Spring 2005, Vol. 8, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2005

Quick Links:
Articles in this issue

From the Editor:
What's In a Name?

Getting Right with the Pope

Why Moral Values Did Count

What Athens Has To Do With Jerusalem

Evangelicals Discover the Culture of Life

Sin and Redemption in Atlanta

The Faith-Based Initiative Re-ups

Same-Sex Toons






Getting Right with the Pope
by James T. Fisher

The green room at MSNBC’s midtown Manhattan studio was jammed and the atmosphere was electric on the evening of Friday, April 1. Pope John Paul II was dying and the cell phones of every professional Catholic in the metropolitan area were chiming non-stop.

A TV neophyte made eligible solely by virtue of job description, I found myself sharing cramped quarters at MSNBC with the charismatic young Jesuit James Martin of America magazine and the garrulous, impassioned William A. Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who had just completed a live segment with host Joe Scarborough.

While Martin and Donohue swapped TV war stories, I glanced up at the MSNBC monitor dangling from the ceiling of the green room. Papal biographer Carl Bernstein was lauding Pope John Paul II (“a priest,” he reminded viewers) as the most important global figure of the past quarter century. From somewhere out in the remote studio night, Pat Buchanan then weighed in on John Paul II’s role in promoting the values of Western civilization.

With the “culture wars” now back in play, it was no surprise when a producer ducked into the green room to call Donohue back for an encore. “The culture war has been ongoing for a long time,” he had told Scarborough during a December 2004 telecast. “Their side [represented by Hollywood and anti--Catholic elites] has lost.” Now that the pope who had provided so much inspiration to traditionalist Catholics was nearing death, Donohue paid moving tribute to him, reiterating Bernstein’s theme that the pontiff was, above all, a priest in the service of the Lord.

But Donohue also previewed a theme highlighted in the Catholic League’s press release that marked the pope’s death on the following day: “In a world where moral relativism runs rampant, and the lies of postmodernist thought are trumpeted, nothing could be more countercultural than the pope’s speeches and writings on the existence of an objective moral order.”   

Themes from the culture wars resonated throughout the American media’s coverage of the pope’s death and would only intensify following the elevation of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI. While it’s an oft-reported truism that American Catholics are deeply divided over both cultural and doctrinal issues, the coverage revealed just how far the ground under the church has shifted since John Paul II ascended to the papacy in 1978.

The Catholic commentariat was then situated primarily in the better-known Catholic universities and in the small cohort of liberal-leaning publications such as America and Commonweal. These same precincts were certainly represented this time around, especially in the early going when “calling all Catholics” was the cry of television news producers with a bottomless pit of segments to fill.

The most conspicuous and impassioned expert commentary, however, tended to emanate from now-mainstream Catholic sources that were either non-existent or peripheral a quarter-century ago. While every school child knows that there were no 24-hour cable news channels in 1978, it’s easy to forget that though there was a Catholic League by then (it had been founded five years earlier by a Milwaukee Jesuit), hardly anyone had heard of it before 1993, when Bill Donohue took over. Donohue saturated the airwaves during the first three weeks in April 2005.

Nor, in 1978, was there a First Things, the highly influential Catholic monthly vigorously edited by Father Richard John Neuhaus, a former Lutheran pastor and left-wing activist turned neo-conservative who converted to Catholicism a year after launching the magazine in 1989. During and after the conclave, Neuhaus was a fixture on the Eternal Word Television Network’s live, on-site coverage from Rome.

Founded by the feisty, combatively traditionalist Mother Angelica in 1981, EWTN is now the cornerstone of a global media empire, beamed or cabled into 104 million homes worldwide. As part of its Vatican coverage, the network replayed an exclusive interview that reporter Raymond Arroyo conducted with Cardinal Ratzinger in 2003. In due course, Neuhaus shared personal reminiscences of his friends, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

Joseph Fessio—Jesuit priest, provost of Ave Maria University in Naples, Florida, and former student of the new pontiff—was in such demand by the cable networks on April 19 that Ave Maria’s news outlet reported: “He is so popular this day that you’d think he was the one named pope.”

The university, founded in 1998 by the Michigan pizza mogul Tom Monaghan, is the most ambitious of the “off-brand schools” where, wrote John Paul II’s neo-conservative biographer George Weigel in 2003, “critically engaged yet thoroughly Catholic intellectual life” is “flourishing.” Fessio, formerly of the Jesuit-sponsored University of San Francisco, believes that “many Catholic institutions…have ceased to be places where the fullness of Catholic truth is joyfully and vigorously taught, defended and proclaimed.” 

“I want people to know what a saint we have” in Benedict XVI, declared Fessio between interviews on Fox News and CNN. “He’s good, good.”

The same euphoric message was conveyed by “Fox News contributor” Father Jonathan Morris of the ultra-traditional Legionaries of Christ, a formerly obscure priestly order which, like the lay institute Opus Dei, found greater favor in Rome during the papacy of John Paul II. Bridget Johnson, Los Angeles Daily News columnist and proprietress of the blog “GOP Vixen,” cooed that Morris was an “extremely photogenic young priest” who had “come to rule the microphone,” and called him the Vatican commentator “most likely to start a media career after this month.”

This emergent cohort of Catholic neo-traditionalists (most of whom prefer to be known simply for their loyalty to the magisterium, the church’s teaching authority) hardly represents a “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Catholic-style. Like any protean cultural movement, it is marked by internecine rivalries and varied priorities, but it was striking how readily members of this camp occupied the church’s vital center in the electronic media’s coverage of the Vatican conclave.

Ratzinger's election naturally enhanced the stature of individuals and groups enjoying close connections with His (new) Holiness. Had the College of Cardinals elevated a cardinal from, say, Latin America, the media focus might well have shifted to alternate sources of expertise. Yet, as we now know, that was simply not to be, and the clout of the conservative bloc among the cardinals was reflected in the assemblage of Vatican experts whose stock had steadily risen over the past quarter century. The conclave was the capstone on their long ascent to power.

There was a brief flurry of dissenting opinion reported in the immediate aftermath of the election result, though it was more prevalent in the pages of the New York Times than over the TV networks. On April 20, Scott Appleby of Notre Dame, a leading historian of American Catholicism, told the Times that “many Catholics were dismayed, stunned and depressed at the selection of Cardinal Ratzinger.” Paul Lakeland, a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University, was quoted in the same article to the effect that the “election of a new pope is a moment of hope for the church, and this choice is nothing but backwards looking.”

Appleby and Lakeland are figures from the liberal Catholic mainstream whose comments reflected the grave concerns of many American theologians that Pope Benedict XVI would continue or even accelerate policies he had instituted as head of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. As the liberal weekly National Catholic Reporter (NCR) editorialized in its April 29 edition, “The landscape of the contemporary church is littered with the ruined careers and the smeared names of dozens of theologians and other thinkers and ministers—some of them among the most formidable theological minds of the last century—who fell into disfavor with Ratzinger.”

These dissenting voices were understandably muted in the days following the election of Benedict XVI. As Scott Appleby explained, “some appropriate deference” was due a world religious figure as opposed to “a candidate for political office.” Journalist David Gibson raised the specter of anti-Catholicism: “If the media is perceived as being too critical,” he told the Times on April 23, “it could raise echoes of anti-Catholicism, which is something that many people who are still alive remember as all too real.”

At the same time, NCR Vatican correspondent John Allen, doubling as a ubiquitous CNN commentator, argued that it would “be difficult after this experience to assert that the secular media, in any systematic way, is ‘anti-Catholic.’” The lavish, non-stop, and extremely warm-hearted coverage in fact confirmed an observation first made by historian R. Laurence Moore in 1986 in Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans. “Virulent anti-Catholicism was a weaker force in American life than Catholicism.” Or, as the comedian Lenny Bruce once put it: “There’s only one ‘the Church,’” and it’s the Roman one.

The blanket coverage also con-firmed—if often subtly—that conflicts within the church remain more significant than those pitting the church against the broader culture. A close look at the experience of John Allen offers a case in point.

Allen’s tireless work for CNN and NCR was extraordinarily fine by any measure: He captured the drama of the moment, conveyed its deep spirituality, and also explored the inner workings of the College of Cardinals by drawing on his vast network of contacts in the Eternal City. Allen confessed in his NCR “Word from Rome” online column that he “did not predict” Ratzinger’s election—though he did report on the sudden surge of support for him within the College of Cardinals in the days immediately preceding the conclave. This was a point of interest due to his fairly lengthy history with the new pope, including as the author of the 1999 biography, Cardinal Ratzinger: The Vatican’s Enforcer of the Faith.

By the summer of 2004 Allen had grown convinced (aided by the inter-cession of a liberal American theologian, Joseph Komonchak) that the book was “too often written in a ‘good guys and bad guys’ style that vilifies the cardinal.” He was, he reported in the online NCR, completing a new book on the pope “which I hope will be a more balanced and mature account of both Ratzinger’s views and the politics that made him pope.” This self-critical reappraisal is telling.

In the 1990s, it often seemed to me—a non-theologian working in a theology department at a Midwestern Jesuit university—that the name “Ratzinger” was invoked as a synonym for the chilling forces of reaction against legitimate theological innovation. One explanation for this visceral suspicion was that many of the theologians targeted by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith since the 1980s were arguably not dissidents at all but authentic scholars and loyal Catholics engaged in prayerful search for the wisdom of the church’s traditions.

Many outside of the theological community (and some within it) would disagree with this assessment. The NCR, probably the most conspicuous champion of the embattled theologians, itself became a prime target of cultural warriors on the right. John Allen will surely speak only for himself in his forthcoming book on the new pope, but his promised shift in tone may reflect a broader rightward move by Catholic progressives weary of the destruction wrought by the culture wars. They may also be weary of losing.

At the same time, there are real issues facing the church that will not soon go away. Ratzinger’s homily on the “dictatorship of relativism” delivered at the papal funeral was widely spun as a critique of self-centered American Catholics and their hedonistic morality. Much of the television coverage of this issue revealed a kind of reverse generation gap, with some older Catholics asking why, for example, birth control remains proscribed, only to be set straight by younger “orthodox” theologians.

The most pointed such exchange took place on Chris Matthews’ April 19 Hardball program on MSNBC. A guest on the program, Msgr. James Moroney of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, linked the new pope’s critique of “this tyranny of relativism” to the idea “in this country—and in this world today…that we can negotiate any truth into oblivion.”

When Moroney went on to assert that the church “needs to look clearly at what the core truths and the core beliefs are and preach them unambiguously,” another guest, prominent Washington attorney Robert Bennett, responded: “I think what bothers a lot of American Catholics is that a lot of the strict rules have nothing to do with core truths. It’s not a core truth that a woman cannot be a priest. It is not a core truth that a married man cannot be a priest.”

Matthews and Moroney then launched into a spirited, if brief, debate over the Christian merits of “artificial” contraception versus “natural” family planning—the one method, explained the monsignor, endorsed by the church. (“You mean thermal?” asked an incredulous Matthews, like Moroney a graduate of the College of the Holy Cross.) 

Birth control came up repeatedly during the coverage of the papal succession, despite the fact that for the clear majority of Catholics worldwide the issue has long been resolved as a matter of conscience. A much more important question was rarely addressed: How will the church continue to present itself in communion with the world and with other religious traditions? As the New York Times bluntly reported on April 20, “Pope Benedict’s well-known stands include the assertion that Catholicism is ‘true’ and other religions are ‘deficient;’ that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam.”

These views are grounded both in declarations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith like Dominus Iesus (2000) and in the new Pope’s earlier political musings, including his remark that Turkey’s Islamic majority stands in “permanent contrast to Europe,” thereby rendering the country unfit for inclusion in the European Union.

That the Holy Spirit operates in a realm not bound by politics or ideology is suggested by the history of efforts to predict the course of previous papacies.
At the same time, it would be hard to miss the deep affinities between the new pope and those American Catholic neo-traditionalists who now enjoy full citizenship in the global media village. Like many of them, Pope Benedict’s youthful liberalism was “mugged” by the violent spirit that erupted during the student demonstrations of 1968 and environs.

More importantly, he came to believe that the reforms of the Second Vatican Council—which he initially embraced—were themselves in need of reform. As John Allen wrote in NCR in 2002, there were major “discontinuities between the conciliar and the curial Ratzinger” across a wide range of issues. “It seems legitimate to ask Ratzinger,” concluded Allen, “if on certain points Vatican II and the reforming energies it unleashed were simply wrong.” If so, “the interesting question becomes how to make theological sense of a council that erred in such important ways.”

While it might be unseemly to pose the question to a new pope just now, journalists and broadcasters would do well to pursue this line of inquiry with some of those American Catholics who figured so prominently in the coverage of the conclave, at least for as long as the Documents of the Second Vatican Council stand official. One commentator whose voice will be missed in the conversation is Thomas J. Reese, S.J., former editor of America and widely respected authority on the church. Father Reese, the New York Times reported on May 7, resigned his position the previous day “under orders from the Vatican” because “he had published articles critical of church positions.”

Father Neuhaus of First Things informed the Times that America “apparent-ly saw itself” as “the loyal opposition” to the pontificate of John Paul II. Since the Jesuit weekly has articulated no such position, this would seem to mean that America’s commitment to dialogue—in the clear spirit of Vatican II—is now viewed as in itself a mark of “opposition” to the authority of the church. From this perspective, pluralism is equated with the “dictatorship of relativism” that Cardinal Ratzinger excoriated in his homily at the funeral of John Paul II.

A more hopeful vision of pluralism was on display during a remarkable edition of Meet the Press aired April 24 on NBC at the end of an historic week. Host Tim Russert noted that at the opening of the Council in October 1962, Pope John XXIII declared that the church “meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations.”

Russert pressed his guests—who ranged from Father Fessio and Rev. Thomas Bolin, U.S. Vicar of Opus Dei, to author Thomas Cahill and Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne—to discuss the future of the church in the light of history and theology rather than culture war polemics. The result was a model of genuine dialogue and constructive debate.  

A guest on the program that proved refreshingly resistant to ideological labeling was Sister Mary Aquin O’Neill, Director of the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women. Sister O’Neill acknowledged her “great concern” over the election of Benedict XVI but added she was heartened by the discovery that when he was ordained to the priesthood, Joseph Ratzinger inscribed on his holy card: “We aim not to lord over your faith but to serve your joy.”

The human experience of the church changes over time, explained O’Neill (“especially the experience of women has got to be brought into this church, listened to, respected”); and she concluded, “We must not talk about the truth as if it were some kind of package that is fixed and stayed and can be handed on from one generation to the other without any, anything of ourselves entering into it.”

O’Neill’s irenic yet forceful remarks confirmed Russert’s hope that the program would offer “a very serious attempt” to address the real issues at the heart of the church today. Since so many of these issues now cross over into the nation’s culture and politics, as we ask the hard questions we might all take heart in the exhortation of John Paul II—“Be Not Afraid!”




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