Benedict XVI visits the circus

And so it begins.

I have always thought that papal trips — especially to lands that stage regular media circuses — are the Olympics of religion news. The big problem, of course, is that the pope is WAY too important to be covered by mere religion-beat professionals. You have to break out the media superstars and political/cultural reporters and that’s where the real fun begins.

Meanwhile, CNN.com has chosen to ask an interesting question: “Why is Benedict coming to Britain?

The surprise is that the tone of this piece is very professional and there is no snark whatsoever. Rather than getting into a laundry list of the usual topics that weigh down much of the coverage of this pope, reporter Richard Allen Greene turns the mirror around and focuses on why Benedict XVI signed up for this high-wire act.

Here is a chunk of the story, near the top. I only have one complaint, which I will get to shortly. Even that complaint is a way of saying that this piece is shooting at the right target, if reporters are actually planning on listening to what the pope has to say (especially in that big London speech).

The leader of the world’s 1 billion-plus Catholics does not particularly like to travel, Since a high-profile visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories nearly a year-and-a-half ago, he’s gone only to a handful of small countries not far from Rome — racking up nothing like the number of air miles logged by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II. And the United Kingdom is not a Catholic country. On the contrary, Britain’s break from Rome in the 16th century echoes, if faintly, to the present day, with laws on the books forbidding the heir to the British throne from marrying a Catholic.

In fact, the country is one of the less religious ones in Europe, home to vociferous critics of religion like Richard Dawkins, and those who find belief in a higher power simply unnecessary, like Stephen Hawking.

Public opinion on the eve of his visit ranges from indifference to downright hostility. There will be protests from critics who consider him a protector of pedophiles and from liberal Catholics who resent his staunch defense of orthodox doctrine. And all this will play out in in front of the British media — one of the world’s most aggressive.

So why, aged 83 and happier at home, is the professorial vicar of Christ on earth stepping into the lion’s den? It may be the very factors that seem to argue against his coming that impelled him to come. …

This pope relishes a challenge, said John Allen, CNN’s senior Vatican analyst. His “No. 1 priority is to combat secularism, and in some ways the United Kingdom is the dictionary definition of a post-religious society,” Allen said. “He just created a whole new department in the Vatican to reawaken the faith in the West, and this trip is a chance to elaborate a strategy.”

The key word in there, for me, is “professorial.”

Reporters keep forgetting that Benedict is, in many ways, an elite academic who grew up in the very heart of chilly European liberalism — the powerful halls of German intellectualism. I mean, journalists know that the pope acts intellectual, but they cannot seem to understand that many of the issues that drive him are rooted in his academic past. They are rooted in his intellectual concerns.

You see, this pope is, in many ways, a traitor who has turned a back on his own elite class (and I use that word in both sense of the word). His love-hate relationship with academia in Europe is very personal. In a way, Benedict is an infidel who is rebelling against the secular orthodoxy and liberal forms of faith that framed his early career.

So, yes, as the story says, “Benedict is picking a fight with secularism.” He has intellectual reasons for doing so.

Meanwhile, we can expect oceans of ink about the pope’s decision to “raid” the Church of England for converts, a “raid” that follows a decade or so of Anglo-Catholic appeals for a “Roman Option” in England (see this book from 1998, which stressed that liberal Catholics in England were fighting these plans).

But this is all part of the same regional picture. To cut to the chase: Benedict XVI is looking for allies in what he believes is a war for the soul of Europe. The CNN piece got that.

… (A) leading voice for conservative members of the Church of England, Canon Chris Sugden, said, “Many orthodox Anglicans in England would feel that they share more in common with the pope than with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church [Rowan Williams].”

That doesn’t mean Anglicans see eye-to-eye with the pope on a number of important theological issues, he said, but added, “We welcome the pope’s visit because it raises many of the critical challenges to the current elite secularism that is being imposed on us,” he said.

And if his religious message proves unpopular in Britain, particularly against the backdrop of the sex abuse scandals enveloping the Catholic Church, Benedict really doesn’t mind, Gibson said. “He sees criticism almost as a form of persecution that reinforces the importance and the truth of his message,” he said. …

Coming under sufficiently intense criticism could even rebound in Benedict’s favor, Gibson said. “British tabloids can be so over-the-top that they can prove his point,” he said. “He could become a sympathetic figure.”

Here we go.

Photo: Anglican Communion News Service, from a previous meeting of Rome and Canterbury.

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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.

  • Julia

    NBC coverage repeats what I am reading and hearing all over the MSM. “This the first visit of a Pope to England in 500 years”.

    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/39207225/ns/world_news-europe

    Popes didn’t travel back then. I doubt that any Pope ever made a state visit to England unless it was the one and only English Pope – Adrian IV – Pope from 1154 to 1159. I could find no reference to Adrian visiting his homeland while Pope.

    By the way, it was the English Pope Adrian who supposedly granted Ireland to Henry II as a fief. The Pope’s authority to do this was believed to rest on the now-known-to-be-fraudulent document known as the Donation of Constantine which purported to give the Church of Rome authority over all islands in the Roman Empire.

    SEE Catholic Encyclopedia article “The donation of Ireland” appearing at the end of the entry on Adrian IV.

    http://newadvent.org/cathen/01156c.htm

  • Pete

    “… (A) leading voice for conservative members of the Church of England, Canon Chris Sugden, said, “Many orthodox Anglicans in England would feel that they share more in common with the pope than with the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church [Rowan Williams].”

    Shouldn’t that be the “Archbishop of Canterbury”, who I guess is technically the “presiding bishop” of the Church of England, not the Episcopal Church? Or does he mean the actual “the presiding bishop of the Episcopal church”, Katherine Jefferts Schori? Since I assume Canon Sugden knows the difference, and that the bit in brackets was an editorial insertion by the people at CNN, this only goes to prove your point about journalistic ineptitude when it comes to such things….

    Also, John Paul II visited Britain in 1982. Was that really centuries ago? I knew the 80s were a while back, but I must be a lot older than I thought.

  • michael

    First, a correction to the CNN piece: Rowan Williams is not the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church. He is the Archbishop of Canterbury. There is a big difference.

    Second, the point I think you are trying to make in this post when you refer to Benedict’s ‘intellectual reasons’ for going to Britain is obscured by your foray into his intellectual biography and his ‘quest for allies’. Much like John Allen’s preoccupation with ‘strategy’–my on-going complaint about his otherwise commendable reporting during the lastest phase of the abuse crisis– it muddies more than it clarifies.

    I know it’s in the DNA of reporters to see everything through a political prism, to measure all words in terms of the ‘image’ they convey; to look for the ‘real (read political, strategic and instrumental) motives’ behind the ostensible motives of speaking the truth or preaching the Gospel, and to judge these words and actions by the extrinsic criterion of ‘success’ in creating a desirable image or result.

    The problem with this innocent little bias is that it immediately deflects attention from what the Pope says and does to why he must have ‘really’ said and done it. Whereas if he actually believes that the things he says are true (as he obviously does), and truth is an end and not merely a means (which for him, at least, it is and which it must be if we are to talk coherently of ‘truth’ at all), then you have to attend closely to the substance of his actual remarks to understand his words and actions and consider them according to other criteria than those of ‘success’. Not because you necessarily agree with them, but because ‘reporting’ means (or ought to mean) trying to understand and convey things in their own terms rather than distorting them in advance.

    Those flustered by their inability to discern the Pope’s ‘strategy’ these past few months (or dismayed by what they regard as the ineptness of it) would do well to remember this point. Truth is not a strategy, and it is not measured by ‘success’. This is evidenced by one’s refusal to instrumentaliz it, one’s willingness to suffer silently for it if need be. At least that’s what I gather from one of the answers given by Benedict in his in-flight ‘press conference’, copied below. This remark has gone mostly unreported, so far as I can tell, unsurpringly since it is outside the press’s interests. But I would submit that you can’t understand the man–his words, actions, and their reasons–without taking this response seriously.

    Q. – The UK, like many other Western countries – there is an issue that you have already touched on in the first answer –it is considered a secular country. There is a strong atheist movement, even for cultural reasons. However, there are also signs that religious faith, particularly in Jesus Christ, is still alive on a personal level. What can this mean for Catholics and Anglicans? Can anything be done to make the Church as an institution, more credible and attractive to everyone?

    A. – I would say that a Church that seeks to be particularly attractive is already on the wrong path, because the Church does not work for her own ends, she does not work to increase numbers and thus power. The Church is at the service of another: she serves, not for herself, not to be a strong body, rather she serves to make the proclamation of Jesus Christ accessible, the great truths and great forces of love, reconciling love that appeared in this figure and that always comes from the presence of Jesus Christ. In this regard, the Church does not seek to be attractive in and of herself, but must be transparent for Jesus Christ and to the extent that she is not out for herself, as a strong and powerful body in the world, that wants power, but is simply the voice of another, she becomes truly transparent for the great figure of Christ and the great truth that he has brought to humanity. The power of love, in this moment one listens, one accepts. The Church should not consider herself, but help to consider the other and she herself must see and speak of the other. In this sense, I think, both Anglicans and Catholics have the same simple task, the same direction to take. If both Anglicans and Catholics see that the other is not out for themselves but are tools of Christ, children of the Bridegroom, as Saint John says, if both carry out the priorities of Christ and not their own, they will come together, because at that time the priority of Christ unites them and they are no longer competitors seeking the greatest numbers, but are united in our commitment to the truth of Christ who comes into this world and so they find each other in a genuine and fruitful ecumenism.

  • Jerry

    Pete, good point about the last visit being in the 1980′s. Once again, we have a case where someone could and should have checked that “fact”. But I guess the media narrative of the long interval is more dramatic and that’s what counts these days. Given the number of times that error has been repeated in the media, I guess it’s now a true fact just like “bra burning” and similar myths.

  • Julia

    Pope John Paul II was not in England at the invitation of the Queen – so it was strictly a pastoral visit to Catholics.

    Benedict’s is a state visit like his trip to the U.S. when he was entertained by Bush at the White House.

    That’s what the MSM is trying to convey so they can bring in the 500 years meme, but the secular media isn’t recognizing that this is actually the very first state visit ever by a Pope to England.

  • Julia

    And JPII’s trip was probably the very first visit of any kind by a Pope to England or Scotland.

    Forgot to mention that the banner across the bottom of the NCB news screen read:

    Pope in Great Britain to meet Queen and Susan Boyle

    I find that hysterically funny. The Pope is just another celebrity to most in the news business.

  • michael

    Did anyone catch the Pope’s exhortation to the British media in his opening remarks from Holyrood?

    I’d be curious to know how Ruth Gledhill and Richard Owen respond to that, though not curious enough to pay to find out.

  • Donna

    I’d say another reason is because it is the homeland of the man he is beatifying. While JPII beatified many himself, the current Holy Father has generally delegated beatifications to a representative. That he would take the time and trouble to do this one himself is, IMHO, a reflection on his sense of the importance of the to-be-Blessed Newman, whose works he has studied and written about and to whom he seems to have a certain personal devotion.

    Not that the other reasons aren’t true as well…

  • Jon in the Nati

    I really wonder about that “presiding bishop of the Episcopal church” bit. It would seem to me that Sugden was referring to +Schori, but the article clearly intimates that he was referring to ++Williams. Did the reporter *really* think that Sugden was talking about the ABC? Did he really not know?

    If so, I find that mystifying.

  • David

    ++Rowan is the Archbishop, not the presiding bishop. I am pretty sure Sugden was talking about your Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori :)

  • Jon in the Nati

    ++Rowan is the Archbishop, not the presiding bishop. I am pretty sure Sugden was talking about your Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schor

    Yeah, no kidding. That is my point.

  • David

    Hey Jon, didn’t see your comment. Sorry! Your are correct e.g. he says “presiding Bishop”.