Benedict XVI visits the circus

And so it begins. I have always thought that papal trips -- especially to lands that stage regular media circuses -- are the Olympics of religion news. The big problem, of course, is that the pope is WAY too important to be covered by mere religion-beat professionals. You have to break out the media superstars and political/cultural reporters and that's where the real fun begins.

Meanwhile, CNN.com has chosen to ask an interesting question: "Why is Benedict coming to Britain?"

The surprise is that the tone of this piece is very professional and there is no snark whatsoever. Rather than getting into a laundry list of the usual topics that weigh down much of the coverage of this pope, reporter Richard Allen Greene turns the mirror around and focuses on why Benedict XVI signed up for this high-wire act.

Here is a chunk of the story, near the top. I only have one complaint, which I will get to shortly. Even that complaint is a way of saying that this piece is shooting at the right target, if reporters are actually planning on listening to what the pope has to say (especially in that big London speech).

The leader of the world's 1 billion-plus Catholics does not particularly like to travel, Since a high-profile visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories nearly a year-and-a-half ago, he's gone only to a handful of small countries not far from Rome -- racking up nothing like the number of air miles logged by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. And the United Kingdom is not a Catholic country. On the contrary, Britain's break from Rome in the 16th century echoes, if faintly, to the present day, with laws on the books forbidding the heir to the British throne from marrying a Catholic.

In fact, the country is one of the less religious ones in Europe, home to vociferous critics of religion like Richard Dawkins, and those who find belief in a higher power simply unnecessary, like Stephen Hawking.

Public opinion on the eve of his visit ranges from indifference to downright hostility. There will be protests from critics who consider him a protector of pedophiles and from liberal Catholics who resent his staunch defense of orthodox doctrine. And all this will play out in in front of the British media -- one of the world's most aggressive.

So why, aged 83 and happier at home, is the professorial vicar of Christ on earth stepping into the lion's den? It may be the very factors that seem to argue against his coming that impelled him to come. ...

This pope relishes a challenge, said John Allen, CNN's senior Vatican analyst. His "No. 1 priority is to combat secularism, and in some ways the United Kingdom is the dictionary definition of a post-religious society," Allen said. "He just created a whole new department in the Vatican to reawaken the faith in the West, and this trip is a chance to elaborate a strategy."

The key word in there, for me, is "professorial."

Reporters keep forgetting that Benedict is, in many ways, an elite academic who grew up in the very heart of chilly European liberalism -- the powerful halls of German intellectualism. I mean, journalists know that the pope acts intellectual, but they cannot seem to understand that many of the issues that drive him are rooted in his academic past. They are rooted in his intellectual concerns.

You see, this pope is, in many ways, a traitor who has turned a back on his own elite class (and I use that word in both sense of the word). His love-hate relationship with academia in Europe is very personal. In a way, Benedict is an infidel who is rebelling against the secular orthodoxy and liberal forms of faith that framed his early career.

So, yes, as the story says, "Benedict is picking a fight with secularism." He has intellectual reasons for doing so.

Meanwhile, we can expect oceans of ink about the pope's decision to "raid" the Church of England for converts, a "raid" that follows a decade or so of Anglo-Catholic appeals for a "Roman Option" in England (see this book from 1998, which stressed that liberal Catholics in England were fighting these plans).

But this is all part of the same regional picture. To cut to the chase: Benedict XVI is looking for allies in what he believes is a war for the soul of Europe. The CNN piece got that.

... (A) leading voice for conservative members of the Church of England, Canon Chris Sugden, said, "Many orthodox Anglicans in England would feel that they share more in common with the pope than with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church [Rowan Williams]."

That doesn't mean Anglicans see eye-to-eye with the pope on a number of important theological issues, he said, but added, "We welcome the pope's visit because it raises many of the critical challenges to the current elite secularism that is being imposed on us," he said.

And if his religious message proves unpopular in Britain, particularly against the backdrop of the sex abuse scandals enveloping the Catholic Church, Benedict really doesn't mind, Gibson said. "He sees criticism almost as a form of persecution that reinforces the importance and the truth of his message," he said. ...

Coming under sufficiently intense criticism could even rebound in Benedict's favor, Gibson said. "British tabloids can be so over-the-top that they can prove his point," he said. "He could become a sympathetic figure."

Here we go.

Photo: Anglican Communion News Service, from a previous meeting of Rome and Canterbury.

Please respect our Commenting Policy