NPR Plays Up Secularist Change In Spain, Misconstrues Papal Visit

On Thursday's All Things Considered, NPR's Lauren Frayer emphasized the trend towards secularization in Spain during a report on Pope Benedict XVI's visit to the country for World Youth Day. Just as she did almost a week earlier, Frayer couldn't find any local supporters of the Pope, and completely misreported how the Catholic Church extended pastoral support to women who had abortions.

Host Robert Spiegel noted in his introduction for the correspondent's report that "Spain and its view of the Catholic Church have changed radically in recent decades." Unlike her report on August 12, Frayer did play two sound bites of Catholic youth who were happy to see the pontiff, but only from two Americans. But after playing her first clip, she highlighted how "thousands of angry protesters forced their way through police barricades...shouting, 'out, out.'"

The NPR correspondent then played two sound bites from one of the demonstrators, a self-confessed atheist:

FRAYER: ...For 500 years, Spain spread Catholicism around the world. Now, it's embraced secularism in a single generation.

ROCIO CANGAS: Basically, I don't believe in God.

FRAYER: Rocio Cangas is one of those protesting the cost of the Pope's visit, and what she calls an outdated link between church and state.

CANGAS: A lot of people have children now who are not brought up in the Catholic Church, and parents who don't believe in God- and basically, they bring up their children to be atheists, more than ever.

She also emphasized how "most of the papal audience is foreign," and reenforced the impression of rampant secularism in Spain by stating that "Spain is one of the least religious places in Europe, in terms of seeing the Church as a guide for moral values."

This doesn't give a completely accurate impression of the Iberian country. About five months earlier, The Christian Post website reported that "between 130,000 and 160,000 people demonstrated in central Madrid, Spain, on Saturday [March 26] against laws that make abortion easier." Over a million, or about two percent of the entire population of Spain, participated in an earlier pro-life demonstration in October 2009.

Later, Frayer gave a further indication of the secularization of the formerly Catholic country, just before giving her inaccurate reporting on the Church's outreach to post-abortive women:

FRAYER: Spaniards have...seen abortion and gay marriage legalized, and crucifixes taken down from the walls of their schools. Church doctrine changes more slowly. In a rare move, the Vatican is offering to forgive women who've had abortions, if they confess at World Youth Day. They won't be excommunicated, as is normally the case.

Kathryn Jean Lopez of the National Review devoted a Thursday column on the website of the National Catholic Register to correcting the mainstream media's complete misconstruing of the Church's action:

Pope Benedict XVI; Screen Cap Taken From 18 August 2011 Edition of CNN's John King USA | NewsBusters.org...[T]his abortion-forgiveness issue is not a one-time only or particularly rare opportunity. As one U.S.-based, Rome-trained priest on his way to Madrid pointed out, the position of those confessors is not all that rare, at least not for Americans. "Such faculties to remove the censure incurred by abortion (when someone has an abortion knowing it is a de facto...excommunicable offense) are normal in the U.S. Basically every bishop gives it to every priest who hears confessions because abortion is rather common, especially among women who have been away from the sacrament for awhile. Without it, if someone came to confess an abortion, a priest would need to ask permission anonymously of the diocese or the sacred penitentiary at the Vatican for the ability to remove the censure incurred so that he could absolve the sins. In ordinary parish work, it's not too much to ask someone to come back tomorrow. But that would be practically impossible at WYD for a particular penitent to find a particular confessor again. This is such a no-brainer from the sacramental point of view — and is ordinary for the course, at least in the U.S."

No less than the Pope in Rome, the now Blessed Pope John Paul II, wrote explicitly, in his 1995 encyclical on Evangelium Vitae: "I would now like to say a special word to women who have had an abortion. The Church is aware of the many factors which may have influenced your decision, and she does not doubt that in many cases it was a painful and even shattering decision. The wound in your heart may not yet have healed....But do not give in to discouragement, and do not lose hope. Try, rather, to understand what happened, and face it honestly. If you have not already done so, give yourselves over with humility and trust to repentance. The Father of mercies is ready to give you his forgiveness and his peace in the sacrament of reconciliation."

This is just the latest example of the sloppy, to say the least, reporting about Christianity, and specifically, Catholicism, by the liberal media.

Near the end of her report, Frayer revisited her liberal talking point from her earlier report that "tax breaks granted to World Youth Day's corporate sponsors, which mean that, ultimately, taxpayers foot at least part of the $70 million bill." But she also finally acknowledged that "Catholic organizers say it's not only goodwill they're spreading. It's also millions of dollars of tourist revenue." Who would have thought, given the hundreds of thousands in attendance from around the world?

The full transcript of Lauren Frayer's report from Thursday's All Things Considered:

ROBERT SIEGEL: Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Madrid today. He's there to celebrate World Youth Day with Catholic pilgrims from around the world.

But, as Lauren Frayer reports, Spain and its view of the Catholic Church have changed radically in recent decades.

LAUREN FRAYER: Regal music is piped through the streets of Madrid as the Popemobile rolls by. The faithful fall to their knees. Up to a million Catholics are here, including Sara Vallarta from Laredo, Texas.

SARA VALLARTA: It's been an awesome experience. It's incredible, you know, the amount of people that are here, coming all together with their faith.

FRAYER: But just hours ago, thousands of angry protesters forced their way through police barricades on the same thoroughfare. (audio clip of protesting chanting) The number of protesters shouting, 'out, out,' is only a fraction of those here to see the Pope. But the presence of both groups gets to the heart of modern Spain. For 500 years, Spain spread Catholicism around the world. Now, it's embraced secularism in a single generation.

ROCIO CANGAS: Basically, I don't believe in God.


FRAYER: Rocio Cangas is one of those protesting the cost of the Pope's visit, and what she calls an outdated link between church and state.

CANGAS: A lot of people have children now who are not brought up in the Catholic Church, and parents who don't believe in God- and basically, they bring up their children to be atheists, more than ever.

FRAYER: Most of the papal audience is foreign. Madrid clears out in August, as locals head to the coast. I phoned Spanish sociologist Jose Ignacio Wert at the beach. (audio clip of Wert speaking in Spanish) 'The role of religion in Spanish life has reduced dramatically in the past 30 years,' he says. Now, Spain is one of the least religious places in Europe, in terms of seeing the Church as a guide for moral values. Wert says it's no coincidence this pope has visited Spain more than any other country. It's an attempt at 'reconquest,' he says, for Catholicism.

World Youth Day was last held in Spain in 1989, at the height of liberal expression here- think Pedro Almodovar and punk rock. Chusa Gallego is a Madrid nurse who was here in 1989. She says that even then, there were no anti-pope protests.

CHUSA GALLEGO: I remember that everybody agreed, and everybody was so, so happy because it was the Pope. But, come on, it's 20 years.

FRAYER: Spaniards have since seen abortion and gay marriage legalized, and crucifixes taken down from the walls of their schools. Church doctrine changes more slowly. In a rare move, the Vatican is offering to forgive women who've had abortions, if they confess at World Youth Day. They won't be excommunicated, as is normally the case.

But not many Spaniards are really worried about excommunication these days. Twenty-four-year-old Helena Fernandez says she's got more immediate concerns.

HELENA FERNANDEZ: We don't have jobs. We are 5 million person [sic] that don't work. And you can make the university, but afterward, you don't have work.

FRAYER: More than 100 priests from Madrid's poorest barrios posted a letter online, deploring tax breaks granted to World Youth Day's corporate sponsors, which mean that, ultimately, taxpayers foot at least part of the $70 million bill. Pilgrims get discount subway fares, but the price just went up 50 percent for regular folks.

Brian Dugary is a 21-year-old Catholic from Philadelphia.

BRIAN DUGARY: It should be a boost for the economy, and I don't see why anybody would protest it.

FRAYER: Catholic organizers say it's not only goodwill they're spreading. It's also millions of dollars of tourist revenue. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid.

Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan
Matthew Balan is a news analyst at Media Research Center