Press Watch

A few days after the Pope’s recent visit to Poland, we began to see something interesting and significant in the news media: a new line of attack on the Pope. It began on Sunday, June 26, in the New York Times. The front-page story (dateline Rome) was unsigned and unattributed to any news agency. This is so unusual for the Times that any such story is usually worth a careful look. The headline read: “Pope’s Trip Stirs Vatican Debate on Political Role.”

The anonymous writer told us that the Pope’s trip had “added fuel” to a “muted but persistent debate in the Vatican, a debate which had begun with “murmurings” after the 1979 papal visit to Poland. Within the “sometimes rancorous Curia” it was now being said that the Pope was too political — “reminiscent of the political days of the papacy.” John Paul II, at the end of his trip, had “put aside religious ceremonies” and had held “meetings of a political nature” (with Gen. Jaruzelski and Lech Walesa). The Pope thus openly became the “negotiator for Poland,” and “raised to its highest point so far what many Vatican officials consider the Pope’s excessive participation in a secular struggle.”

Notice the technique. The anonymous writer cites anonymous sources within the Vatican who oppose the Pope. Divide and conquer. If you disapprove of something and you want to attack it while maintaining your pose as a detached reporter, than you find division in the ranks and exploit it for all it is worth.

In summary, the unknown Times writer pointed out that there are two lines of criticism of the Pope. He should not “involve the papacy so deeply in any political struggle anywhere.” Secondly, the emphasis on Poland diverts attention away from “equally vital political and social conflicts in other largely Catholic countries” — e.g. in Latin America.

It wasn’t long before this veiled attack was picked up elsewhere and amplified. Soon there was a story by Michael Dobbs in The Washington Post, headlined “Grumbles in the Vatican. Pope’s Polish Focus, Staff ‘Mafia’ Raise Some Hackles.” Dobbs, the Rome correspondent of the Post, had no doubt read the Times piece, and then gone out and found himself a disgruntled left wing American priest (unnamed), who was quoted as saying: “Anybody around here with any concern for Latin America is close to despair.” Dobbs added that the controversial article by Rev. Virgilio Levi in L’Osservatore Romano (saying that Walesa had “lost his battle”) was “seen around the world as a formal signal by the Vatican of its willingness to sacrifice Walesa to reach an agreement with Poland’s military authorities.”

Strangely enough William Safire in the New York Times misconstrued this new line of attack on the Pope, mistakenly taking it at face value. The real news media concern at this juncture was not that the Pope had sold out Walesa but that the Pope had now moved dangerously close to the Communist ruler Jaruzelski and was now in a position to confer legitimacy to or withhold it from the ruler. This was unprecedented from the point of view of the International Left, because until that moment the Communist ideology itself was assumed to be sufficient to confer legitimacy on any Stalin, Castro, Andropov or Jaruzelski. By inviting the Pope to “negotiate” with him, Jaruzelski was acknowledging that the authority of Communism is now inadequate to sustain its rulers (“leaders” in the U.S. press).

Safire in any event misread the development. “It is wrong to weaken the following of those who dare to call for political freedom by presuming to substitute for them,” Safire wrote. “The Pope should uphold and protect Mr. Walesa, not try to replace him.” The truth is, of course, that the Pope is in a far stronger position to undermine totalitarianism than Walesa.

Safire referred to Jaruzelski as a “quisling.” It didn’t take long for Kenneth Woodward, the profoundly anti- Catholic commentator on Catholic affairs for Newsweek, to misapply the label, saying in the July 11 issue that the “report of a deal between pope and general has opened John Paul to the charge (N.B.: by Woodward himself) that he is a quisling pontiff. . .” Woodward noted “considerable anger in the Vatican, where “some prelates (unnamed) grumble (that the Pope) has gone too far this time . . . How can he blame priests in Central America for trying to do the same?”

Woodward’s many Newsweek columns have shown him to be in approximately the same spiritual camp as Alexander Cockburn, the Village Voice columnist who endlessly makes excuses for the Soviet Union and other practitioners of communism. Cockburn, however, didn’t bother to find unnamed mouthpieces to express his dislike of the Pope. He more candidly snapped his pencil, told a joke about seeing the word “Assumption” wrongly hyphenated, and wrote: “Usually I can calm down about the Catholic Church when I think of the Dogma of the Ass, but it gets harder and harder the way John Paul II has been carrying on.”

Let me make a couple of brief points in reply to the Pope’s critics. There is nothing inconsistent or hypocritical about the Pope involving himself in politics and asking priests not to do the same. The Catholic Church is a voluntary organization in which authority is arranged hierarchically. All members of the body are not equal to one another. The Pope decides what the church does, and what political activity is best for it. Those who disagree with him are free to leave at any time. It is absurd to suggest that it is “consistent” for the Pope to engage in one brand of politics (anti-communist) and for priests to engage in an inconsistent brand of politics (anti-anti-communist), merely because the same word, “politics,” can be applied to both.

It is not true that the “political and social conflicts” in Latin America are as “vital” as the one in Poland. The most important conflict is with communism, which is an anti- religion, intensely appealing to many apostate Westerners, and bent on the destruction of Christianity and all rival creeds. The pope, as I say, has not sold out Walesa. On the contrary, the Communist rulers in Poland now depend for their legitimacy on the Catholic Church. This is a new development.

Readers should be on the alert for further attacks on the Pope, whether ventriloquized or directly stated, as in Cockburn’s case. There will undoubtedly be many more of them along the same lines. It was interesting to notice, incidentally, that the July 1 issue of the National Catholic Reporter carried a big article by Peter Hebblethwaite on the Pope’s visit to Poland, a comparatively straight forward piece making none of the above criticisms. It will be interesting to see whether future issues of the reporter take up the line of attack first set forth by the secular press.


  • Tom Bethell

    Tom Bethell is a senior editor at the American Spectator. A graduate of Trinity College, Oxford, he is the author of several books including Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (1998); The Politically Incorrect Guide to Science (2005); and Eric Hoffer: The Longshoreman Philosopher (2012).

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