At this point, I do not think that GetReligion will be creating its own special web site to cover the upcoming visit by Pope Benedict XVI to the United States (at least, to the parts of the U.S. that really matter). That last part was a joke.
You see, journalists who cover religion are all waiting for the arrival of the tidal wave that is a papal visit, which is kind of the Olympic games of the Godbeat, or, better yet, our version of a national political convention. And, above all, we are waiting to find out what the "real" issue will be for this papal visit.
You know. The. Real. Issue.
We all know that the pope will talk about things that do not really matter, like prayer, Jesus, confession, the Eucharist and all those other religious doctrines. But there will have to be a "real" issue or two in there to cover, which means, of course, anything that can be seen as affecting politics and, thus, real life.
If he talks about poverty and health, that will impact discussions of national health care, which may be seen as a covert hint to Catholic swing voters in Ohio that they can, under Vatican II, vote for Bill and Hillary Clinton with a clear conscience despite their records on other life and death issues. You see how it works? Heaven help us all if he mentions the environment. Even if he speaks on the nature of the priesthood, that text will be parsed for language that will have an impact on discussion of gay rights. Will he meet with the presiding bishop of the U.S. Episcopal Church? Same thing.
There is also a chance that the "real" issue may be the state of Catholic higher education. No, really. The pope has requested a meeting with top Catholic academic leaders.
This issue is sexy because it affects the status of hundreds of Catholic educators who are important sources for American journalists. And, further, this conflict is linked to issues of moral doctrine, which means hot social issues that affect politics, which means abortion (and other issues) and that affects the U.S. Supreme Court and there you go.
Will Benedict demand that Catholic theologians believe the Nicene Creed? Believe that the resurrection was real? Believe that Catholic teachings on marriage are still in effect? Will he praise the new Catholic colleges that are springing up that defend Catholic doctrine and, thus, compete with those that are "diverse" when it comes to the basics of the faith?
You can see this lurking in the recent Washington Post story that ran with the headline "Catholic College Leaders Expect Pope to Deliver Stern Message." This is actually a pretty solid report, offering a good look at the issues involved -- seem primarily from the point of view of the American Catholic educational establishment, but with other interesting pro-Vatican voices thrown in there.
Check this out (tmatt trio alert, by the way):
The pope requested the meeting with more than 200 top Catholic school officials from across the country. The gathering will come amid debate over teachings and campus activities that bishops have slammed as violating Catholic doctrine: a rally by pro-abortion rights Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton at St. Mary's University in San Antonio; a Georgetown University theologian's questioning whether Jesus offers the only road to salvation; and a performance of "The Vagina Monologues" at the University of Notre Dame.
Wait, there's more:
"One thing the pope will emphasize is the importance for all [Catholic] schools to realize that they aren't independent contractors, they are part of the church," said the Rev. David M. O'Connell, Catholic University's president.
Catholic University is the only U.S. Catholic college founded by the nation's bishops, and it follows the Vatican line more closely than do many other schools. O'Connoll said Rome is concerned about the lack of Catholic faculty at Catholic universities and about rampant "moral relativism" -- the belief that there is no objective right or wrong -- on campuses.
Last fall, Worcester Bishop Robert J. McManus objected to a conference on teen pregnancy held on the campus of the College of the Holy Cross that included speakers from Planned Parenthood and NARAL. And last month: San Antonio Archbishop Jose Gomez complained about the Clinton rally at St. Mary's University; St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke said St. Louis University basketball coach Rick Majerus should be disciplined for his comments in support of abortion rights and embryonic stem cell research; and Catholic bishops moved a theological seminar off Notre Dame's campus to protest an on-campus performance of the play "The Vagina Monologues."
Bishops have criticized Georgetown for hosting Hustler publisher Larry Flynt and allowing the establishment of a pro-abortion rights student club there. Conservative Catholics are complaining about plans to open a gay resource center soon at the school.
We may need an ongoing contest, during coverage of this meeting, to count all of the scare quotes that reporters are going to put around crucial words such as "relativism," "truth" and even "Catholic."
But this academic session will be a crucial topic, because it's "real." Especially during an election campaign, you know, with all of those crucial Catholic swing voters in Ohio.