Trying To Learn Reporters Something

Curtsy to Insight Scoop for this: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life invited John Allen & George Weigel to give religion reporters some background on Pope Benedict XVI, so they can well, you know...not be so stupid i their reporting this time around. Allen & Weigel do their level best --this is the best pre-Pope talk I've read-- but some folks are a bit stuck in their ruts. Note for example Weigel's discussion of Benedict's boldness in the context of Regensberg (he gets it just right, I think).
he’s now displayed a kind of boldness, a lack of concern about making the bold move when he deems it necessary, no matter what the contrary advice might be within his own bureaucracy, which tends to operate like other bureaucracies in the world, namely keep the lid on and the excitement to a minimum.

The premier example of this was his Regensburg lecture of September 2006 in Germany, widely criticized at the time as offensive to Islamic sensibilities. That lecture, in fact, has shifted both the course of inter-religious dialogue and the internal dynamics of the intra-Islamic debate, precisely as I believe Benedict XVI intended it to do. It has shifted the course of the dialogue by setting in motion a process that has now led to the formation of a Catholic-Muslim forum that will meet twice a year, once in Amman, Jordan, once in Rome, and that will focus its attention on the issues that Benedict XVI has put on the agenda – namely, religious freedom as the first of human rights and a right that can be known by reason, and secondly, the imperative of separating spiritual and political authority in a justly governed state.

There have been attempts from parts of the Islamic world to deflect the conversation off of these two issues, which Benedict regards as at the very heart of inter-religious dialogue, and indeed the Islamic encounter with the modern world, and he refuses to budge. He very calmly and quietly brings the conversation back to these two points, which obviously have a great resonance here in the United States.

In terms of shifting the dialogue, I would also point to the recent initiative by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who proposes to gather in his country a new forum of dialogue among the monotheistic religions, and the Vatican’s reported negotiations, about which John might have some more to say later, with the Saudi government over the unthinkable, or the hitherto unthinkable, namely the building of a Catholic church in Saudi Arabia. Weigel adds: those with vested interests in the status quo of inter-religious dialogue have missed virtually all of this, just as many people missed the impact of John Paul II when he went to Poland for the first time in June 1979. We all get it wrong sometimes; few have gotten it as comprehensively wrong as the editors of The New York Times in June ’79, who famously wrote on that last day of the pope’s visit: However wonderful this may have been for the people of Poland, if there is one thing certain, it is that this will have no political impact on the future of Central and Eastern Europe. Wrong, wrong, manifestly wrong.

Listening to all of this, Sally Quinn asks:

I want to go back to Regensburg because you all have talked about how that was really an opening for dialogue. But a lot of Muslims don’t see it that way, and there is a lot of contention about Regensburg. I was at a conference at Georgetown recently between Catholics and Muslims, and the Muslims were universally upset by this and essentially saying that Regensburg set dialogue back years. How do you all feel about that?
I think he already answered your question, Sal. Weigel responds:
Well, it set the dialogue in which those people have been engaged back. But that dialogue was going nowhere and the pope knew it. An inter-religious dialogue that is an exchange of pleasantries – aren’t we all wonderful; wouldn’t it be nice if everyone else was as wonderful as we are – there are no real issues here. That’s not dialogue and that’s not tolerance.
And etc.

Later on in the Q&A someone asks for advice for reporters covering their first papal trip. I thought this was an interesting remark from John Allen:

Basically, you have to think of yourself not just as a reporter, but as a translator. He’s going to be speaking English, of course, so I mean he’ll be speaking the language of the people, and I think he’ll probably also throw in a couple of sound bites in Spanish for the burgeoning Hispanic percentage of the U.S. church. But, the thing is, popes generally often speak a kind of Catholic argot that has to be unpacked, and particularly with this guy.

[snip] My tip is this, there’s going to be a lot of the meat and the bone to what he says; this isn’t just a kind of blow-dried figure coming in for a photo op. He’s going to have some serious challenges to put on the table. But you’re going to have to do the work of unpacking that and putting it in language that average people can understand because the pope is not going to do it for you.

Which is kind of a nice way of saying what we're always saying around here...that reporters might think about doing their homework and getting a clue. Speaking of which, here's the latest funny example of what happens when they don't and religion is involved.