Covering a big story, live, is hard, and journalists will make mistakes. When Christiane Amanpour of CNN described John Paul II in the hours after his death as “the first non-Catholic to be elected pope in more than 455 years,” she provided some much-needed levity to the day. Nobody will hold it against her.
What is more problematic is the media’s unconscious tendentiousness in describing the teachings of this pope and his Church. The Pope, nearly everyone said, was a complex man: He was progressive on economics, war, and the death penalty, yet took doctrinaire and divisive positions on moral issues. The media, much less complex, let us know which of these features were laudable and which lamentable–the word “divisive” being one of the most common cues. And journalists have followed this line with a uniformity of thought that no church could ever attain. The resulting depiction of the Catholic Church and John Paul II is full of distortions–not falsifications, but highly misleading exaggerations.
So, for example, the Pope is said to have been a tough critic of capitalism. And there is considerable truth to this claim. The Church does not support an extreme individualism or laissez faire. It worries about materialism and an economy unrestrained by moral values. But under this pope, the Church’s appreciation of free markets grew, and even its criticism began to focus more on the imperative to widen the circle of productive exchange–to bring more people into markets. Nor does the Church’s support for the principle of subsidiarity–that power should be exercised as close to the people as possible–make for an obvious fit with the agendas of social democrats. In Centesimus Annus, the Pope worried about “a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” All faithful Catholics accept a responsibility to help the poor. But what the precise mix of governmental action, private charity, and individual initiative should be is a matter about which faithful Catholics can differ.
The Pope’s opposition to the Iraq war has also been exaggerated. He said that war represented a failure of statesmen and urged peace. But he did not condemn the war, declare it unjust, or urge Catholic soldiers not to participate in it. Contrast this with his opposition to abortion: He did urge Catholic doctors not to perform abortions. The gravity and definitiveness of the teachings on these issues are not comparable, and a list of the Church’s “positions”–as though it had a political platform–must inevitably obscure this.
Another motif of the coverage has been that this papacy represented a retreat from the “openness” of Vatican II. But Karol Wojtyla was a major figure in Vatican II. His understanding of what it meant was very different from that of liberals who wanted the Church to accommodate itself to modernity (and of conservatives who feared that the Church was doing that). There is a reason that Church liberals typically invoke the “spirit” of Vatican II: They are trying to do to it what the theory of the “living Constitution” has done to America’s Founders.
Finally, the media have kept noting that many Catholics, especially in the West, have flouted the Church’s teachings on abortion, birth control, and sexual morality. This is true; but it should be put in context. Even more Catholics have flouted Church teaching on, say, the universal obligation to love one another and the immorality of lying. The odds that the Church will change its teaching on love or lying are approximately as great as the odds that it will bless abortion and non-marital sex–whatever the church of the television anchors may want.–The Editors
NOTE: This editorial appears in the April 25, 2005, issue of National Review.