Reflections on John Paul II in America: John Paul, the Media, and Dissenters

Catholicism Remains a Good News Story Because it Stands for Something

A few weeks before Pope John Paul II returned to the United States for his second tour, the New York Times Sunday Magazine published a cover story about American Catholics. The article focused on the feisty independence of affluent Catholics at a Greenwich, Connecticut parish church. One professional woman, who served on the parish liturgy committee, explained that American career women like herself had learned to make up their own minds about issues affecting their lives — such as contraception. Then, almost as an afterthought, the woman added that she also doubted whether Jesus Christ was really present hi the Eucharist. The reporter, seeing nothing amiss, continued his portrait of rebellious American Catholics.

If the woman did not believe in the real presence, why did she serve on the liturgy committee of her parish? Indeed, why did she consider herself a Catholic? The Times reporter had given more attention to the woman’s position on contraception than her doubts about the Eucharist — the main source of grace and unity in the Church, the core sacrament, the reason why Protestants leave their cradle religion for Catholicism. Perhaps responding to the reporter’s priorities, the woman showed no special concern about her lack of faith. Did it really matter? It did not appear on any polls. She was passionate on the issues, militant about her right to be in the Church, and rather indifferent to the Eucharist.

Further reflection on this puzzling matter prompted some questions about the impact of the media’s fascination with Catholic dissenters and their issue-oriented campaign against Rome. What has been the effect of this sustained offensive on U.S. Catholics’ understanding of the faith, their place in the mystical body, and their relationship to the Holy Father? Have the nature of the Church and its mission on earth become thoroughly obscured by the ever-present debate on “the issues”? Have serious Catholics who have been drawn into the struggle for the Church in America forgotten that the Body of Christ depends on the love and mercy Of the Father? That prayer, faith, sacramental union, and the Cross must shape our vision of the Church, and feed our hope?

Some Catholics began asking these questions after the first strong wave of postconciliar dissent on Humanae Vitae hit the American flock. At that time, theological pied pipers such as Charles Curran insisted that their selective critique of “noninfallible” papal teachings offered no threat to the Church or its doctrine. But it did, because it attempted to sever faith from life. Encouraged to adopt other criteria for making judgments that affected their lives, some Catholics ultimately changed their understanding of the Church, which was increasingly defined in sociological terms. Catholic doctrine and Christian service were confused with political structures and agendas that required a corresponding “yes or no” vote from the citizen-believer.

In the last two decades, those who voted “no” have turned to the media, which has provided a forum for their initially gentle, and now stinging attacks against the Magisterium. In the late 1960s, press conferences introduced the arguments against Humanae Vitae. Today, every media organization from the New York Times to People magazine offers plenty of space to proponents of women’s ordination, married priests, and gay rights in the Church.

The media treats the Church and its message of salvation as a primitive but fascinating dinosaur that, with a little fixing, could wow the public. Editorialists in the New York Times have persistently sought to “save” the Church from its unmarketable views about authority and morality. Last month in Life magazine, Phil Donahue offered some advice to Rome, suggesting that it review its policy on original sin. The notion, he said, was bad for people’s self-confidence.

Still, the church remains a great news story precisely because Rome stands for something. The battle between the Pope and dissenters is endlessly fascinating because there is tremendous passion in a fight over what is good and what is evil. However, a really good fight requires clear positions. And confusion about the nature of the Church and its teaching has become so acute that some responsible mainstream journalists have sought to clarify Rome’s side.

On a recent Nightline show featuring anti-Pope dissenters, self-styled Catholic spokesperson Frances Kissling of Catholics for a Free Choice criticized papal opposition to homosexual activity as a rejection of homosexuals’ humanity. “We are our actions, we are our behaviors,” she insisted, “so it is not really possible to say, ‘We love people, but dislike what they do.’” Nightline host Ted Koppel replied: “I would think any man or woman of God would say, ‘I can love you despite disagreeing with some of the things for which you stand.’ Don’t you think that’s what the Pope is saying?” Kissling didn’t.

It is hard to take Kissling and her like seriously. Nevertheless, we struggle with the question: Should she be challenged or ignored? And if she should be challenged, how? With the Phil Donahues of this world providing the most accessible forum for theological debate, the answer is often “No.” But how to defend the faith? How to explain the mysteries of the Church to an audience embued with skepticism? How to teach the Beatitudes to people who believe that freedom means unlimited power? If we can’t explain the underpinnings of doctrine, we are left with a rather sterile argument on “the issues.”

As American Catholics anticipated the papal visit, the escalation of media assaults against the Holy Father, and the endless anti-Rome opinion polls provoked frustration and a measure of despair in his supporters. Would he even be heard amidst the cacophony of dissent? Fatigued by the conflict, many Catholic pastors expressed indifference or even hostility to his visit. After Hunthausen and Curran, what about a little peace? Even the four U.S. bishops who addressed the Holy Father in Los Angeles, appeared to bear the weight of opinion polls. The bishops’ speeches, which covered the role of the laity (Weakland), moral theology (Quinn), unity (Bernardin), and vocations (Pilarczyk), lacked any strong sense of celebration — though the material accomplishments of the Church in America were duly recorded. The sociological analysis was there, the richness of faith was not. Reading their speeches, one confronts both the impoverishment of Catholic thought in this country, and the deep insecurity of at least some of our episcopal leaders, who judge the Church’s development in the U.S. by material standards alone. Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee, referring to the high percentage of college graduates, told the Pope: “Now the Church in the United States of America can boast of having the largest number of educated faithful in the world.”

The Holy Father responded: “But how is the American culture evolving today? Is this evolution being influenced by the Gospel? Such questions are relevant to any consideration of the role of the Catholic laity, ‘the largest number of educated faithful in the world.’ ”

It was perhaps the sharpest rebuke in an otherwise generally loving response to the fears expressed in the bishops’ speeches. The Pope clearly wanted the U.S. hierarchy to concentrate on their central mission: “to preach Christ’s call to conversion and to proclaim redemption in His blood.” But acknowledging the exhaustion and tentativeness that surfaced in the speeches, he urged a return to the source of the Church’s strength:

Unless the entire Christian community has a keen awareness of the marvelous and utterly gratuitous outpouring of “the kindness and love of God our Savior” which saved us not because of any righteous deeds we had done, but because of His mercy, the whole ordering of the Church’s life and the exercise of her mission of service to the human family will be radically weakened and never reach the level [of renewal] intended by the council.

For the laity, the Holy Father urged an intellectual approach: “one intimately linked to faith and prayer. Our people must be aware of their dependence on Christ’s grace and on the great need to open themselves ever more to its action. Jesus Himself wants us all to be convinced of His word: ‘Apart from me, you can do nothing.’ ”

These words challenge us to renew our understanding of the Church. Surrendering to the grace of the Father and assenting to His will, we approach the tasks of building up the Body of Christ, resisting dissent, and evangelizing our nation with a new awareness of spiritual change. Faith, prayer, the Eucharist, the “Cross — in the very act of revealing mercy, compassion, and love — changes judgments radically,” as the Holy Father said.

Already there are signs of a deep spiritual renewal in our Church and in our country. But whatever happens, the dramatic, unpredictable changes of the past the decline of our Catholic institutions, conflict in the Church, the increasing materialism of an affluent flock) force us to acknowledge both the limits of human action, and our dependence on the Father.

It is not surprising that John Paul, the first pope from a nation under the heel of totalitarian repression, brought us this rich, transcendent vision of a Father’s love. As Italian philosopher Rocco Buttiglione noted in a recent interview published in New Perspectives Quarterly: “Pope John Paul comes from a cultural situation where all values were destroyed and could only be discovered again because they are true.” Buttiglione leaves us with a message of profound Christian hope expressed by Stefan Cardinal Wyszynski, one of the strongest influences on John Paul. During Wyszynski’s first pontifical Mass as Bishop of Lublin in 1946 he told the assembled crowd:

I must commend to you the Gospel and speak to you of the unity of the new world. But how can I do it? . . . How can I speak of unity? What is left? Nothing is left. But still I can. Why can I? Because we are this community that is here. The new land is here in the fact that we are here in brotherhood and love, in the help given to each other. It is a reality not born out of flesh and blood, but out of the grace and will of God.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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