Something strange is happening in American media and religious life this month — and it directly affects you and your community.
Suddenly, from many prominent vantage points, we’re being told that we love the stiff-necked ol’ Pope who’s heading our way to tour Washington D.C. and New York City from April 15 to 20. But nobody in American news media seems to be quite clear on why we’ve had a sudden change of heart after all those years of friction between America and the Vatican. And nobody’s quite sure what this pope’s visit means to our larger culture and faith.
The chief culprit here is the implosion of American journalism in the last few years. The dramatic downsizing of newsroom staffs and the slashing of reporting budgets has never been more painfully obvious than in the current preparation for Pope Benedict XVI’s visit.
There should be an enormous story somewhere in this complicated cultural collision, shouldn’t there? The Catholic Church, after all, claims to have a global population of more than 1 billion — close to the size of the entire Islamic world.
The top guy in the church — in fact, the world’s single most powerful religious figure — is paying a historic visit to the world’s two greatest secular centers of power. Somewhere in this global pageant there’s news, isn’t there?
Unfortunately, many of the religion-writing experts who once covered these issues for newspapers and news magazines are long gone in the many waves of journalistic downsizing. The slimmer staffs of journalists left standing inside these historic offices often are struggling simply to meet deadlines. For the most part, these professionals are smart, talented people desperately trying to fill the dwindling news space — without the time or the resources to do their jobs properly.
Here’s one surprising outcome for Benedict himself: From many quarters, he’s getting a cheery reappraisal by American media — and, who knows? In this crazy new world of rapid cultural change, perhaps we’re all the better for this strange turn.
But here is one very sad outcome in all of us: The kind of coverage we’re seeing in much of our remaining news media, these days, is missing by a mile one of the biggest stories of our era — a story that affects the vast majority of Americans just like you.
Before I tell you more about that, I should explain that I’m a former newspaper Religion Writer myself with more than 20 years of experience in reporting on the impact of faith around the world.
I moved from daily newspaper journalism — in a round of downsizing in late 2007 — into the world of online journalism and multi-media publishing to try to help readers globally find the “good stuff” — the really important religious voices emerging in our world today.
So, how bad is the news reporting on Benedict and All Things Catholic this month?
Well, the Associated Press filed pre-papal coverage this past week in the form of a Travel Story. (I am not making this up!) The story, which ran with a huge splash in some newspapers reported breathlessly that Americans should think of Benedict as a kind of sacred tour guide. The AP story reported that anyone can “visit and stand where the pope stood, see what he saw, take in what he took in. Or, at the very least, visit some prominent places in Catholic history.”
The current cover story in Time Magazine isn’t much better. In fact, the Time cover illustration also shows Benedict eyeballing American landmarks like a happy tourist. The cheery headline is, “Why the Pope Loves America.”
The cover story reads like a few Time staffers hurriedly sifted through recent news clips about religion, talked to a couple of church insiders — who suspiciously aren’t named — and rolled out an obligatory papal cover story. Their coverage is littered with tentative words like “suggests” and “not necessarily” on matters that a veteran religion writer would know by heart.
I’m not naming any of these reporters — because, for the most part, it’s not their fault. If you’re still on staff at a major U.S. newspaper or magazine, you’re a jack of all trades now covering all sorts of news events — and, quite honestly, you’re lucky to meet your deadline and collect your paycheck. Period.
Harsh words? I don’t think so and I’m not alone in noticing this problem. The eagle eyes of the crew at www.GetReligion.org recently spied another disappointing example of what passes for coverage of the Catholic church these days.
GetReligion staffer Mark Stricherz was dead on target in skewering a recent Washington Post profile of Archbishop Donald Wuerl — written as obligatory pre-papal coverage in the Post. In his online critique, Stricherz pointed out why this profile was “shallow and unfair, the sort of story that the Archbishop detests and rightly so.”
So, you can see the problem — that is, if you’re even reading the papal coverage in newspapers and magazines, which I suspect most of us won’t be wasting much time doing in the weeks ahead.
AND, that is very very sad — for two reasons.
First, I’m a veteran of old-style, large-scale American journalism in which religion writers worth their salt traveled back and forth to the Vatican, at least occasionally, and paid close attention to moves inside the church — and the dramatic moves of Catholic faith and culture extending far outside the church.
You’ve probably read my byline in front-page newspaper stories about Pope John Paul II over the years. For example, I was one of the top reporters during John Paul II’s 1987 tour of North America in which he made a long circle around our continent.
Quite frankly, though, I’m not entirely proud of our approach to the coverage in that heyday of large-scale journalism. One of the stories we explored in 1987 was the lack of a huge turnout to welcome the pope in many venues. We had lots of reporting tools at our disposal to prove that the friction with American Catholics — and the flagging interest in John Paul II himself — was quite real. I personally designed an enormously expensive Gallup Poll of Catholics that probed the nature of this friction with the Vatican.
There were, indeed, serious problems over religious authority in the late 1980s. And, we nailed that story to the ground in a dozen different ways.
For instance, when John Paul II hit the ground in Miami — and this sounds inconceivable today, but the Miami Herald in 1987 funded an elaborate, scientific analysis of crowd photos to prove that the papal turnout was disappointing.
Knight-Ridder, a newspaper chain that’s now extinct, fielded enormous teams of journalists all around North America to report on American Catholics’ disgruntlement over papal pronouncements designed to crack down on their wayward attitudes toward birth control, abortion and a number of other social issues.
I’m not calling that coverage false. In fact, the new Pew study of American religious life
finally is knocking big holes in the traditional Catholic claim that
the church’s estimated “population” is really an active “membership.” In fact,
those annual population numbers issued by church officials are hopeful estimates of people who once —
and maybe still are — Catholic, but Journalists often easily interchange
those terms and refer to these sky-high numbers as “membership” or “followers,” obscuring
the fact that millions of Catholics have been fleeing the fold.
I’m not disputing these important issues.
However, in covering that story of conflict in the late 1980s and 1990s — I think we missed other very important stories already emerging around us.
That brings me to the second reason this current Pope-as-Touring-Celebrity coverage is so sad.
The problem jumped into crystal clarity for me in recent days while reading Dennis Okholm’s fascinating new book, “Monk Habits for Everyday People.” Okholm is an theologian and part of a vanguard of evangelical voices calling Protestants toward the heart of Catholic spiritual treasures.
Over the last few years, I’ve become well aware of this vanguard and have reported on it regularly. If you think this is just a trickle of voices — then, watch out, because it’s becoming a flood this year. Later this spring, you’ll see a book by Ken Wilson, “Jesus Brand Spirituality,” which includes an appeal for fixed-hour prayer in Protestant churches. The waters are flowing toward centuries-old traditions within the storehouse of the Catholic church.
What stunned me in Okholm’s memoir was the opening section in which he describes his first visit to explore a Catholic monastery in the spring of 1987 — half a year before John Paul II hit American soil.
In other words, even as thousands of top journalists perceived the most important Catholic story of 1987 to be the clash of wills between the Vatican and American Catholics — another far more powerful and enduring story already was unfolding. We couldn’t see it, of course, because it was unfolding in countless tiny ways like Okholm driving down a back road toward a monastery that he strongly suspected was just “a relic of the Middle Ages.”
We missed that almost entirely in 1987, because — even at our best in large-scale journalism — we were historians without benefit of reflection. We were trying to capture the impact of religion on American life without the ability to see how deep and twisting its path was taking as spiritual influences snaked their way through American back roads and ordinary lives.
At the moment, I don’t know whether John Paul II should be considered a saint, as some are campaigning for at the Vatican even as you read this story. But I do know that there are spiritual insights in John Paul II’s writings that many of us missed. I’ve been writing more about that, too, in recent years.
Now, in 2008, the hottest Catholic story in America is the embrace — by non-Catholics — of the spiritual wealth the world’s biggest church has preserved through the centuries, sometimes almost in spite of itself.
Want to read that story? You won’t find it in Time. You’ll find it in Okholm.
You’ll find it in Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling.
And, you’ll find it very close to you. Take a good look around you at relatives, neighbors and friends who are telling you about their own recent spiritual moments of grace — and think about how many of those moments involve elements we all once thought of as Catholic.
A funny thing has happened on our way to the Vatican.
We’ve missed the news that the greatest Catholic stories are very often blossoming in our own back yards.
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