Media theorists like to talk about the power of a "narrative," meaning a storyline that's often more influential than reality in shaping perceptions. For instance, violent crime rates in the United States are at historic lows, yet popular psychology, shaped by Quentin Tarantino and "CSI," remains gripped by a narrative of pervasive danger.
All Things Catholic
Beyond any doubt, religious freedom has emerged as the premier social and political concern of the Catholic church in the early 21st century. Pope Benedict XVI offered confirmation as recently as last Saturday, during his trip to Lebanon.
Speaking to politicians, diplomats and religious leaders (including representatives of all four major branches of Islam in Lebanon -- Sunni, Shi'ite, Druze and Alawite), the pope insisted that "religious freedom is the basic right on which many others depend."
In advance, Benedict XVI's three-day trip to Lebanon shaped up as a balancing act, both reaching out and pushing back -- that is, extending an olive branch to the Muslim majority of both Lebanon and the entire Middle East, while at the same time defending its beleaguered Christian minority and rejecting the radical currents in Islam which exploded anew this week with violence in Egypt, Libya and elsewhere.
Most people, most of the time, are fundamentally decent. Hence if they knew that there's a minority facing an epidemic of persecution -- a staggering total of 150,000 martyrs every year, meaning 17 deaths every hour -- there would almost certainly be a groundswell of moral and political outrage.
On Monday, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti met Benedict XVI at the pope's retreat in Castel Gandolfo, signifying the end of the summer doldrums. A brief Vatican statement said the exchange focused on the "European situation," understood to mean the Eurozone's massive debt crisis, high unemployment and generally dismal economic outlook.
"Be careful what you wish for," as the saying goes, "because you will surely get it." In light of a couple of recent Vatican stories, the corollary also seems to apply: Be careful what you try to avoid, because it might actually be good for you.
A stringent European money laundering exam in July and a federal court ruling in Oregon this week both make the point.
Most people believe the real power in Catholicism resides with the hierarchy, and in terms of both theology and church law, that's basically right. For instance, canon law says the pope wields "supreme, full, immediate and universal" authority, and it's tough to get more sweeping than that.
One wonders, however, if an accountant would reach the same conclusion.
Ideological labels for the church are notoriously ill-fitting, but if we're going to use them, I prefer the European taxonomy of "left, center-left, center-right, and right" to the American convention of "liberals, moderates and conservatives." In my experience, most self-described moderates actually lean one way or the other, but their defining trait is a preference for consensus.
The annual summer lull affords a chance to catch up on recent stories that haven't gotten quite the attention they deserve. They include a break-out interview with the Vatican's new doctrinal czar, the curious case of a fired Slovakian archbishop and a counterintuitive view on the militant Islamic Boko Haram movement in Nigeria from one of Africa's brightest Catholic stars.
Pope Benedict XVI will travel to Lebanon on Sept. 14-16, marking his first visit to the Middle East since the Arab Spring and his fourth overall to the region (after Turkey in 2006, the Holy Land in 2009 and Cyprus in 2010). It's also the closest he's likely to get to the current chaos in Syria.