Stuart Reid Charterhouse
For me the high point of World Youth Day came when the Pope’s white skullcap – his zucchetto — blew off in that rain storm and he smiled. He held the smile. He could see the joke in the apparent loss of dignity, and because he saw joke he did not in fact lose any dignity. It was perfect.
There were obviously more elevated high points in Madrid last week, but I confess I did not follow WYD as closely as I might have. I am not, after all, a youth, and though I am quite capable of shedding a sentimental tear when I see a young woman kiss the Pope’s ring, I do not much care for the sight of hundreds of thousands of young people enjoying themselves. The bright eyes, the smiley faces, the regular teeth, the fun leisurewear, the unreflecting hope, the rock music... all these things I find vexing. This is EWTN Catholicism, and I have little patience with it. Give me, rather, the Catholicism of blood, sweat, tears, doubt, dirt, nuance, fear, guilt, failure, laughter and whisky; the Catholicism of Siegfried Sassoon, of Francis Thompson, of Dorothy Day, of Oscar Wilde, of Flannery O’Connor, of Joseph de Maistre, of Roy Campbell, of stately, plump Buck Mulligan; even of Bing Crosby and Danny la Rue.
All the same, there is no excuse (other than a doctor’s note) for the hate directed at WYD by the far Right. The other week, Francis Phillips wrote an inspiring blog on The Catholic Herald’s website in which she argued that World Youth Days are not debauched rock festivals, but joyful encounters with Christ. Her combox was immediately filled with furious denunciation, most of it (as is the way) from anonymous readers. One wrote of the “plethora of used condoms” found in the clean-up operation after WYD 2000, which was in Rome. He also spoke of “young people dancing to Protestant, charismatic, pop-like, ‘worship songs’– with the flames of Hell licking their feet. God have mercy on them all!” “Personally,” he wrote, “I know of one 17 yr old girl who ‘slept under the stars’ with her new boyfriend... So, go figure!” Actually, it would be wiser not to spend much time figuring in the case of this angry person, but it is worth noting that the condom story was not, as he insisted, “widely reported”. So far as I can make out it appeared in one Brisbane newspaper, where it was described as a “legend”. It was later picked up by Earth News and Worldwide Religious News, and apparently also by some television stations. Here is how the original story began: “Legend has it that rubbish collectors in Rome made a startling discovery at the end of World Youth Day 2000... Their find: thousands of used condoms.” The Vatican denied the story/legend, but the people who hate WYD do not believe anything the Vatican says, and may, for all I know, refer to Rome as the “Whore of Babylon”. But the crazies do not make all the running. Even serious people can get a bit excitable on these occasions, and the events in Madrid last week inspired yet another outbreak of BBC-bashing. The BBC was accused of conspiring against the Church by transmitting misleading and malicious reports, emphasising the ugly protests that greeted the Pope rather than the joy of the 1.5 million pilgrims who turned out for him.
There was a modicum of truth in this charge, but on the whole the BBC’s coverage was balanced. Like the Daily Telegraph, it made last Wednesday’s riots the focus of some news reports – since bad news is always a good story — but later it led with the huge crowds. It is not just the BBC, though, it’s the “mainstream media” in general – ie, the Guardian and the New York Times, but not the Daily Mail – that come in for a bashing whenever the Pope ventures abroad. Over at Fr John Zuhlsdorf’s magnificent, must-read blog a customer wrote in the combox: “In the UK, the visit itself received no secular media coverage, only the protests were reported.” That, of course, is not true, but it would obviously be absurd to accuse this fellow of spreading untruths. What we have here, it seems to me, is the hyperventilating of invincible ignorance. It reminds me rather of the furious complaints of bias and malice levelled at the media during the Pope’s visit to Britain last year. In spite of some vile commentary, however, the coverage of the visit was pretty good, and the BBC’s live broadcasts were exemplary.
So good were they indeed that the National Secular Society called the Corporation “the Pope’s propaganda arm”. According to Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the society: “It is disgraceful that the national broadcaster is being used like this to ram the Pope down everyone’s throat, whether they like it or not.” Choke, choke, splutter, splutter. Poor old Aunty. All ideologues, no matter whether they are believers or non-believers, are the same: all believe what they want to believe, and what they want to believe is anything that strengthens their narrative.
Are the media biased? Of course they are. Is the Pope a Catholic? Many of us think so. What is is. A free (and sometimes malicious and dishonest) press is what you get in a liberal democracy – one that combines economic liberalism with social liberalism – and the Church entered a concordat with liberal democracy almost half a century ago. Get over it. Or join the SSPX. Or buy a gun.
But at least spare us the whines about secular intolerance that so often accompany whines about the media. Many so-called traditionalists – here as much as in the US – embrace the principles of the American revolution, not least “religious liberty”, but start throwing the word “persecution” about whenever any beastliness is directed at the Church. What do they expect? The US Constitution is one of the key texts of the Anglophone Enlightenment, and is written in the name of “the people”. Whatever else the Constitution is, it is not Catholic. Those who live by the people shall perish by the people.