Waiting for the “real” pope stuff

tsunamiAt 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.

waveEverything centers around the nearly two decades of debate linked to a crucial Vatican document entitled Ex Corde Ecclesiae (click here for text). Again, why is this a “real” issue?

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.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • FW Ken

    it follows the Vatican line

    I’m sure this phrase, or a variant, will appear ad nauseam throughout coverage of the visit. It’s a useful formula, of course, for portraying the Catholic Faith in protestant terms: the Vatican line, the McBrien/Chittister line, the Voice of the Faithful line, the SNAP line, anything the Omniscient Me, Myself, and I believes … whatever… it’s all good.

    Borrowing from tmatt’s previous observation: reporters will do their best to make the Catholic Church look like the Episcopal Church, which is what they really want us to be anyway.

  • Martha

    Get ready for a run on “slams”, “cracks down on”, “disciplines”, “hard line” and of course “conservative” and “fundamentalist”, along with interchangeable use of “the Vatican” and “the Pope”, when they should be using “the teaching of the Catholic Church”.

    Simultaneously, while slamming, cracking down, discipling and being hard line, the Pope will also be softening his image, discarding the Rottweiler tag and attempting to rehabilitate the Reformation, amongst other exercises.

    Because it just can’t be that the theme of this visit is indeed “Christ Our Hope”, like that encyclical thingy he put out, now what was it called, “Saved by Hope” or something along those lines?

    I will wait to be amused by the coverage; sadly, I don’t expect to be either informed or edified.

  • Jerry

    anything that can be seen as affecting politics and, thus, real life.

    That comment sums the situation up quite well.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Maybe now is the time for those of us who believe in basically irrelevant (in the eyes of much of the media) things like religion to start praying rosaries, offering up Masses, saying novenas, etc. for the reporters and editors of the MSM that they might research and learn enough about Catholicism so as to accurately and fairly report on the pope’s visit.
    Maybe then some of them will follow in the footsteps of the late English journalists G.K. Chesterton and -more recently-Malcolm Muggeridge and find themselves attracted enough to the Church so as to join her or (if already loosely Catholic) to become rock-solid devout Catholics.

  • http://www.Pope2008.com Tim Drake


    You’ve hit the nail squarely on the head on this. The vast majority of reporters cannot help but read politics into the Pope’s visit and remarks, coming as he is in the midst of an election year.

  • Maureen

    Re: Catholic education

    Schools, colleges, and adult faith formation is a very important religious issue, though, especially to Catholics. The parochial school system in America was a model to the world, and didn’t have to kowtow to government tax money the way European parochial schools usually have had to do. It also played an important part of helping Catholics resist religious prejudice. But now that parochial school system has been largely allowed to collapse, people are becoming vitally interested in having Catholic schools as an alternative to public schools — not so much for excellence of education, even, as to escape the bizarre wave of hostility toward plain ordinary Christian values. There’s also the issue of service to the poor or middle class family vs. charging the sky for an elite private school. (Elite private school was an unsuccessful model in the early 1800′s, so I’m not sure why Catholic parishes flock to play that card now.)

    Finally, it should be remembered that before the Pope became a university professor, his first job had him in an ordinary parish as an associate pastor and religion teacher for all the grades in the parish school. He says in his autobiography that teaching gradeschoolers was a very profound experience for him, and honed both his teaching skills and his thought, and that every level of Catholic education is important. So I’d say the Pope’s not best pleased with the current American parochial school situation.

    It should also be remembered that his university teaching experience was pretty much all at secular schools attended and taught by people of all kinds of religion and none. He’s not unsympathetic to academic freedom. But I’m sure he’s not happy about having the Catholic name on institutions that aren’t really interested in teaching Catholic doctrine, or individuals who actively try to break students’ Catholic faith and morals.

    In the past, however, his teaching method was not to lower the boom, but to tell people what the desired situation is and to make people want to get there. He doesn’t want to fire people; he wants people to start doing their job the way he knows they can.

    But his most important mission here will be to turn people’s attention to God, and to help them turn away from sin. Dog bites man, eh?

  • Rosemarie

    Hmmm… 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.” Looks like GetReligion gets it wrong, which is disappointing. Although this was likely supposed to be a satirical comment on the nature of contemporary journalism and how they don’t “get religion,” I’m not sure this writer really understands this Pope’s papacy.
    Making the Incarnation of God “real,” as in palpable; reminding the world, but especially Catholic Christians, that Truth comes by our personal encounter with the face of God made man – this is the REAL message of Benedict’s papacy. You can see this in his encyclicals, his Wednesday audiences, and his homilies. Amy Welborn characterizes the “real” message of Benedict’s papacy beautifully, and in doing so she also articulates how wrong most commentators have gotten the message: http://amywelborn.wordpress.com/2008/03/11/watch-and-listen/. Her column is much more insightful than what has been written about the Pope almost anywhere else in this country.

    The fact that it seems so hard for so many to get the “real” message of this papacy – and the mission behind his visits – speaks volumes about the secularization of the contemporary mind. Unfortunately, this is true even of the minds of Christians, who seem to have so much trouble grasping the meaning of the Incarnation. As the Pope has said over and over again, our faith is not a code of ethics. Rather it is the fruit of an encounter and the ensuing relationship with Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Saviour.