The Life of Pope John Paul:

Shepherd of Souls or Antiquated Authoritarian?

1. The "Communist Pope"?

During his life and after his death, reporters and pundits alike acknowledged Pope John Paul’s political triumph in opposing Soviet communism. But over the years, several liberal media accounts portrayed Pope John Paul as comparable to (or even inferior to) a communist dictator during his reign at the Vatican. They failed to note any differences between church powers and state powers.

textbox0414_1A 1989 meeting between Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev and the Pope gave CBS and ABC an opportunity to take moral equivalence to absurd new heights. During the November 29, 1989 CBS Evening News, Dan Rather declared, “This week’s meeting of Pope John Paul and Gorbachev brings together two traditional enemies, both of whom have shown, time and again, that they can rise above the hatreds of history.” Rather went on to lay the most ridiculous metaphor before a national audience: “The meeting, said one priest in Rome, is like the lion lying down with the lamb. But in this case, he said, it’s hard to tell who’s the lion and who’s the lamb.” (It was almost as odd as Time essayist Lance Morrow’s intoxicated January 1, 1990 take on Mikhail Gorbachev as the “Communist Pope and the Soviet Martin Luther.”)

During the next day’s Good Morning America, ABC correspondent Steve Fox noted the similarity of the two men: “The Pope is a tough disciplinarian. He will brook no dissent on doctrinal matters....And if you think about Mr. Gorbachev, he, early in his career, was the head of the KGB [sic].” CBS correspondent Barry Petersen continued this line of thought: “I think [Gorbachev’s] trying to say to the Pope, listen, communism and Catholicism, we really have a lot in common. Kind of an astonishing thought if you think about it.” A lot of freedom-loving Catholics begged to differ.

The comparisons to communism erupted again in 1991, when in early June, the Pope visited Poland for the fourth time. Instead of delivering an even-handed account of the new tensions in post-communist Poland, CBS reporter Bert Quint ended his June 1 Evening News report by suggesting the new society in some respects was inferior to the old: “But most of his fellow countrymen do not share John Paul’s concept of morality....Many here expect John Paul to use his authority to support Church efforts to ban abortion, perhaps the country’s principal means of birth control. And this, they say, could deprive them of a freedom of choice the communists never tried to take away from them.”

textbox0414_2On the June 3 CBS This Morning, Quint began: “The Pope today attacked one principle communism brought to Poland that most of his fellow countrymen want to keep: separation of church and state.” But the “principle” the Soviets brought was not Jefferson’s separation of church and state, but suppression of the church by the state. Behind the Iron Curtain, Catholic priests and believers were killed and tortured, imprisoned and stifled by the communists, not granted freedom of worship.

While Quint’s stories on the papal visit featured soundbites from average Poles who supported his left-wing viewpoint, his three stories included no one who was inspired by the Pope’s visit or who opposed abortion. When asked by the MRC why viewers heard only one side of the story, Quint declared: “We are not an opinion-sampling organization. When we went out and interviewed people at random, [most] made comments like the one we put on the air.” A “random” sampling of the hundreds of thousands who attended the Pope’s rallies could have shown just the opposite. So who was more “intolerant of dissent”?

Keller’s Catholic Kremlin

Even in 2002, long after Soviet communism crumbled, liberal journalists were still making unfavorable comparisons of the Pope to communist dictatorships. In a May 4, 2002 column in The New York Times, staff columnist Bill Keller – currently overseeing all the news pages as the paper’s Executive Editor – compared the Vatican to the Kremlin. “One paradox of the Polish Pope is that while he is rightly revered for helping bring down the godless communists, he has replicated something very like the old Communist Party in his church...Karol Wojtyla has shaped a hierarchy that is intolerant of dissent, unaccountable to its members, secretive in the extreme and willfully clueless about how people live.” He added: “Like the Communist Party circa Leonid Brezhnev, the Vatican exists first and foremost to preserve its power.” 

textbox0414_3Keller did not explain how Catholics were like Soviet subjects. They do not suffer from forced obedience to their parish priest. They need not fear a trip to the gulag or a quick execution for disagreeing with their Holy Father. They have every liberty to disagree, and every right to walk out of the church, never to return. But for all his bad analogies, Keller was really complaining that the secular liberal media intelligentsia should have the right to “reform” the Catholic Church, to remake an authoritarian God in their own more “compassionate” and “tolerant” image.

Keller’s 2002 column looked forward to John Paul’s death as an occasion for the Church’s hostile takeover by “reformers” who would exchange ancient creeds for comfortable slogans. Keller argued “one reason many Catholics see the moment as ripe for reform is that this Pope is on his last legs. Soon, the hope goes, a vigorous new leader may emerge. Maybe so. But like the Communists, John Paul has carefully constructed a Kremlin that will be inhospitable to a reformer.” To Keller, the Pope also committed the offense of forming seminaries that are “begetting a generation of inflexible young priests who have no idea how to talk to real-life Catholics.” Is Keller in favor of secular liberal activists being “flexible” on first principles, like abortion, for example? Are the only Catholics living a “real life” the ones who agreed with Keller?

One reason for Keller’s bilious broadside against the Pope was revealed when he identified himself as “what a friend calls a ‘collapsed Catholic’ — well beyond lapsed.” Keller claimed no right to reform the church as a Catholic believer, but only as part of the “larger struggle within the human race, between the forces of tolerance and absolutism.”

It’s important to remember that John Paul’s anti-communism in no way meshed with the media consensus, which until late in the 1980s imagined Soviet communism was here to stay, so the wise man would learn to live with them, side by side. If this Polish pontiff had been a religious version of Willy Brandt, chanting for peaceful coexistence with the godless oppressors of Russia and Eastern Europe, the media would not have opposed him. The consensus would have hailed his wisdom and his peacemaker’s way.