Annoy the Pope? Sure, But, Where?


July 15, 2008

As you would expect, Pope Benedict XVIís trip down under for World Youth Day is getting quite a bit of ink, although ó perhaps in the age of tight newspaper budgets and high air fares ó there is very little American coverage other than wire services (unless I am missing some stories online). Click here for a Google News collection of what is up at the moment.

The Associated Press report on the opening Mass is very basic, with some colorful details. Itís the standard "this sure was a big gathering" religion story. Itís kind of liturgical fun, fun, fun, with few notes about content. Hereís the top:

Tens of thousands of Catholic pilgrims from around the world crammed into an area along Sydney Harbor Tuesday, waving flags of their home countries and singing as they awaited a Mass opening the World Youth Day festival.

Pope Benedict XVI arrived Sunday, and was resting at a secluded retreat on the outskirts of Sydney until Thursday, when he starts a busy round of meetings, takes a cruise on Sydney Harbor and addresses the pilgrims. The festival culminates with a papal Mass on Sunday.

Aboriginal Australians in traditional clothing and white body paint danced and chanted to the unique strains of a didgeridoo in a welcoming ceremony at Barangaroo, along the harbor.

"Some say there is no place for faith in the 21st century. I say they are wrong," Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said, to cheers from the pilgrims.

There was one other detail that is sure to make readers either smile or wince (perhaps both), in terms of the very traditional leader of the traditional church trying to relate to the young. Technology, of course, is everywhere. But how about this:

Nearly 250,000 people have registered for World Youth Day, more than half of them from overseas. . . . Registered pilgrims received the first of daily inspirational text messages from the pope: "Young friend, God and his people expect much from u because u have within you the Fathers supreme gift: the Spirit of Jesus ó BXVI."

There is, however, a very important story unfolding down in Australia, one pitting the popeís right to say what he has to say with the rights of his critics to say what they have to say ó with megaphones and other symbolic forms of speech. Australiaís Federal Court has ruled that protesters have a right to annoy ó love that word ó the pope and his followers during his visit.

Hereís a key chunk of Bonnie Malkinís report in the Telegraph back in England.

Anti-pope protesters have been given the green light to annoy World Youth Day pilgrims, after Australiaís Federal Court struck down laws created to protect the Catholic worshippers from unwanted attention.

The temporary regulations, which gave police the right to issue on the spot fines of $5500 . . . to anyone handing out "annoying" leaflets or condoms to pilgrims, were ruled invalid by the court. The decision is a victory for the NoToPope coalition, which mounted a challenge to the laws in the Federal Court on Tuesday, arguing the new powers were unconstitutional because they made peaceful protest illegal.

Judges ruled the World Youth Day Act, which was passed by government two weeks ago without debate, "should not be interpreted as conferring powers that are repugnant to fundamental rights and freedoms at common law in the absence of clear authority from Parliament".

Here is the key question. It is one thing to do public protests in public areas that surround events that constitute, to one degree or another, voluntary associations. Itís one thing to have a march. Itís something else to have a march or demonstration that enters or interrupts a Mass, inside the arena hosting the rite.

Letís flip this around. Itís one thing for anti-gay-rights protesters to march down a street in San Francisco. Itís another thing (speaking in terms of theory) for them to disrupt a Eucharist and spiritual AIDS healing rite inside a liberal Episcopal cathedral. The blurred line is when you start harassing people as they enter or making so much noise that you disturb these kinds of rites ó left or right ó even though you are outside and nearby.

But people have a right to protest on sidewalks, hold marches, hand out symbolic items, etc.

Which brings us back to the coverage. Have these liberal protesters actually threatened to do anything that would disrupt or prevent World Youth Day activities? Thatís the information that the journalists must include. I noted, for example, that police are frowning on what was called "pro-pope graffiti" on the Sydney war memorial ó including the slogan "Ratizinger rules." That would be illegal, I would think, although I am not sure that sounds like pro-pope material, either.

Was some kind of new Aussie law actually needed? I find it interesting that, in one Guardian report, the Vatican didnít protest the court ruling:

. . . World Youth Day coordinator Bishop Anthony Fisher earlier said people were free to protest in a peaceful and respectful way. Referring to the distribution of condoms, he said: "We have had this before at other events and our pilgrims just drop them to the ground and ignore them."

This is a classic case where journalists should use the old "show us, donít tell us" guide to reporting. It protesters break existing laws, if they invade public meetings and other rites, then tell us. Otherwise, free speech is free speech. Carry on, blokes (and help me figure out which Australian papers to use, while following this).


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