Laicitè and lipstick

Pope Benedict delivers a speech to French intellectuals

Pope Benedict delivers a speech to French intellectuals. (CNS/Reuters)

PARIS — When covering Pope Benedict’s travels, journalists sometimes feel they’re in a parallel news universe, far from the realm of political mudslinging or hurricane tracking.

In this universe, theological and philosophical ideas are the stuff of stories. It matters if the pope uses a phrase like “positive laicitè.” Attention is duly paid to his citations of church thinkers who died many centuries ago. And reporters try to distill a lead from the pontiff’s explication of medieval monasticism and its impact on Western culture.

There were signs in France, however, that breaking into the U.S. news cycle — dominated these days by who was calling whom a pig — may not be easy for the German pope.

The pope’s address to academics in Paris was a case in point. The speech came with a Vatican build-up. We were told earlier in the week by the Vatican spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, that this was big, that it would treat the theme of faith and reason, and that the pope was working hard to hone the text.

It would come almost exactly two years after the pope’s address at the University of Regensburg in Germany. That speech, as we all remembered, was supposed to be a dry academic treatise and turned out to be a bombshell because of what it said about Islam and religious fanaticism.

His speech Friday night in Paris, however, did not offer many catch phrases or easy news hooks. It presented his strongly argued case that the connection between Western civilization and Christian theology runs deep, and that Christian values cannot simply be jettisoned today, as if they were unreasonable or a merely sentimental indulgence.

The pope’s historical survey of the contributions of the “culture of monasticism” was long and detailed, touching on monastic scholarship, Scripture, worship and work. It drew from many sources and was studded with Latin phrases.

Most French media found the pope’s content worthy of consideration. It was indeed a “theology lesson,” as the newspaper Le Figaro put it, but one worth some space. Even the leftist daily Liberation described the talk as an erudite contribution to an ongoing debate.

I’m guessing that this speech won’t make much impact in the mainstream U.S. media. It just didn’t push the right buttons. A quick check of newspaper Web sites, in fact, shows that the pope’s trip to France so far is ending up in the “around the world” briefs column.

Maybe this trip is just too geared to a European audience. Or maybe in these days of Sarah and Ike, Benedict’s message is bound to make fewer waves in the United States.

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