The Life of Pope John Paul:

Shepherd of Souls or Antiquated Authoritarian?


jp2today041405aAs in last year’s coverage of the death of President Ronald Reagan, the national media offered Pope John Paul II a generous farewell, highlighting his positive role in ending the Cold War, building bridges to other faiths, and inspiring Catholics in his energetic travels. But the positive coverage did not match the usual pattern of papal coverage over the decades of his pontificate. In the typically secular and political approach of the networks, John Paul was portrayed during his life as positive or negative depending on whose political side he landed on. On internal church matters over the years, reporters glorified and enlarged the influence of those who wanted to invent a more convenient church that defines holiness down for its members, not preserve an ancient church and call its members to greater commitment.

Coverage of churches is almost inherently difficult terrain for the titans of journalism, so committed to the worldly business of identifying the new, the trendy, the fresh and the fashionable. Age-enduring creeds aren’t newsworthy unless they can be reinvented with a modernist twist, like DaVinci Code tales of Jesus Christ having a wife and kids. Ancient traditions are especially galling if they stand in the way of lifestyles of modern convenience, of quickly consumable luxury goods or quickly consumable sexual relationships.

American Catholics don’t expect reporters to genuflect and give their church and their Pope glowingly positive coverage. Like other consumers of America’s news media, religious people of all creeds should expect the media to offer solid explanatory journalism that covers both sides of newsworthy debates within the Catholic Church and other churches, but that’s not always what they receive. Too often, the slanted soundbite collections and loaded prose of reporters betrays that they want to make every institution in society agreeable to their liberal worldview, that there’s not one conservative policy or tradition in the world that isn’t in dire need of the media’s advice and intervention and overturning. In stories on the pontificate of John Paul II, reporters often chose sides in what one called the battle between “tolerance and absolutism.” In their passion for that fight, “tolerance” gained the majority of the time, and “absolutism” received the majority of the grief.