Smells, bells, baseball and mainstream news

HighMass.jpgIn the midst of a very busy week (I mean, I haven’t even had a chance to blog on that New York Times sonogram story yet), I received a comment from a reader that I thought deserved a slot on the front page, so everyone has a chance to read it.

The letter came from reporter Jeffrey Weiss, who wrote to offer background information and commentary on my recent blog item about his short story focusing on a visit by Cardinal Francis Arinze to a liturgical conference in Dallas. The Dallas Morning News‘ mini-report focused on the Nigerian cardinal’s reluctance to discuss a number of issues, from his status as a candidate for the chair of St. Peter to the Communion status of Sen. John Kerry and those who share his views of Catholic moral theology.

I was not the only one who thought that this article was somewhat strange. Catholic uberblogger Amy Welborn read the report and commented:

. . . “Huh?” It told me nothing — about why the Cardinal was in Dallas, what he said, and the interview was pure boilerplate. . . . It was either one of the worst written or most severely edited articles I’ve run across. Edited into nothingness.

Soon after that, Weiss sent GetReligion a note offering his point of view. Here it is.

(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:-{)>

Point (2) is certainly valid. Everyone who has worked in daily journalism knows that that kind of crunch feels like.

Nevertheless, I do want to restate my main point. Weiss says that “inside baseball is inside baseball.” True, but there are many baseball fans in the greater Dallas area and it does help to cover their larger teams, whether Southern Baptist or Roman Catholic. As I said before, I have found that issues related to worship — from inclusive language to radical changes in musical styles — are extremely important to many readers of mainstream religion news.

I do not know if controversial issues such as this came up during the Dallas conference that featured Cardinal Arinze. That’s the point. If there was controversy, you sure would not read about it in the local Catholic newspaper. That’s why religion reporting by quality mainstream reporters — such as Weiss — is so important. News is news, even when shrouded in incense.

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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.

  • Peter C.

    Where was the picture taken? It appears to be of the Little Entrance during an “Eastern” liturgy, but in a “Western” church.

  • tmatt

    Bingo. It’s in an Eastern-Rite Catholic Church.

    A great uncovered story, I am told, is the growth of Eastern Rite as an alternative to the modern Roman rite. I’ve tried to get stats, but no one wants to talk about it.

  • Tom Breen

    It is a great uncovered story. I wrote about a local Ukrainian Catholic Church for my paper, and even lifelong Catholics on our staff had no idea that the Eastern Rites even exist. But you’re right about no one wanting to talk about it, including (maybe especially) the Eastern churches themselves. Outreach is not their strong suit, with some exceptions.

    Also, on the inside baseball thing: Whenever our paper writes about “inside baseball” issues like liturgical changes or parish mergers, we get flooded with letters and phone calls, far moreso than when we write about, say, planning board meetings. I think there’s a lot of interest out there in purportedly “inside” stories.

  • gpieper

    It is a sore subject. The Romans still aren’t completely comfortable with Catholics who don’t look like them, and we Uniates aren’t completely comfortable with ourselves. Several years ago, a Ruthenian bishop outlawed the use of the Spanish liturgy in his eparchy because a Roman bishop had accused his priests of “sheep steeling.” It is an interesting conflict, and one that the church works hard at keeping beneath the sheets.

  • Dale Price

    A very big uncovered story, indeed. If you look at your average Byzantine Catholic Church, I suspect you’d find a large number of refugees from the stupidities inflicted on them in the name of reform.

    In fact, the Latin (and wholly in the bag for “progressive” approaches) Diocese of Saginaw lost a parish church to the Byzantine Eparchy of Parma in the late ’80s. It’s the Church of St. John in Omer, Michigan. I heard third hand from a Byzantine Catholic that the reason was dissatisfaction with attempts to impose a “progressive” liturgy and “renovation” of their beloved parish church.

    An interesting story would be whether those parishioners would return if there was an indication that Saginaw’s new bishop is able to rein in one of America’s most wayward diocese.