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Rushing in where angels fear to tread: secular reporting of religious news stories

October 2, 2012

The post below narrates my reaction to a report on a fellow canonist’s comments in regard to women’s ordination to the diaconate. I hold against women’s ordination (and therefore, am opposed by the other canonist) but my opposition to women’s ordination does not rest on the grounds presented by the reporter to the other canon lawyer for reaction. I commented, therefore, on the other canonist’s views as an interested observer, but not as a direct, let alone as a named, participant in that exchange. That said, as soon as I saw the reporter’s by-line, I had a hunch that it might have been, after all, my (alleged) views that were being reacted to by the other canonist. Now I find, my hunch was right.

In regard to women’s ordination itself, my post below stands on its own merits, but I offer the following narration to illustrate the difficulties that interview subjects, reporters, and readers alike face when the press, especially the secular press, try to deal with religious topics.

Over many years of trying to respond to secular reporters’ questions about religious, especially canonical, topics, I have adopted the practice of responding, in writing, time-permitting, but in a timely manner, to specific questions about canon law and Church life. (I don’t answer questions like “What does canon law say about marriage?” Not any more, I don’t.) And, I keep copies of my answers. Occasionally, as now, they are useful.

So, the reporter above contacted me in a professional manner by email, asked for a few minutes by phone to discuss female deacons, whereupon I suggested his sending a few written questions, to which I would respond within 24 hours. He sent me two good questions, and I promised written answers within 1 hour. Which I did.

Here are his questions, and my answers:

1) What is your opinion of the suggestion to have women deacons in the Roman Catholic Church?

The suggestion has no merit. It rests on several misunderstandings of the nature of holy Orders in the Catholic Church. It is true that in recent decades the Magisterium has spoken with greater clarity in pronouncing against the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood than in regard to deacons. Some people take from recent Roman statements on priesthood some wavering on the question of female deacons. But such language was, in my opinion, simply a showing of care not to preclude research into “deaconesses” of the ancient Church. But, whatever exactly ancient “deaconesses” were, they were not, I am convinced, clergy in the modern sense of the word, and thus appeal to them as precedents for female deacons today is bootless.

2) What are the chances in your opinion this could actually happen?

I see no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate. The ceremonies that one sees from time to time purporting to be such ordinations are, first, of zero sacramental effect in the Catholic Church and, second, subject to severe penalties because of the confusion and disruption they introduce into the lives of the faithful.

Notice: I was asked for opinions and I offered opinions; I grounded my opposition to female deacons in sacramental theology, not on canon law; I acknowledged the appearance of Roman wavering on these questions, suggested a more benign explanation for such language, and reminded people of the immediate nugatory and negative consequences of attempted female ordination. All in 179 words! Wow! Journalist gold. It didn’t even need retyping.

Unfortunately, here’s how I was presented: “But canon law expert Edward N. Peters, of the Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, sees ‘no possibility that women will ever be ordained to the diaconate’ because canon law forbids it.” Period. End of quotation.

Pffft. No nuance, none of my recognition that the other side has an argument, and, worst of all, the misrepresentation that my opposition to female clerics rests on positive canon law, instead of, as I expressly stated, in the theology of the sacrament of holy Orders. No wonder the other canonist had such an easy time refuting me—as named no less. What I said—correction, what I was reported as having said—was as shallow as it was rigid. My kids could have refuted it.

I frankly did not detect an ‘agenda’ in the reporter’s recasting of my views, just an over-confidence that interviewing lawyers about law is as easy as interviewing, well, just about anybody on just about anything. But it’s not. Law is precise and it uses words carefully. What do they say about rushing in where angels fear to tread?

Thank God that today we have blogs. Twenty years ago, when this sort of thing happened to me (and it would), all I could do was spout off at the dinner table about it. Well, at least my kids got some pretty lively examples of how to refute obviously shabby arguments. Even if they weren’t really dad’s arguments.

Update, 4 October: Get Religion gets it.


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