Railing along with the cardinal-to-be

Once again, let’s repeat together the following foundational truth of journalism — reporters are not responsible for the headlines that grace or disgrace their news stories.

In today’s exciting update on this subject, a copy editor at The New York Daily News produced a headline that, for the most part, undercut most of the content of a news story about a recent sermon by New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, a soon-to-be cardinal who is also the president of the U.S. Catholic Bishops. Dolan has a reputation as one jolly, smiling dude.

The headline is pretty blunt and contains one of those verbs that mainstream journalists seem to reserve for religious leaders who are convinced that some moral doctrines are true and others are, well, not true.

Brace yourselves. Here ’tis:

In homily, Archbishop Timothy Dolan rails against sexual immorality

Cardinal-to-be encourages flock to follow their moral compass

The key word, of course, is “rails.” One online dictionary offers the following definition of that colorful and rarely used word:

rail 3

intr.v. railed, rail·ing, rails

To express objections or criticisms in bitter, harsh, or abusive language.

Keep that in mind as you read the top of the report in question:

New York’s cardinal-to-be delivered a no-holds-barred sermon on morality Sunday, telling his flock to stand firm against popular culture’s message that sex outside marriage is okay.

“The one who, with God’s grace and mercy, tries his or her best to be pure and chaste is often thought of not as a hero, not a saint, but as a freak in our culture today,” Archbishop Timothy Dolan said at St. Patrick’s.

“The biblical teaching on sexual responsibility is countercultural,” he continued, hailing those who stay true to their moral compass. “Anyone who tries his or her best to live it can expect a lot of temptation and even ridicule and criticism.”

OK, still waiting for some bitter, harsh language to show up in this story. This is rather frank talk, but pretty ordinary pulpit language from a traditionalist, or at least the ones that I have covered through the years. Yet, readers should note that in the very next sentence, this story attempts to link this sermon directly to judgments about heaven and hell. You see, readers are told that this was a “fire-and-brimstone homily.”

OK, let’s look for that kind of fiery language as well, while continuing to search for all of that bitter and abusive stuff.

Dolan linked “sexual immorality” with society’s ills — violence, sex crimes, disease and broken families — and called on priests to do a better job of encouraging the sexually virtuous.

“The church has at times in the past, sadly, come across as as some naysaying, puritanical nag, always giving a big ‘No, no, no’ to one of life’s greatest joys,” he said.

But modern society often reduces sex to “animal rutting” or its “most popular contact sport,” he said. He didn’t mention any one show or star by name, but Dolan clearly seemed to be targeting the bedhopping that’s become regular fare on TV and reality shows like “Jersey Shore.”

OK, perhaps the Daily News team has softened some of the abusive rhetoric that was served up by the archbishop. Perhaps the goal was to prevent sensitive readers from being shocked or hurt. Tabloid newspapers are careful about that kind of thing. However, what I am reading is simple, if somewhat colorful language. In other words, no sign of “railing” in this sermon — unless the really nasty stuff didn’t make it into the paper.

I suspect that is not the case because of the following observation — featured at the end of the report — by a Catholic in attendance at the service.

Ed Murphy, 64, of South Bound Brook, N.J., also believes Dolan knows how to deliver the key message of Catholicism.

“He says what’s important, but he says it in a nice way,” Murphy said.

Methinks that this story came off the rails, somewhere. Strange, strange, strange. I sure would like to see the full text of the sermon, though. Perhaps there is “railing” in there after all.

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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.

  • Will

    In the sparse quotations, I do not see any references to television or mass media, leaving it a mystery how the “reporter” knew that was what he was specifically referring to.

    But usually, in Daily News headlines people do not “criticize” or “denounce” or even “attack” their targets, but “rip” or “slam” them.

    (If Sharpton made a speech about conditions on Riker’s Island, would it be headed AL RIPS SLAMMER?)

  • Julia

    I’m old enough to remember plenty of “fire and brimstone” homilies and this surely wasn’t one.

    Interesting that the two attendees quoted considered it very thoughtful and civil.

    The other parishioner (not in this post), age 38, was quoted as saying:

    “If you have a desire to be more devout, there could be friends or family who mock or don’t understand.”

    As cardinal, Dolan will be a moral compass for Catholics young and old, he thinks.

    “He can really communicate what our religion is about and help us stay focused,” Ferraro said.

    Perhaps the newswriter was encouraged by his editor to spice up the article to garner attention and on-line hits.

    Or maybe he is young and doesn’t know what a fire-and-brimstone sermon sounds like.

    It was an interesting story, none the less.

  • Jeff

    In headline, New York Daily News rails against Archbishop Timothy Dolan for Catholic views

    Newspaper encourages readers to ignore rival moral teaching of Catholic Church

  • Jerry

    But usually, in Daily News headlines people do not “criticize” or “denounce” or even “attack” their targets, but “rip” or “slam” them.

    That’s a great point. After all, is the purpose of running media outlets to inform the public or make money? Making money too often requires attention grabbing headlines.

  • Chuck Murphy

    The Archbishop is becoming a media phenomenon. Was there a reporter in St. Patrick’s Cathedral or was there a tip-off about his topic? I don’t want to be in his cult of personality since my faith means more than him.

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Nice article, tmatt, but please be aware of how you use the word “traditionalist” when referring to a Catholic. While our cardinal designate did give a more or less “traditional” kind of sermon, that’s different than a sermon by a “traditionalist”; the latter would have spent the whole sermon “railing” about how sexual immorality is all the fault of Vatican II, and the whole thing could be solved by the return to Latin and the 1962 missal and women wearing veils at every Mass, etc.

    Abp. Dolan is certain no traditionalist in this sense, though he is nicely traditional. For the unwary journalist, these two words could turn out to be as easy to mistake for each other as “evangelical” and “evangelist.”

  • http://www.pilgrimage.subcreators.com Lori Pieper

    Chuck, the text of all of Abp. Dolan’s sermons are made available not only to the press but to his flock through the diocesan newspaper Catholic New York, and I believe, the Archdiocesan web site. As were the sermons of his recent predecessors. It is a great way for people to receive the message their spiritual leader has to offer them.

    How is this, to you, equivalent to fostering a “cult of personality” for himself?

  • http://catholicecology.blogspot.com/ Bill P.

    One thing is for sure: Anyone reading the story based on the headline, expecting to find evidence of a “railing” hateful Catholic Church, didn’t find it. Maybe the copy editor did the Archbishop, and the Church, a favor.

  • Chris

    I think that the headline is suffering from a lack of proper punctuation. What should really have been printed is as follows: “…Archbishop Timothy Dolan, rails, against sexual immorality.”
    The rail, a type of marsh bird, would likely be against sexual immorality, so it makes sense. :-)

  • Hector

    It’s worth bearing in mind that the Cardinal probably didn’t just choose this topic because he randomly wanted to talk about sex. The Epistle Reading from the RC lectionary for Sunday (from 1 Corinthians) was Paul talking about ‘sexual immorality’. A lot of people seem to assume that Catholic bishops talk about sex all the time, but really, they don’t. That was actually a topic that was, you know, called for on Sunday. FTR, I’m fairly liberal and disagree with the RC Church on a number of sexual morality topics, but I think we could all benefit from more sermons like this. They’re certainly better then the insipid mush that too many sermons consist of nowadays. Churches should be upfront and open about their doctrines, including the unpopular ones, and if people disagree then they don’t have to be part of that church.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt


    Thanks! Just what we like — a comment containing a relevant fact and observation about this news story.

    Sincere thanks.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    Chuck, the tabloids did this all the time with O’Connor, seeing what they could twist into the most salacious headline.

  • http://Faith&Reason Cathy Grossman

    Denounces… that would be 9 characters. Rails … that would be 5, like slams but longer than rips. Got the right verb in 5 or fewer characters for the poor headline writer? Also, any chance that readers in contemporary colloquial use of language, get the bitter side of railing? I doubt it.
    Best comment is Hector’s offering of religious context for the sermon!
    On personality cult, oh please, does no one remember Cardinal O’Connor? The press corps was in St. P almost every week to get his remarks. And don’t we all get the Cardinal’s schedule in an email every week from the archD office just as we did in the Egan years (no cult of personality there…)?

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    I wanted to provide a link to Archbishop Dolan’s homily, and that is here:


    If you listen, you will not, as you rightly presume, hear ‘railing’.