WYD: a Martian’s View

It would be easy to indulge anger over the coverage – actually the lack of coverage – of World Youth Day (WYD) in Spain this weekend. Several Catholic and even non-Catholic commentators noted the palpable bias in basically ignoring a remarkable modern phenomenon: 1.5 million young people from all over the world showed up to pray and bond with the pope and one another in the heart of secular Europe. But given the likely alternatives, maybe ignoring the event was not so bad after all.

As you probably saw, when the event was even noticed, it was usually presented in the context of Spanish political divisions, in which a few thousand protesters got equal billing with perhaps two hundred times as many participants. An early, mistaken analysis about the estimated $70 million costs of WYD – which were largely met by the young people and philanthropic sponsors – got mixed up with resentment over Spain’s need for austerity measures to deal with its economic situation.

Since Catholics are almost as dependent on secular news reports as anyone else, even a few priests protested the alleged harm being done to Spain’s poor. Under the circumstances, some of the WYD organizers were forced to justify the whole event as a net economic benefit to Spain, as did government officials, which you can see if you read to the end of this story.   

If you tried to find information from other secular sources, you might be surprised that they almost all derived from this single AP report, reproduced whole or in part. All news operations face budget constraints these days, but where you choose to put resources says something about what you regard as important. Other than the AP story, there was little serious WYD news in English.

What there was reflected the longstanding practice of assigning not particularly probing or well-informed reporters to cover religion. A garbled story that women who had had abortions would be absolved at WYD, instead of being excommunicated, gave rise to cascades of misunderstanding. The initial stories gave the impression that women who have had abortions are excommunicated in confession instead of automatically being so by the act itself – an elementary error that would get you fired or reassigned in any other news area.     

My personal news favorite was the NYC station that informed viewers that the pope would be celebrating the “sign of the Cross” in Spain. The context made it clear that what was meant was the Stations of the Cross – which are not exactly “celebrated” by Catholics. Even in our burned-over, formerly Christian nation, you would think that there was an odd Catholic or two tucked away in a NY media outlet who might have corrected this simple error.

Move along, folks. Theres no story here.

It’s the slow summer season. Even the president and Congress are on vacation until Labor Day. I browsed through the media expecting that some editor somewhere with news holes to fill would realize that WYD just might be an interesting and unusual “human-interest story.” But the human-interest stories that emerged were from some quite incredible quarters.

Now, we all know that the most advanced, right-thinking people believe that Christianity is retrograde, and a spent force. That those same cutting-edge detectors of trends largely make their bones by arriving early, though not too early, at what will be tomorrow’s progressive crusades.

Yet even allowing for that settled media reality, you might have found it a little odd that, say, The Washington Post had no interest in WYD, but featured a Style-section commentary titled: “Egyptian gays buoyed by uprising.” No joke. You can look it up. Any decent person deplores the way the Muslim world treats homosexuals, but exactly how likely is a Gay Arab Spring? The smart money would bet on it being quite unlikely, now or in the lifetime of anyone old enough to read that story.

William McGowan’s Gray Lady Down is a sad look at the decline of the once prestigious New York Times. But I doubt that even he would have believed that, on the Sunday that brought WYD to a close, the newspaper would have run a full-page story on the difficulties and expense transgendered “women” encounter in looking curvy. (Note to Kathleen Sibelius:  HHS needs to issue some additional riders to Obamacare.) In the Sunday magazine, another whole page lamented that: “Istanbul’s brothels sure ain’t what they used to be.”

In fairness to the Times, though my edition of the paper had nothing on WYD, the online site had a concluding account. My paper did, however, contain a story on nuns disappearing as administrators of Catholic hospitals because nuns – at least in the liberalized orders – are a dying breed.

Let me hazard a wild judgment: The proverbial man from Mars, touching down this weekend, would find the news balance outlined above as evidence that our culture has gone off the rails, so far in fact that we’re either numb to it or have accepted it meekly. We have no interest in the central religion of the West, which is likely to survive and influence people for the foreseeable future, and labor instead to find politically correct stories that are obsolete the day they appear.

But if the media don’t find WYD newsworthy, there are other events in secular Europe itself that might grab the attention of a public jaded by the usual coverage of Egyptian gays and the costly struggles of the trangendered.

In the last decade, for example, 1.5 million pilgrims have walked to Compostela in Spain from many nations. Every year, several hundred thousand celebrate the feast of Cyril and Methodius even in Levoca, a small city in Eastern Slovakia, to say nothing of the large numbers in Fatima, Lourdes, Knock, Czestochowa.

There’s a scoop waiting here. And these people are all part of a marginalized and socially ridiculed minority that inclusive and sensitive journalists will not want to ignore.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.