A liberal Catholic shot at the NYT

As I’ve written before, recent media coverage of sex-abuse scandals in the Catholic Church has faced harsh criticism from those who sense anti-Catholic leanings in the secular media.

Weighing in now is none other than Westchester’s own Kenneth Woodward, the former longtime religion editor at Newsweek (where he remains a contributing editor). I’ve often praised the terrific lecture series that Woodward organizes at his parish, St. Theresa’s in Briarcliff Manor.

In fact, the next FREE lecture is this Monday, May 3, at 7:30 p.m., when Christian Smith, director of Center for the Study of Religion and Society and the Center for Social Research at Notre Dame, will talk about “Souls in Transition: The Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults.”

Woodward has written a critique of the New York Times’ recent stories about sex abuse for the Catholic weekly, Commonweal. This is particularly interesting because Commonweal is, of course, a liberal magazine that has been very critical of the church’s handling of the abuse crisis.

Woodward’s essay, called “Church of the Times,” actually has two, almost separate themes.

The first is that the Times is a sort of Church of Secularism that can’t help seeing believers as space aliens — quite odd and difficult to understand. He makes the case that the Times operates much like the Vatican:

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As U.S. newspapers go, the Times is also a venerable institution and its hierarchy of editors, deputy and assistant editors, and copyeditors is a match for the Roman curia. The paper has been controlled by the Ochs-Sulzberger family since 1896. To those who devote their lives to it, the Times has become “a place that will shelter you the rest of your life,” as Arthur Gelb wrote in his detailed memoir, City Room. I know what he means: Newsweek in the nearly four decades I worked there was also a sheltering institution. Moreover, with reporting flowing in from our worldwide news bureaus, we in New York felt as if we were operating at the throbbing center of the known and knowable universe. Given its exponentially larger work force, not to mention hourly input from the Internet, this illusion is all the more powerful at the Times. A journalist could spend a lifetime in its newsroom without encountering a dissenter from the institutional ideology.

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Woodward’s point that the Times sees its mission as Big and Important (“All the news that’s fit to print,” anyone?), not unlike a religious institution, is quirky and fun to consider, whether you agree or not.

His second point is that the Times’ coverage of two high-profile “scandals” was poorly done. He spends much less time on this point, opening and closing his essay with it.

First and foremost, he asserts that the Times has been too reliant on the legal papers (and views) of the lawyer Jeff Anderson, the most high-profile defender of abuse victims.

He writes: “It’s hard for a newspaper to climb in bed with a man like Anderson without making his cause its own.”

But Woodward doesn’t critique the stories — dates, places, chains of command — as other critics have tried to do.

Woodward does make one timely point about all the Times’ recent front-page stories about abuse scandals connected or vaguely connected to the pope: “…clearly the Times considers sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests more newsworthy than abuse committed by other groups. An April 13 verdict against the Boy Scouts of America, which has struggled with the child-sexual-abuse issue for a century, did not merit page-1, above-the-fold treatment but rather a single paragraph deep inside the paper.”

I would like to know how the Times would explain its meager coverage of the Boy Scouts’ case, which involves a national organization having decades worth of files related to scout masters who have abused minors. Here is their most recent story about the case, which ran deep inside the paper.

The Times’ ombudsman, Clark Hoyt, recently defended the paper’s coverage of things Catholic.

Is women’s ordination a closed Catholic subject?

Early last year, I went to St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers to hear Sister Sara Butler (that’s her) explain why women cannot be Roman Catholic priests.

tjndc5-5dum5scb94xzw4j4l6b_layout.jpgAs I wrote at the time:

Butler made the case last night that the all-male priesthood is grounded in Jesus’ choice of 12 male apostles and the Catholic Church’s sustained understanding of what this meant for the priesthood.

“The answer is discovered in a tradition of practice that is traced back to the Lord’s choice of the 12,” she said.

To change the church’s traditional understanding of the priesthood, she said, would be to change the priesthood itself and disconnect the church from the apostles, ending what Catholics believe to be their church’s God-given power to teach.

You can read her lecture HERE.

Of course, the issue of (whether there can be) female priests is not likely to go away any time soon.

The liberal Catholic weekly Commonweal recently invited Father Robert Egan, a Jesuit who teaches at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash., to explore why the subject may not be closed for discussion. He wrote that the tradition of the all-male priesthood might be grounded in a “bias for subjecting women to men’s authority and power.”

Then Commonweal invited Butler to respond. As one of the first female members of the Vatican’s International Theological Commission, an influential advisory group, she has the credentials.

You can read her response and Egan’s response to her response HERE.

Additionally, the all-everything Protestant scholar Martin Marty weighs in on the exchange (and the question of whether the Catholic Church changes its positions) in this column, out today:

On Women’s Ordination
— Martin E. Marty
Robert J. Egan, S. J., of Gonzaga University, started it all (this round) with an article in the April 11 Commonweal, in which he asked whether official Roman Catholics ought to consider reconsidering the Vatican declarations against the ordination of women to the priesthood. In best “fair and balanced” style the editors later gave space (July 18) to Sr. Sara Butler, MSBT, of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers. She draws on her book The Catholic Priesthood and Women (2007), which had helped prompt Egan’s response. And, also in the July 18 issue, Father Egan was given another chance. So today’s Sightings is a response to a response to a response to a response – almost ad infinitum?

Whether Catholics should change and begin ordination of women is their business, not mine, at least not here and today, though outcomes of Catholic debates do have huge “public religion” consequences. I can only testify to the manifest blessings so many churches, like my own (ELCA), have received during the past half-century from the ministry of women-ordained. My business instead picks up on Egan’s closing paragraph, where he argues against Sr. Butler’s reversion to and repetition of the claim that Rome does not change. Continue reading