Tmatt wrote about two storylines in the press so far about the pope's visit. Daniel added a third. And in their spirit, I will add three more angles. Each reflected a major story recently in the big papers. Let's see how the papers did.
The fourth storyline is the Faltering State of the American Church. Laurie Goodstein of The New York Times documented its decline in recent decades:
Of 18,634 parishes in 2007, 3,238 were without resident pastors. More than 800 parishes have been closed since 1995, most since 2000. (Some bishops are preparing their parishioners for more closings ahead.) The number of priests ordained in 2007 fell to 456, less than half the number of new priests in 1965. Nearly 3 in 10 Catholics who attend Mass weekly or more said they had been personally affected by the priest shortage, according to the Georgetown poll.
I thought that Goodstein used statistics and figures to impressive effect, showing the extent to which the church has fallen. While a few of her numbers suggested that the church's future is bright -- witness the influx of Hispanics and converts -- most suggested that it is glum.
My only quibble is that Goodstein might have broken down those figures by region of the country or given her readers some sense of this. Isn't Catholicism in the Northeast and West breaking down? After all, several states have recently enacted culturally liberal policies: gay marriage in Massachusetts, domestic partneships in several states, human cloning and embryonic stem cell research? Are some religiously observant Midwestern states bucking those trends and if so, how so?
The fifth storyline is that the Pope Loves America. Perhaps picking up where Time left off, Tracy Wilkinson and Rebecca Trounson of The Los Angeles Times emphasized that Benedict appreciates Americans' religiosity and separation of church and state:
Benedict sees a dynamic church, one that has navigated with fair success the maze of living a faithful life in a secular, materialistic world. For him, the church in America is less a challenge and more a potential model, as is the growing role of religion in American society.
"From the dawn of the republic," the pope said recently, "America has been . . . a nation which values the role of religious belief in ensuring a vibrant and ethically sound democratic order."
Like Time reporters David Van Biema and Jeff Israely, Wilkinson and Trounson were right to mention Benedict's appreciation for America; after all, the pope might simply have not commented on American's form of government. Yet I continue to think that this angle is overstated. Benedict made his remarks about America to the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, not in a homily or encyclical. While Benedict's remarks no doubt were sincere, they do not strike me as at all central to his message.
The sixth storyline is the Pope's Dictatorship-of-Relativism Theme. Michelle Boorstein of The Washington Post wrote a softer variation of this thesis, summarizing Benedict's thinking this way:
Benedict feels that Western, secular societies don't take profound, supernatural religious faith seriously, a condition that he believes leads to rampant consumerism and nonchalance about such things as poverty. Religion-inspired terrorism shows, he believes, the opposite phenomenon: faith unhinged from reason.
Many here predict he will expand that idea at his address Friday to the United Nations by talking about the link between freedom and religion. He believes, essentially, that there is such a thing as right and wrong, that it comes from God and that it is the basis of free societies. He is worried that people have lost the larger point of religion, experts say.
Boorstein deserves a tip of the hat for writing this story. It addresses theology and philosophy, two topics that get short shrift to the say the least in newspapers. It reflects one of Benedict's central themes. And it cited an example in which Benedict will apply this theme, though she might have noted that he will likely do this at the public Masses in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Overall, these stories offer more hope than hand wringing. I still think that reporters should write about another storyline -- the Pope's Message that Christianity Alone Offers Hope, Faith, and Love -- but I'm not banking on it.