Whenever the pope -- any pope, at any point in time -- comes to town, the visit generates thousands of words of content from speeches, homilies, remarks by dignitaries and in reactions from Catholics and others on the street. It's a classic case of the big journalism question: OK. What's the news here? What goes at the top of the main story?
Throw in the superstar status Pope Francis currently enjoys with the mainstream press and this question becomes even more important.
In an early report on the pope's packed day in D.C., The Washington Post took a safe and responsible tact -- casting a broad net over a host of issues.
But what if, at the end of the day, Francis added a new and unexpected event to his calendar, one linked to issues that have dominated U.S. headlines this past year both at the U.S. Supreme Court and in Congress? Would that event be worthy of prime coverage? Hold. That. Thought.
First, here is how the Post opened an early version of its summary story:
A fast-moving Pope Francis plunged into his first U.S. visit with gusto Wednesday, embracing the adulation of jubilant crowds as he crisscrossed Washington and confronted enduring controversies that included global warming, immigration and the clergy abuse scandal.
The popular pontiff, who has captured the imagination of religious and secular Americans with his humble style, began to establish an in-the-flesh identity as a committed champion of the poor, the dispossessed and the planet. But he also positioned himself as a loyal adherent of church teachings and hierarchies that are much less popular than he is, pushing back, Vatican watchers said, on efforts to enlist him on either side of the culture wars.
The pope thrilled a White House gathering by introducing himself as the son of immigrants and aligning himself with President Obama’s climate-change efforts. But he also echoed the call for religious liberty that conservatives claim as resistance to same-sex marriage and other fast-changing social mores.
Lots of content, touching on many topics. However, at the end of the day Francis himself added a highly symbolic grace note -- slipping away to meet with members of the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order dedicated to helping the poor and elderly. Obviously, the Vatican also knew that the Little Sisters just happen to be caught in the middle of America's debates over religious liberty and the First Amendment.
So where did this highly symbolic and unexpected papal act end up, in this morning's copies of the Post and other elite American newspapers?
This event did make it into the Post, in what appears to have been a short "Acts of Faith" story in the local news section. As I wrote this morning, this story was not mentioned in the paper's wrap-up of papal headlines on the front of the Post website. It was mentioned on the newspaper's inside page offering a summary of papal coverage:
Pope Francis met with the Little Sisters of the Poor -- nuns who have been in a long battle over a contraception mandate part of Obamacare -- at their home across the street from Catholic University after he celebrated Mass on Wednesday. The pope’s visit to the Little Sisters was a sign of support for them in their legal battle, Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, told reporters.
The Little Sisters of the Poor, which operates homes for the elderly in cities across the country, has been in a battle with the Obama administration over the law’s requirement that they allow their insurers to offer free contraception coverage to employees.
By this morning, the Post had moved on to other issues, focusing primarily on the upcoming papal address to the U.S. Congress -- by all means an historic event -- and the negative reaction by groups representing the victims of clergy abuse to the pope's words of praise to U.S. bishops for their "courage" in response to the crisis. This was clearly a major story worthy of coverage, as well.
Still, I was left asking myself this question: What if, at the end of his day, the pope had slipped away to meet with representatives of gay and lesbian Catholics who had petitioned him for changes in church doctrine? What about transgendered Catholics?
What if he had met with victims of clergy sexual abuse? What if he had met with refugees who have escaped from the hells of Syria and Iraq? What if he had met with global-warming activists?
Would any of these meetings have received major coverage, something more than an online brief or a local story?
I first read about the Little Sisters of the Poor meeting in, yes, an online conservative publication -- The Daily Caller. The story is also being played on the front page of the Catholic News Agency.
USA Today also did a short story, under this pointed headline: "In meeting with nuns, Pope Francis makes quiet protest of Obamacare." The story noted:
Louisville Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the court case represents the broader understanding of freedom of religion held by the Catholic church.
“Freedom of religion also means the ability to live out your religion,” he said. “The last thing the Little Sisters of the Poor want to do is sue somebody. They want to serve the poor and the elderly, and do so in a way that doesn’t conflict with their beliefs. We feel strongly about that. It’s a freedom not of special privilege, it’s a freedom to serve others, and serve others in such a way that does not compromise the integrity of our beliefs.”
The quiet show of support comes as Francis walks a political tightrope in Washington this week, speaking out on moral issues of concern to conservatives (abortion and religious freedom) and liberals (immigration and the environment) alike.
The major television networks? Pretty much all papal politics, all the time. You know: The pope is really bad news for Republicans, alone. CNN? Zippo, that I could find.
Religion News Service took the quiet, but logical, strategy of briefly mentioning the Little Sisters visit down in the body of a separate news story about the pope's White House remarks on religious liberty.
What about the world's most powerful newsroom?
Still, in a low-key but evident break with Mr. Obama, Francis at the end of the day made a previously unannounced stop to see the nuns at the Little Sisters of the Poor to underscore his support for religious freedom, a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said. The Little Sisters religious order sued the federal government over the birth control mandate in Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act.
Perhaps it should be noted that, in this case, a reference to religious freedom was not judged worthy of "scare quotes" status in the Times.
PHOTO: From the Facebook page of the Catholic News Agency. Photos provided by the Little Sisters of the Poor.