The Life of Pope John Paul:

Shepherd of Souls or Antiquated Authoritarian?

3. Liberals vs. John Paul

Reporters who see themselves as advocates for democracy and modernity found Pope John Paul lacking in both during his tenure, insisting that he needed to stop his fuddy-duddy conservative opposition to the sexual revolution, look at the public opinion polls and get with the times, especially to keep parishioners inside the Catholic churches of America.

An April 5 AP story remembering Pope John Paul’s popularity with young people quoted Robert Drinan, the former congressman priest, declaring his death was “like a grandfather dying and one girl reminded me that her grandfather never approved of her jeans.” Reporters have perpetually portrayed the American Catholic Church as the randy grandchild rolling their eyes at the out-of-touch Polish grandpa. In an October 2, 1995 Style section story in the Washington Post, writer Henry Allen revealed the media attitude bluntly: “There are 60 million Catholics in America, and for many of them he also speaks with the voice of a conservative crank when he stonewalls on abortion, birth control, married priests, women priests and so on.” Reporters also resented the Pope’s resistance to international bureaucracies trying to spread the culture of social liberalism.

textbox0414_4On the November 6, 1989 edition of ABC’s Good Morning America, reporter Kathleen DeLaski told viewers: “The bishops are expected to adopt a more conservative policy on AIDS prevention this week, one more in line with the Vatican, but less popular with many American Catholics. Some showed their displeasure outside yesterday’s Mass that opened the conference.” DeLaski then showed these alleged “Catholics” screaming “Racist, sexist, anti-gay! Catholic bigots, go away!” DeLaski added: “Many gay Catholics feel the proposal is irresponsible.”

Newsweek’s Eleanor Clift, on the May 11, 1994 McLaughlin Group, displayed the media’s desire for utter rejection of the conservative Vatican influence on the global culture in the buildup to the UN Population Conference in Cairo: “I’m rooting for a return to the Italian Popes, because in Italy they absolutely flaunt the Vatican and they may act as an effort to bring the Church into alignment with modern life. The Church is virtually alone in its position on abortion as we approach this population conference.”

textbox0414_6Pope John Paul drew disdain from the networks for “distracting” the Cairo conference with his anti-abortion stance. Citing a “nasty fight” between President Clinton and the Pope, CBS reporter Martha Teichner remarked on September 3, 1994: “The security in effect for the UN Population Conference in Cairo is the kind used to prevent aircraft hijackings. But so far, the only hijacking taking place is of the agenda.”
ABC repeatedly demonstrated a hostility to religious objections to the UN consensus. On October 7, 1994, Peter Jennings announced: “In Cairo, the Pope’s representatives are causing tempers to flare at the World Population Conference as the Vatican holds to its uncompromising position on abortion. ABC’s Jim Bittermann reports from there that what on the surface appears to be a debate over a few words has badly distracted from the conference’s overall mission.” 

Bitterman reported the spin from the Planned Parenthood side: “Vatican representatives at the population conference were today being cast in the role of spoiler, their stubborn style angering fellow delegates....And delegates weren’t the only ones frustrated. Thousands of activists, who came here to push causes from the environment to women’s rights, have been ignored as the representatives from 182 nations spend their time and energy debating the abortion issue.” 

On October 8, 1995, at the same time reporters were celebrating the papal visit’s potential to hurt the Gingrich Republicans in Congress, Today co-host Giselle Fernandez asked American papal envoy Mary Ann Glendon: “The Pope’s stands on issues such as, for instance, abortion, popularity control, birth control -- is he aware that American Catholic women, the majority, have different views than he does on these matters?” NBC thought the Pope should be more worried about his “popularity control” — yes, Fernandez actually said that — than about conserving a traditional sexual ethic.

NBC’s David Gregory displayed the media’s rhetorical tricks on the July 23, 2001 NBC Nightly News. The Pope’s stand against embryo-destroying stem cell research was not a problem for liberals, but for the conservative president. “In front of reporters, the Pontiff called the creation of embryos for research a symbol of a, quote, ‘tragic coarsening of consciences’.... Determining the right thing to do on stem cell research has not been so easy for Mr. Bush, and today the Pope only made it harder.”

The media’s rigidity on the separation of church and state grew much firmer when the Pope disagreed with the Clinton administration or the United Nations or other liberal activists. Suddenly the “wall of separation” was breached, and papal opinions were no longer welcomed.