Hey, Dallas, worship is news, too

Arinze_2Here is a principle that I have tried to teach my journalism students in the decade since I left the newsroom and took a full-time gig in a college classroom. All together now: It is better to interview the person who is sitting in front of you rather than the person that you wish was sitting in front of you.

I thought about this when reading the Dallas Morning News’ very short interview with an important member of the Vatican hierarchy — Cardinal Francis Arinze. I am sure reporter Jeffrey Weiss asked the Nigerian-born prince of the church precisely the questions his editors wanted him to ask. I also imagine he asked other questions that did not make it into this, to me, amazingly short article. So I hesitate to focus this little post on what Weiss did or didn’t do.

The headline leads us into the problem: “Cardinal sits down for a rare interview.” Why are interviews with Arinze rare? That is the lead:

Cardinal Francis Arinze was the Vatican’s point man for interreligious outreach for 18 years. Yet, he is famously reluctant to be interviewed.

Partly, that’s said to be tied to his impatience with secular reporters who badger him about his chances of ascending to the papacy. The 72-year-old Nigerian-born cardinal is on any short list of candidates to succeed John Paul II.

Well, you know that old Vatican saying: Men who go into conclaves as future popes come out as cardinals. So there is no surprise that Arinze doesn’t like talking about that question. Yet, is the news what he won’t talk about or what he will talk about? The Dallas Morning News article also makes it clear that the editors consider the stuff of the cardinal’s old job — head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue — to be newsworthy.

But what about Arinze’s new job, as head of head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of Sacraments? After all, the cardinal was in Dallas for a conference on liturgy. Well, it turns out that liturgy is considered newsworthy — if it has an impact on American politics.

Despite the internal focus of his current job, Cardinal Arinze thrust himself into last year’s American presidential campaign when he issued a statement from the Vatican saying Catholic politicians who unambiguously support abortion are “not fit” to receive Communion.

Democratic candidate John Kerry, a Catholic, had said that he was personally opposed to abortion but supported the legal right of a woman to obtain one. Someone who publicly embraces a particular faith has an obligation to live in accord with that faith, the cardinal said. . . .

“A person should be clear on what that person’s religion teaches . . . and make an effort to live it,” he said. “It demands sacrifice. But every student or . . . athlete who wants to win in the Olympic Games knows that sacrifice is necessary if you want a good result.”

I’m curious: Did the state of John Kerry’s soul come up at the Dallas conference? I’m curious: What did the cardinal say at the Dallas conference, to Catholics in Dallas, about their lives at their own altars? We never find out.

I would like to know and, I suspect, that what the cardinal said would have been considered newsworthy to a surprising number of local and national readers. I say this because, in my 16 or so years writing my Scripps Howard column, I have found that columns about worship — especially music — draw an unusually high number of responses from readers. And there are all kinds of controversies out there about liturgy (see this traditionalist site). These kinds of controversies even take place in Dallas.

In other words, I am just as interested — more, actually — about what the cardinal had to say about Texans going to confession and receiving Communion than I am in the state of Kerry’s pilgrimage. Perhaps the same is true of readers in Texas. I am just as interested in what the cardinal came to Dallas to say as I am in what he did not come to Dallas to say. Does that make sense?

My thanks to Theodor Gauss for his permission to reprint a photograph from his webpage about the cardinal’s visit to Heidelberg during the Christmas season of 2003.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.nhreligion.com Stephen A.

    Another way to put this: It’s better to write about what the NEWS is, rather than what the reporter WANTS the news to be. This is a clear case of the latter, and it’s truly annoying.

    It’s also lazy on the reporter’s part, and I have to wonder whether the reporter was simply bowled over and bewildered by the subject of liturgy, and decided to write about what he DID know – politics.

  • chuck

    I’m a residetnt of Dallas and a regular reader of the Morning News. I have plenty of criticisms of the paper but ya’ll’s were good for a laugh.

    You are upset because the article you wanted written wasn’t written. But that article has no place outside a denominational publication.

    I have no interest in reading about internal church politics in the Dallas paper. I don’t even want to read about those of my own denomination in that venue and I spend several hrs a month keeping up with such things elsewhwere.

    As far as I am concerned the meeting was not “news” in Dallas outside of Roman Catholic circles unless a fight broke out and they had to use my tax dollars to call police in to break it up.

  • tmatt


    Some of the most fascinating battles within the Roman Church — America’s largest religious body — are linked to doctrine and worship. These affect many, many people in the Dallas area and in Texas.

    Newspapers cover all kinds of issues that appeal to people in various niches — from sports to arts. There are many, many Dallas Cowboy fans who could care less about opera and vice versa. Like I said, nothing I write about — in newspapers from coast to coast — delivers a higher amount of response than coverage of worship issues, and not just from the believers involved in the individual case. It is news. Would you agree that the worship changes of Vatican II were news?

  • chuck

    tmatt asks:

    Would you agree that the worship changes of Vatican II were news?

    My response:

    NO!…, sort of.

    Now an explanation

    The actual worship changes of Vatican II were qualitatively no different from the little Church in the Wildwood deciding to get a new hymnal. Important to those involved and worthy of being written up in church newsletters and denominational publications. But not in Time nor the Wildwood County Gazette.

    Internal church matters are not news to the wider community.


    If the changes have an impact on the wider community then they may become news.

    If the choice of hymnal at Wildwood causes the church to split ….. and because of the split several members of the school board are no longer speaking to each other …..and cannot pass a budget and the schools have to close…then that is news.

    New Hymnals and church split: NOT NEWS.

    Schools close:NEWS

    Two examples from my own life:

    1. When I was in 2nd grade the Asheville City School system stopped serving fish on Fridays when it became OK for Catholics to eat meat on Friday. There is a case where Vatican II had an impact on the wider community. That was news worthy of the city paper. The atheist whose child allergic to fish no longer had to pack a lunch on Friday. And the students now had to face”Friday Soup” where all the veggie’s and meat that were not eaten earlier in the week reappeared. NEWS

    2. The preacher at my Protestant seminary graduation was the Bishop of the local Roman Catholic Diocese. Would not have happened without Vatican II. Worthy of extensive coverage in various church publications. But not the sort of thing that needed to be reported in the city paper. NOT NEWS

  • Richard

    “The atheist whose child allergic to fish no longer had to pack a lunch on Friday.”

    I smell an ulterior motive.

  • Marge

    Chuck, you sound like one of those people who misunderstand the Bill of Rights, and think instead of freedom OF religion we’re guaranteed freedom FROM religion.

    A new church, (or rather, two churches resulting from the split of an old one, as per your story,) is no less news than a new theater group, a news sports franchise, a new political party.

    Just becasue football doesn’t interest me is no reason for me to think the newspaper should stop reporting on it.

    Your idea that if something has no impact on you personally it’s not news is hogwash.

  • http://www.buscaraons.blogspot.com xavier


    Thoughtful article. Also I need to slightly nuance your description of Adoremus as traditionalist. It’s not traditionlist in the sense that Catholic understand it. Within the Catholic context, traditionalist is one who is unenthusiastic about the New mass and prefers the Tridentine mass.

    However some traditionalists became so radicalized that the broke away and organized under the Saint Pius X society (SSPX) They’re the best known group knowns as the radical traditionists (rad-trads in Catholic blogging circles)

    Adoremus isn’t opposed to the New mass or using vernacular languages instead of Latin; what it advocates is a respectful and faithful adherence to the liturgy as decreed in the various documents on the the subject.


    Tmatt is quite correct, Touchstone’s blog has an ongoing discussion about attractive worship. http://merecomments.typepad.com/merecomments/2005/01/iattractive_wor.html

    The subject matter has become quite popular- and is still ongoing- within the blog. Indeed mmany readers of various Christain demominations have commented about their good and bad experiences with their liturgies/masses/worship services.

    So liturgies do matter


  • chuck

    OK. My tendency towards being a smart aleck may have gone over the edge.

    I am really not hostile to the Christians. I am one and I am about to go spend 4 days at a conference with over a 1000 other members of my own tribe.

    I know about the worship wars/debates/discussions. I have been following the thread over at Touchstone.

    tmatt and I have a basic disagreement about what Weiss should have done with a limited resource — his access to the Cardinal. tmatt thought the article in the Morning News ought to have focused on the content of the denominational worship conference. I think if you have that rare access to a Cardinal who may have had some influence on a close election then that election would the logical focus for an article in a daily paper.

    As far as the “atheist with the allergy” I was going for an extreme. I could have used Baptist or Presbyterian. I tried to lighten it up by pairing it a humorous reference to “Friday Soup.” Surely someone else remembers post Vatican II Public School Friday Soup.

  • JoJo

    “It is better to interview the person who is sitting in front of you rather than the person that you wish was sitting in front of you.”

    Yes, but… Who sets the agenda here? If it’s Arinze then Weiss is no more than a publicist. If it’s Weiss then Arinze still gets to decide whether to sit for the interview, how to respond to the questions, and when to leave. What with the recent case of Armstrong Williams, perhaps we should pay closer attention to reporters being independent.

    I’m glad that Terry finds so many readers who are interested in worship, and he’s probably right that we should cover more of that. But it’s hard to fault Weiss for posing questions about topics that so clearly interest many Americans– papal candidates and Arinze’s involvement in the 2004 presidential election. Those topics are indeed newsworthy, regardless of the good cardinal’s wishes.

  • http://dallasnews.com Jeffrey Weiss

    1) The DMN is a secular publication that generally focuses on the specifics of denominational activity only when it is of sufficient importance or interest that it would be of interest to folks who aren’t a member of the denomination in question. That can be pretty broad but not infinitely so.

    2) We can’t be everywhere. At the moment, the normally 3-member DMN religion reporting staff is me. We are hiring, but at the moment, I’m dancing as fast as I can. The liturgical conference is something that I (or another DMN religion reporter) might have considered attending under other circumstances. But maybe not. Inside baseball is inside baseball.

    3) We were told the Cardinal was getting the award the night before. And that I might get a conversation with him. I’d met Cardinal Arinze in Dallas several years earlier and got about 4 words out of him. On the off-chance that I’d get more, I attended the award. He was extremely reluctant to talk to me. Just about every word he was willing to share — and certainly every question he was willing to answer — made it into the story. I would have been thrilled to have asked him some of your questions, Terry. But I was grateful to get the crumbs I got.

    Frankly, given how articulate he is, I don’t understand Arinze’s reluctance to talk to reporters. As if Nolan Ryan didn’t want to throw the fastball…I didn’t get the chance to ask him about that, either.

    And now you know…the REST of the story…1:-{)>