Same old, same old: The Charlotte Observer tilts one way in women-as-Catholic-priests story

Way back in the 1970s and very early 1980s, a Christian singer named Keith Green was quite popular. At the end of "Jesus Commands Us to Go," one of his more heartfelt songs, Green addresses his audience, saying, "I don't know what you think a Christian is. I've known so many people that think [being] a Christian means going to church a lot. You may have heard this before, but going to church doesn't make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald's makes you a hamburger."

That analogy has stayed with me, and it popped up when the Charlotte Observer informed us on the last Sunday in April that a "Rebel Catholic group defies church, ordains woman priest in NC."

Although the story somewhat begrudgingly points this out, it should be clear to serious observers that the church-Christian-McDonald's-hamburger analogy fits here: Calling yourself a Catholic "priest," even if done by a "rebel group," doesn't make you one, any more than calling myself a Big Mac would, you know....

From this oh, oh, oh so familiar article:

An international group defiantly opposed to the Roman Catholic Church’s ban on women priests Sunday ordained its first woman Catholic priest in the 46 counties that make up the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte.
The ordination ceremony for Abigail Eltzroth happened in Asheville at Jubilee! – a nondenominational faith community – with Bishop Bridget Mary Meehan presiding.
Eltzroth, 64, said she is the second woman in North Carolina ordained by the rebel group, called the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests. ...
But reached for comment Sunday, David Hains, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of Charlotte, said: “I hope that Catholics in the diocese will understand that it would be sinful to receive a fake sacrament from a woman priest and that includes attending a fake Mass.”

Although the Observer puts an official Roman Catholic Church spokesman's comments relatively high in the story, the overall tone of the piece is at least sympathetic towards, if not promoting of, the pro-women-priest camp. #Surprise

Before spokesman Hains is quoted, we're treated to this assertion:

“It’s time for a change and we’re in the forefront, leading the charge,” Eltzroth told the Observer on Sunday. “We expect that eventually everybody is going to follow us.”

After noting that some Protestant denominations ordain women -- the Episcopalians, United Methodists, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America -- while others, most notably the vast majority of Southern Baptist congregations and the Presbyterian Church in America, do not, we're told:

Most American Catholics say they’d like their church to ordain women. A Pew Research Poll in 2015 found that about six in 10 American Catholics said they favored allowing women to be Catholic priests.

But while the 2015 Pew study, titled, "U.S. Catholics Open to Non-Traditional Families," does note that about the same number of Catholics surveyed are indeed supportive of having women ordained as priests as would want priests to be allowed to be married, that point is all-but-irrelevant. The Roman Catholic Church is not a representative democracy with parishioners voting on doctrine.

Thankfully, the Observer eventually recognizes this:

Pope Francis, who has proven to be more liberal than Pope Benedict on some issues, briefly raised hopes among Catholic reformers when he established a commission to study whether women could be ordained as deacons. Catholic deacons cannot celebrate Mass or hear confessions, but they do perform some priestly functions, including marrying couples, baptizing babies and others and giving homilies, or sermons, during Mass.
But, when asked last year about the prospect of female priests in the next few decades, Pope Francis said the church’s teaching banning women priests was likely to last forever.

Here's the journalism issue, and, frankly, I can't tell whether it's on the part of the reporter or his editors: there's an undercurrent of "good for you" towards Eltzroth, despite the unmistakable fact that the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize her ordination. And if the Catholic Church says you're not a Roman Catholic priest, you're not one, regardless of what you call yourself.

Our distinguished alumna, Mollie Hemingway (now seen on a cable TV news channel near you), made this abundantly clear way back in 2010 when Time magazine rhapsodized over an 81-year-old woman's alleged Roman Catholic "ordination" despite some obvious facts:

There is no mother of eight children who is an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church. How do I know this? Because I know that the church doesn't ordain any female, whether they've gotten a degree from a Catholic university or not. Whether or not you are an "ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church" is similar to whether or not you are a starting pitcher for the Yankees. It's not about what you feel called to do. It's not about feelings at all. And a journalist can check out this fact just as easily as she can check out the roster for a baseball team.

Roughly six years later -- in November 2016, to be precise -- tmatt saw similar emotions among some in the media when Pope Francis addressed the subject in one of his famous on-board-a-plane press conferences. Some reporters appeared to have favored the women-as-priests angle to the exclusion of opposing voices.

At the time, tmatt got to the heart of the journalistic issue:

The goal is not reporting built on conservative voices alone. The goal is not reporting built on liberal voices alone. The goal is to show respect to believers on both sides of these debates. However, when dealing with a religious body that has authoritative teachings (think Catechism of the Catholic Church), it is essential to have someone explain these teachings from that faith's point of view. So quoting "reformers" alone is not enough.

The Observer has 30 words from the local Catholic spokesman versus dozens from the local woman supposedly ordained a Catholic "priest."

No other official Catholic voices respond to this story. There are no voices from Catholics in the diocese's pews, no voices from any nearby Catholic scholars, nothing else. (As seen in the video above, a Minneapolis TV station managed to find an authoritative voice to explain Francis' views after that 2016 news conference. It can be done, even on deadline.)

Because Asheville is a good two-hour drive, if not a tad longer, from Charlotte, and because the story includes a photo provided by Eltzroth, I'm guessing this wasn't a spur-of-the-moment news pickup. It could have been, but it just as much may well have been planned in advance. (That's how the news business often works: Organizers of an event alert a reporter in advance and said reporter then plans a story. Happens every day.)

If the latter is the case, if the story was "premeditated," then I believe Charlotte Observer has let down its readers by weighting the story towards the comments of Eltzroth and her partisans. We needed to hear more from the other side, I believe. It's called journalism, as opposed to PR.

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