Papal drama vs. melodrama

savethedramaIn recent weeks, I've tried to point out some of the better and worse coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's upcoming visit to the United States. Count this one as one of the better. Headlined "Pope Is Coming, as Is Cliched Coverage in the Media," you can also see it's one of the funnier. Reporter Peter Steinfels, writing in the more casual "Beliefs" section, says what many of us have been thinking for years:

Is the pope Catholic? That used to be a sarcastic way of saying, could anything be more obvious? Is fire hot? Is water wet?

Now, however, that nothing in the world is obvious, when Pope Benedict XVI arrives in the United States on April 15 there will surely be voices in the media apparently disconcerted to discover that, yes, the pope is Catholic.

Yes, he disagrees with Richard Dawkins that atheism is necessary for salvation. Yes, he believes that Jesus of Nazareth is the son of God and the center of human history. Yes, he thinks that Catholic Christianity is truer than Islam or Buddhism or Hinduism or even Protestant Christianity. Astounding. What next?

Can I get an 'Amen!"? What distinguishes Steinfels' piece, though, is the way he homes in on media coverage of Benedict's upcoming trip. He says the most surprising thing about papal trips are the way they provoke surprise that, for instance, the pope believes all human life is valuable. Or the way that people are surprised that even those American Roman Catholics who do not follow all Catholic teachings still honor the pope. And he makes an important point:

This kind of disagreement may signal, as some argue, a severe crisis in church authority. Or it may be more of a norm throughout Catholic history than is widely realized. But whatever it is, it is not new.

Reporters, of course, have to emphasize drama to push their stories to the front page or the top the of the hour. But it can cause problems:

Breathlessness is always a problem with papal visits. The trouble with melodrama is that it displaces genuine drama. Caricature replaces character.

Steinfels argues that at least five genuine dramas are built into this trip: the appearance at the UN, the encounter with American Catholicism, the emphasis on Catholic education and identity, interactions with leaders of other denominations and navigating the American political divides. Writing about Benedict's record, he says:

Breathlessness doesn't help much in making sense of such a record, neither the breathlessness that interprets the pope solely through his most controversial acts or statements nor the breathlessness that cannot imagine how a prayerful, learned and revered figure might nonetheless be a flawed leader.

Breathlessness may be a major reason why, almost three years after his election, the world still hasn't much of a fix on his personality or his papacy.

This is my favorite part of Steinfels' criticism, and one I hope that religion reporters are taking to heart:

Of course, part of the problem in getting a fix on Benedict is simply the feebleness of accepted categories for understanding any serious religious leaders -- and hence the impulse to deal with them as celebrities or politicians. Of all the words he speaks during his trip here, the ones that will probably go least examined are no doubt the ones he treasures most, the words of the Mass.

Normally media criticism such as this is written after the fact, after we've gone through weeks of horrible reporting. I hope that Steinfels' piece will be read by everyone tempted to create melodrama where genuine drama exists.

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