One week after Pope Benedict XVI touches down in the United States, the Pennsylvania primary will be held. All indications are the media would much prefer to concentrate on the latter; they certainly feel more at home covering a subject they know something about. Nonetheless, they will have to give Hillary and Barack a back seat, at least for a few days.
Unlike the two Democratic senators, and their Republican rival and colleague, the Holy Father is not interested in public opinion polls. Nor is he interested in tailoring his comments to the prevailing sentiments of his American audience. Having been named pope at the age of 78 — fully 20 years beyond where his predecessor was at the time he was elected pontiff — he knows he has a short window of opportunity. Ergo, he is not about to waste his time courting good will at the expense of truth.
And the truth is exactly as he has said it so many times: We live in a time of theological and moral relativism where polite opinion tells us it is bad taste to insist that one religion, or one culture, is preferable to another. But Jesus did not found several churches — He founded one. And if He is indeed the Messiah, why wouldn’t Catholics want to point others to the surest path to salvation? Similarly, if all cultures are equal, then are we to conclude that the difference between one culture that puts Jews into ovens, and another that puts pizzas into ovens, is simply a matter of different strokes for different folks?
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There are those in the media who maintain that the pope is too rigid and close minded. But how then do they explain the fact that no sooner was he elected than he broke bread with those not in communion with the Church? Just four months after his elevation, Benedict met with Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci on one occasion, and soon after met with Bishop Bernard Fellay of the Society of St. Pius X; a month later he sat down with Catholic theologian Hans Küng.
Fallaci, while supportive of Benedict’s resolute stand against radical Islamist politics, was nonetheless a self-described “Christian atheist.” Fellay was the leader of the rightist group that was declared in schism with the Vatican in 1988. The dissident Küng was stripped of his license to teach theology in 1979; he also once compared then-Cardinal Ratzinger to the head of the KGB. But none of this mattered to the man who previously engaged Jurgen Habermas, Germany’s most famous Marxist philosopher.
So it is not Benedict who is afraid of dialogue (why should he be? — he’s an intellectual heavyweight), but his adversaries. That is why the fascists at La Sapienza University, led as always by the professors, bullied him away from speaking on campus. They can’t stand what he has to say, and they can’t beat him in debate, so they resort to censorial measures. Ironically, he planned to discuss the faculty of reason in settling human problems.
Will the media mention these things when the pope arrives on April 15? Doubtful. It’s a lot more fun to cite meaningless polls that suggest that Catholics entertain a more relaxed attitude toward many Church teachings. They are meaningless not simply because the Catholic Church is no more a democracy than is the ordinary newspaper, radio, or television station — but because the surveys are too often boneheaded. Take Beliefnet.com.
For example, what is the purpose of asking whether the bishops have taken enough steps to address the sex-abuse scandal? Are we to assume that the average Catholic knows that a grand total of five priests out of more than 40,000 last year had accusations made against them for violating someone under the age of 18? And without comparing bishops and priests to school superintendents and teachers on this scale, how could an intelligent answer be forthcoming? Of course Catholics will say the bishops haven’t done enough. Is there any problem that has been resolved to the point where the leaders have “done enough”?
Here’s another gem: “Do you think Catholics who support abortion rights should be denied communion?” There is not a bishop in the nation who has made such a claim, so why bother to raise this red herring? What some bishops have said is that Catholic public officials who are abortion rights advocates, and who have consistently refused to reconsider their position when counseled to do so, may properly be denied communion. That’s not a small difference. Indeed, Pope John Paul II said quite clearly that when the choice is between a politician who is radically pro-abortion, and one who is not as extreme in his support for abortion rights, it is okay to vote for the latter (as long as we tried to win the candidate over to our side). In other words, the question is a non-starter.
The media that are assigned to cover the papal events are likely to be mostly fair. The problems will occur when pundits let loose and when dissident Catholics are given prominence. Regarding the pundits, some will compare Benedict unfavorably to John Paul II, trying to convince the public that the Church is going backwards. As for the dissidents, they will present themselves, aided and abetted by the media, as being loyal sons and daughters of the Church. Though some may be, it is a sure bet many are the declared enemies of Catholicism.
The pope’s U.N. speech will be closely watched, especially for references to the war in Iraq. While events there are complicated, it remains true that if the adherents of Islam today were to show as much tolerance for religious diversity as is demonstrated by Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, peace would be within reach. The human rights deficit that marks Islam is not something this pope has shied away from discussing, and for that he should be applauded, not castigated. Look for him to once again mention what happens when faith is disconnected from reason.
The pope will also discuss what happens when reason is disconnected from faith, making the media quiver. That’s because such moral issues as abortion, assisted suicide, and embryonic stem cell research are deemed by the Church to be “intrinsically evil,” and nothing sends shivers up the spines of the media than discussions of this kind.
But it should be a fun week watching the media try to get their hands on something most of them find elusive. They can rest assured that as soon as the pope leaves, they’ll have Hillary and Barack to micro-analyze once again.