Chidin' Biden: Did bishops err in scolding Joe for gay wedding? Did RNS err in its guesswork?

Did three American bishops defy a cardinal in criticizing Vice President Joe Biden? The Religion News Service sure makes it sound that way in a weekend story about Biden officiating at a same-sex marriage.

David Gibson of RNS has apparently been watching for Catholic reaction since Biden officiated at the wedding of two White House staffers. When that reaction came, it wasn't where he expected:

The Catholic hierarchy was notably quiet, however, until Friday (Aug. 5) when three leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops posted a statement clearly directed at Biden and criticizing him for presenting "a counter witness, instead of a faithful one founded in the truth."
"When a prominent Catholic politician publicly and voluntarily officiates at a ceremony to solemnize the relationship of two people of the same-sex, confusion arises regarding Catholic teaching on marriage and the corresponding moral obligations of Catholics," wrote Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, who was joined by Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone, and Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski.
Malone is chair of the bishop’s Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth and Wenski is chair of the bishop’s Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.

Heavy hitters all, to be sure. (Full disclosure: I freelance for the Miami edition of The Florida Catholic, published by the state's bishops including Wenski.) But as the article notes, the list does not include Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and Biden's shepherd. 

The RNS story is alert and respectful (the last is not always a given these days in mainstream media). But it just may take one or two guesses too many, in an article not marked "opinion" or "commentary."

The bishops' statement, posted on the USCCB blog, doesn't name Biden, but Gibson says he "seemed to be the obvious target." That's almost certainly true. Biden is the most prominent Catholic politician who recently officiated at same-sex ceremony.

To RNS' credit, the article sets the bishops' complaint in context of Catholic teachings:

Five of the six paragraphs of the statement focused generally on church teachings against gay marriage and on the responsibilities of Catholics in public life to, in the words of Pope Francis, "defend and preserve the dignity of fellow citizens in the tireless and demanding pursuit of the common good."
The three bishops cited Francis, who has been hailed for his welcoming approach to gays, highlighting the pontiff’s support for traditional Catholic teaching that marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman.

But why would the three denounce someone else's sheep?

As the article says, "It could be seen as a breach of church practice for other bishops or the USCCB as a whole to appear to be telling another bishop how to run his ministry." Even more so for a cardinal, one of the "Princes of the Church" who advise the pope and elect a new one when needed.

Then the article's guesswork starts to inch out on the clichéd limb. RNS suggests that the bishops kept their statement "low-key" because canon law is murky on penalties for deeds such as Biden's. For this, the story cites a column by a canon lawyer at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. 

Edward Peters doesn't wink at Biden's action -- he says the vice president "went out of his way to act with contempt for infallible Church teaching that marriage (everybody’s marriage, not just Catholics’ marriages) can only exist between one man and one woman." How to deal with it, though, is less clear, he says:

But Peters noted that presiding at a same-sex marriage does not incur excommunication under current canon law; he said it would be up to Wuerl or the pope to issue legislation "making such officiating an excommunicable crime."
He also wrote that Biden’s action was not necessarily heresy, either, nor would it clearly violate other canon laws. 

Why not? Well, Peters' reasoning is over my head, and maybe Gibson's, too, because the article moves on to the less-than-nuclear option of denying Holy Communion. Peters says that a single gesture like a gay wedding shows "one’s general contempt for Church teaching, a contempt that might have been demonstrated in other behaviors such as, say, on-going political support for 'same-sex marriage.' "

Even then, he says, a church official should serve notice of the sanction and how to avoid it. As Peters says, it's not clear that anyone in the church has done this with Biden.

Another RNS guess: "Most bishops -- and Wuerl would be among them -- also prefer to deal with these matters privately with the public figure in question, and they note that the responsibility for making such a call is up to the bishop, not the USCCB or outside groups."

Perhaps. As the 2015 biography on Wuerl is titled, the cardinal's approach runs toward Something More Pastoral. Here, though, Gibson wouldn't have had to guess, if he'd phoned Ann Rodgers, the book's co-author and communications director at the Diocese of Pittsburgh. (Thanks to my colleague Julia Duin for this tip.)

But the article is done, and we still don’t know for sure: Why did three bishops appear to flout church order and scold another prelate's sheep? 

RNS showed great alertness in spotting the USCCB statement, and great enterprise in patching in Peters' column. And it showed major hustle in turning out a story on the weekend, when it would be hard to get further church reaction. 

But again: Did the guesswork go too far? Should the story have kept to reporting the facts, then letting the story unfold?

I don’t usually ask your feedback as Bobby does, dear readers (and I probably should more often); but what do you think?  Was this clutch of guesses part of a standard journalistic toolbox? Or did it move outside the bounds of news reporting?

Thumbnail photo: Vice president Joe Biden officiating at same-sex wedding, from Biden's Twitter account. 

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