NPR look at Womenpriests offers some welcome balance (but is missing a key fact)

With the arrival of Pope Francis in the U.S. Acela zone only days away, news consumers can expect to see a growing number of advance features about trends in the American church. Most of these will be linked to the now-familiar template that this pope is allegedly more doctrinally progressive than the American bishops and, thus, his visit provides a note a hope, somehow, for those who want to "reform" -- scare quotes intentional -- church doctrine.

With that in mind, it is important to note that a recent National Public Radio feature about the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement includes something very significant, a kind of journalistic landmark in this day and age.

This story contains actual material drawn from an interview with an authoritative human being -- a woman even! -- who speaks in defense of the ancient Christian tradition of an all-male priesthood. We'll come back to this shocking development in a moment.

As is the norm for these features, the NPR team opens with the story of a woman who, after decades of frustration in the church, decided to seek ordination in a movement that, by definition, exists outside the borders of canonical Roman Catholicism. Here are the crucial paragraphs:

Caryl Johnson calls herself a priest but technically she was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. That happened automatically in 2011 when she was ordained by the group Roman Catholic Womenpriests.

The organization acknowledges that it's violating church requirements but says the ban on female priests is unjust. So far the group has ordained 188 women around the world.

For many Catholic women there's a big gap between what they believe and church dogma. Birth control is an example: the church bans it, but a recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows nearly 79 percent of Catholic women think they should be allowed to use it. Fifty-eight percent also think the church should ordain women.

The word "technicality" is crucial.

If you have followed the many, many GetReligion posts focusing on the mainstream media coverage of this movement, you will note the assumption that the key factor here is a person's declaration of their own status. As GetReligionista emeritus M.Z. Hemingway has said, it doesn't matter if she believes that she plays shortstop for the St. Louis Cardinals. The issue is whether the St. Louis Cardinals confirm that she plays shortstop for the team.

This "technical" gap between many modern Catholics and the doctrines of their ancient church leads readers to this:

Johnson says for more than three decades she struggled with the church ban on female priests. She tried to live within the rules -- taking on expanded ministry roles as women were allowed to perform them. But it wasn't enough. Johnson says she felt a spiritual call to become a priest that she couldn't ignore any longer.

"I had a decision to make," says Johnson, "Am I going to follow the spirit of God and do what God asks no matter what the cost? Or am I going to follow a rule?"

While there was that earlier reference to "dogma," the key word in this discourse is "rule" -- as in a policy of an organization.

The problem, for those who know some Catholic history, is that this story is missing a reference to a crucial document. In 1994, Pope John Paul II (now a saint) issued an Apostolic Letter -- Ordinatio Sacerdotalis -- in which he used his authority as pope to make a final, definitive statement on this issue. A key statement therein:

Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force.
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.

Since that time, many have noted that the pope used the word "definitively" rather than referring to this as a statement papal infallibility. However, the key is that the pope made this an issue of ancient doctrine, not a matter of policy or mere discipline.

Writing a story about this doctrine without mentioning this papal document is something like covering a trial about free speech without mentioning the First Amendment. To frame this as a debate about "rules" is to automatically slant the issue in the direction of the case made by the Protestant Womenpriests movement. John Paul II said this is not a debate about mere rules or laws about church order.

So this is a major hole in the story. Reporters do not have to agree with this papal document. However, it is crucial to acknowledge that it exists. If you are going to cover this debate, then cover key facts on both sides.

Now, as I mentioned earlier, this NPR report should receive some applause -- because this rarely happens -- for including interview material from a defender of the church's doctrines. Here is what that looks like, for readers (and editors) who are unfamiliar with this journalistic technique:

Pope Francis ... has flatly rejected opening the priesthood to women. And there are women in the church who oppose it, too.

Referring to female priests like Johnson, Rebecca Woodhull, president of the National Council of Catholic Women says, "They are not Catholic priests. They can call themselves that but it would be -- maybe -- with a small 'c' and not a capital 'C.' "

Like Pope Francis, Woodhull says she supports gender equality in issues such as workplace pay. But she says in the Catholic church, men and women have different roles, and she believes there are good reasons for that.

Woodhull says those include sensitivity and tenderness, traits well-suited to roles set aside for women in the church such as becoming a nun. That said she does support recent moves to put women in other leadership positions."Women have special 'charisms' -- special talents -- that are just endemic to the female person," Woodhull says. "Pope John Paul called it 'the feminine genius.' "

Last year Pope Francis appointed Luzia Premoli, superior general of the Combonian Missionary Sisters, to a high-ranking missionary group called the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. It's the first time a woman has held such a high position in the church.

Moves like that have made Pope Francis popular with the more liberal wing of the Catholic church.

It would have been nice to note that many American bishops and archbishops, including strong doctrinal conservatives, have named women as "chancellor," or chief notary, of their dioceses. This has been happening since the 1980s, which I guess means that it isn't news anymore. However, if Francis makes a similar move, then it must be reason to hope for doctrinal change.

You can expect more news on this topic. Why? As the NPR report notes, in closing, about the Pope Francis visit:

Just a few days before he arrives in Philadelphia, the group Women's Ordination Worldwide will hold its annual conference there. Organizers expect hundreds of activists who want the Catholic church to ordain women to attend.

When this happens, as a press release from the movement (sent to a A-list of reporters in the mainstream press) notes, the ordination of women will not be the only ancient doctrine in play:

We serve inclusive Catholic communities where all are welcome to receive sacraments including gays, lesbians, and transgender as well as divorced and remarried Catholics.
One-third of all adults who were raised Catholics have left the church. One of the main reasons is disillusionment with the church on the treatment of women.

Stay tuned. Do you think this small, independent movement will receive further coverage?

We can assume so. Thus, let's hope that other reporters (a) read the relevant church documents on this issue and (b) follow NPR's trailblazing work (actually, it should be normal journalism) and allow Catholic leaders to take part in this debate about the future of, well, their own church.

QUESTION: Has anyone else noted the fact that there is a website for the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests (click here) and then a different website for the Roman Catholic Womenpriests movement (click here)? Yes, editors should note the "Women Priests" vs. "Womenpriests" style issue. Also, these two sites have different logos. Cooperating networks? Signs of an early division in the ranks?

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