As the click ticks down to papalmania, we have reached the point where it is impossible to follow all of the coverage, let alone offer some commentary on it. Perhaps, in the comments pages, we could start a list of the best blogs to watch during the next few days. Please pitch in. Meanwhile, it seems to me that there are two schools of thought out there in terms of the themes for The Advance Stories.
The first can be summed up this way: "The pope is a superdelegate in the Democratic Party's race for the White House, whether he wants to admit it or not. It's not his fault. But the Catholic vote is so important that the candidates will have to take whatever he says and spin it in their favor."
The second story offers new variations on some very old themes that have been used in papal-visit advance stories for ages and ages, because they were true and easy to show in the polls: "The American Catholic Church is big and diverse and in some ways troubled, but, hey, it's certainly more alive than the all-but-dead church in post-Christian Europe."
This one comes will all kinds of secondary themes, usually with an emphasis on the fact that Catholics in America pretty much make up their own minds when it comes to what doctrines are really important in daily life, especially when it comes to sex. Oh, and all of those pro-Vatican traditionalists are really just practicing one valid form of Catholicism (check out this Washington Post story), no matter what the pope says or hints at. This is America, dang it.
Another theme variation in the coverage for this visit focuses on the rapid growth of Hispanic influence in the American church, in terms of numbers and culture. Has anyone seen an answer to this question: How many Hispanics are entering the priesthood here in North America?
This year, we also have another theme variation in this American Catholics vs. Roman Catholics stream of ink, and it centers, of course, on the issue of what is and what is not Catholic education. This is linked to the whole MSM debate over whether Rome has much to do with determining the content of Roman Catholicism. I wrote a column about this several weeks ago and it was interesting to note the degree to which this papal-visit sub-plot was on the minds of mainstream reporters at the pre-papalmania event hosted by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. Check out the transcript.
I have read so many Big Ben stories in the past few days that they are all beginning to run together. One, however, stands out because it was in the shrinking newspaper that lands in my front yard, which is the Baltimore Sun. It's main advance story is nigh unto perfect, in terms of combining all of the themes and stereotypes. This may, in fact, be the archetypal pre-papal visit mainstream media news report.
So let's play a game with this. It's a game that people on both sides of the church aisle can play.
If you are a liberal Catholic (or someone sympathetic to that cause), list the five images, phrases or themes that you most want to see included in a story about a visit by Pope Benedict XVI. Write them down, then read the Sun story and I predict that you will be able to check them off one by one. Use of the word "Rottweiler"? Check. You get the idea.
Or, if you are a pro-Vatican Catholic (or someone sympathetic to that cause), list the five images, phrases or themes that keep showing up in mainstream reports that really, really tick you off. Write them down, then check them off one by one. Use of the word "Rottweiler"? Check. You could, of course, list items that you wish would be included, but are missing -- like quotes from actual papal addresses. But that would be a different game.
Ready? Here is one glimpse at the fun that lies ahead in "Deciphering Benedict XVI." It opens like this:
Pope Benedict XVI comes to Washington this week a virtual stranger in the United States, home to the third-largest Catholic flock on the planet. But his itinerary, which includes stadium-sized Masses for tens of thousands of followers, will provide an opportunity to change his image as a dour disciplinarian.
Three years into his papacy, the 80-year-old pope enjoys nowhere near the public affection, let alone the adoration, that made Pope John Paul II's visit to Baltimore in 1995 such a rapturous event for so many.
The Sun then followed this with a perfect example of the "papal politics is inevitable" news feature. It's actually a pretty good example of that genre and worth checking out.
Please help us ride the waves in the next few days and don't forget to put some good blog links in the comments pages. As for my writing for Scripps Howard, the timing of the visit is terrible since my column deadline is Wednesday morning -- before all of the major events (especially that speech at the United Nations). So my column this week will focus on the religion beat itself, as I mark the 20th anniversary of my first column for the news service. I'll have to return to B16 work the following week.