John Jay report). However, I do question whether a news story, rather than a commentary, is the most appropriate place to insert it.

In the final paragraph, the news reporting pretty much disintegrates, and the commentary takes over:

Burke, a liturgical traditionalist as well as a doctrinal conservative who is renowned for wearing elaborate silk and lace vestments while celebrating Mass, also said that “men need to dress and act like men in a way that is respectful to themselves, to women and to children.”

That cheap shot closes out the circle of manipulation.

I can forgive RNS its loaded terminology that, here as elsewhere, pits "conservative" ideology (always bad) vs. "reform" (always good). But there is no excuse for the agency to telegraph so blatantly that it thinks Burke a hypocrite -- rather than dealing with the facts of the liturgical tradition that he represents.

In addition to Gibson's story, RNS also offers a commentary on Burke's interview, in which self-identified radical feminist Kaya Oakes writes:

Irony is perhaps the bottom-line takeaway from Burke’s ideas about gender. It is ironic that a man who wears silk and lace chooses to lecture men on what it means to be masculine.

Oakes is entitled to her opinion. What I find ironic is that the tone of her editorializing is virtually indistinguishable from that of RNS's news reporting.

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