Nothing but costs and protests at World Youth Day

The Roman Catholic Church is having its World Youth Day in Madrid, an event geared toward young people and held in celebration of the Catholic faith. These events are held locally every year and internationally every two to three years. They attract hundreds of thousands of youth from all over the globe and they've been credited with helping young people get more involved in the church. This marks the world's largest gathering of young people. This year is no exception. As many as 1.5 million people are expected for Saturday's vigil and Sunday's Papal Mass outside the city. So this is a major event and it's interesting to see how reporters are covering it. I am pretty sure that there was a contest to see how many journalists could get the word "lavish" into the lede. Here's Agence France-Presse:

Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims gathered for a giant open-air mass in the heart of Madrid on Tuesday, launching a lavish six-day youth party for Pope Benedict XVI.

Party for Benedict? I don't think that's how the church would describe it. And what makes the event lavish, exactly? It's unclear. What happened to show, don't tell?

Here's the angle the New York Times chose for their story on the event, with the headline "Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag":

MADRID — The Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez’s church is a prefabricated building in an area of this city hard hit by Spain’s economic crisis. In front of the altar are a few scraggly potted plants. Behind it, some plastic chairs.

To the Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez, the trip's cost is “scandalous.”

How, he asks, can the Roman Catholic Church be getting ready for a lavish $72 million celebration in this city — some of it paid for with tax dollars — when Spain is in the midst of an austerity drive, the unemployment rate for young people is 40 percent and his parishioners are losing their homes to foreclosure every day?

“It is scandalous, the price,” he said. “It is shameful. It discredits the church.”

Father Rodríguez, 67, is among the 120 clergymen working among the poor here who have signed a lengthy petition deploring the pope’s visit this week on many grounds — from its cost to what they see as an inappropriate melding of church and state.

Subtle! The AFP story says most of the costs are covered by the pilgrims themselves. Here we're told that "some" will be paid for through taxpayer dollars. Later we learn that government officials and church officials say that businesses came up with $23 million to pay for various events, pilgrims will pay $44 million themselves and donations will cover the rest. Pilgrims are allowed to sleep in public buildings such as schools and businesses will get tax breaks for their contributions. Critics say they're worried about hidden costs such as the stress on health care systems and subsidized use of public transportation.

I don't know if these costs are just the typical cost you might expect for such a large gathering of people or if they reflect frugality or spendthriftiness. Many more details are needed. Just by way of comparison, the Democratic National Committee spent $53 million on the 2008 Denver convention. That's just what the committee spent, so I'm unsure about other costs such as the ones mentioned above. The largest event had fewer than 100,000 people at Invesco field. So I'm not sure what the $72 million figure is supposed to tell us, exactly.

And what about some context on these 120 clergymen? I know that there are about 20,000 priests alone in Spain. I'm unsure how many total clergy there are. Either way, we're talking about a fraction of a percent of clergy. It's got to be nice for them to receive such prominent coverage! Clearly this is the most important angle the media are focusing on. We are told that the priests, will join "dozens of left-leaning groups demanding a secular state and young people who occupied many of Spain’s main squares for months to protest the government’s handling of the economy" in a major protest march on Wednesday.

From the perspective of the New York Times, this World Youth Day is nothing more than a financial racket for the Catholic Church:

Spain is less solidly Catholic than it once was. A government survey released in July found that 71.7 percent of Spaniards declared themselves Catholics, compared with 82.1 percent in 2001. Of those, 13 percent attend Mass on Sundays, compared with 19 percent 10 years ago.

But the church is eager to keep a spiritual hold on this country, where people can still check a box diverting up to seven-tenths of a percent of their taxes to the church.

Now, maybe "the church is eager" to see Catholics return to the church in Spain for no more reason than that they might get a fraction of a percent from people's taxes. But if you're going to level such an incendiary charge, after making the protests from left-leaning anti-clerical groups, unemployed youth and a small fraction of Catholic clergy the angle you use to cover World Youth Day, I have a couple of suggestions. The first would be to substantiate the charge with much more than innuendo and the second would be to allow the church to respond. Otherwise, it just comes off like a crusade against the church. And that's the last thing the Times needs when it comes to covering Catholics.

As for other reporters, if you're looking for a new angle that doesn't include the words "lavish" or "protests," here's one that might be worth checking out.

Please respect our Commenting Policy