Media View of Pope John XXIII

Author: David Shaw


PAPACY: Media view earlier Pope and council reforms more favorably. But he led in a less contentious time.

By DAVID SHAW, Times Staff Writer

Before John Paul II and his best-selling book and compact disc, before his 12 appearances on the cover of Time magazine and his internationally televised globe-trotting, the best-known, most widely covered Pope in recent times was John XXIII. But John XXIII, whose brief pontificate lasted from 1958 to 1963, consistently received far more favorable coverage than has John Paul II.

"I don't think any Pope has ever gotten better press in the West than John XXIII," says E. J. Dionne, Rome correspondent for the New York Times from 1984 to 1986 and now a columnist for the Washington Post.

John XXIII was most widely praised for his 1963 international peace encyclical "Pacem in Terris" and for his convocation of the Second Vatican Council a year earlier. Even though he died before the council actually took much formal action, he was given most of the credit, in the media and by the general public, for the council's unprecedented reforms in the Catholic liturgy, in collegiality among the church hierarchy and in its embrace of an ecumenical movement that welcomed contact with other religions.

Journalists tend to favor reform, to welcome change of almost any kind; change is new, and "new" is, quite literally, what makes "news." Many supporters of John Paul II argue that this personal-cum-institutional bias, combined with the support of many in the media for the specific, modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, inevitably led them to paint a rosy portrait of John XXIII.

The media depicted John XXIII as an "innovative, radical Pope" because Vatican II (as the council came to be colloquially known) was perceived as pushing the Catholic Church to "catch up with all of us . . . enlightened, educated, progressive people," says Father Richard John Neuhaus, president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life.

Neuhaus says the media's view was: "Isn't it wonderful that this jolly old man, Papa John, is now going to bring this fusty, sclerotic old institution into the 20th Century."

George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and, like Neuhaus, a supporter of John Paul II, says, "There's a sense in which the standard story line on the Catholic Church has been fixed for 35 years, ever since the convening of the Second Vatican Council, and it's a testament to the extraordinary influence of one man--Francis X. Murphy . . . who . . . created this whole taxonomy of good liberal/bad conservative."

To many, John Paul II now represents the "bad conservative" depicted in the insider account of the Vatican II battles that Murphy wrote about in a widely read series for the New Yorker from 1963 to 1965, under the pseudonym "Xavier Rynne."

But John Paul II, then Bishop Karol Wojtyla, was an active participant in Vatican II, and he "sees his pontificate totally in the light of Vatican II," says Cardinal Jan Schotte, general secretary of the Synod of Bishops. Schotte, like other supporters of John Paul II, finds it ironic that John Paul II is now portrayed in the media as an opponent of the very reforms he helped to instigate.

In the paradigmatic patois of the press, John XXIII was a liberal and a reformer, John Paul II a conservative and a traditionalist, even though in terms of his personal piety, John XXIII was very conservative, while on such social policy matters as human rights, redistribution of wealth, reconciliation with the Jews and a call for the church to admit its past sins, John Paul II is downright "radical . . . a Pope of breathtaking innovation," as Neuhaus puts it.

But it's typical of the media to "canonize people and demonize people . . . [and] they've done that with John XXIII and John Paul II,"says Father Thomas Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, who is writing a book on the Vatican.

Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, says John XXIII "deserves our tremendous thanks and credit for having opened the door. . . . But our present Holy Father [and] Paul VI . . . took the Vatican Council up and put it into practice."

(Paul VI succeeded John XXIII and actually implemented most of the Vatican II reforms during his 15-year papacy, but apart from coverage of his 1968 encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," which reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial birth control, he has been largely lost in the journalistic shuffle between two stronger, more decisive and media-wise Popes.)

Even theologians and journalists who are sometimes critical of John Paul II say that attempts to depict him as an opponent of Vatican II are misguided.

Just as it took a conservative President like Richard Nixon to open the diplomatic door to Communist China, so Dionne of the Post says, "It took a Pope perceived as a conservative" to confirm and make permanent many of the changes that Vatican II instituted.

J. Bryan Hehir, a professor of the practice of religion and society at the Harvard University Divinity School, says John Paul II clearly supports Vatican II, "but there are post-councilar trends that don't correspond to what he thinks a faithful interpretation of the council is."

In other words, John Paul II thinks many Catholics have tried to take the council's actions even further than the council intended, and he has vigorously opposed that.

Martin Marty, a University of Chicago professor who teaches the history of modern Christianity, likens the convening of Vatican II to "opening the sluice gates on a dam. . . . John XXIII's greatness was that he opened these sluice gates," providing relief from the pressures that had been building for reform in the church.

"But then the flow got so torrential," Marty says, that John Paul II decided to slow the flow. "He's controlling the sluice gates."

But disagreement over the manner in which John Paul II has tried to exert that control have fed the media perception that he is an opponent of Vatican II.

On many matters, John Paul insists that his way is the Lord's way is the right way; dissent is not to be tolerated. When he issued an apostolic letter last spring saying women cannot be ordained as priests, he said that the subject was no longer open to debate, that his view must be "definitively held by all the church's faithful."

Many critics contrast what they see as John Paul's authoritarian approach to church doctrine and policy with the sense of collegiality, of Pope and bishops working together, that was engendered by John XXIII and Vatican II.

In a cover story on the Pope and his potential successor last fall, the New York Times Magazine spoke of the "deep and sad chasm" between supporters of John Paul II and those "churchmen and women who felt that the fresh air blowing after the Second Vatican Council produced an atmosphere more hospitable and supportive to the difficulties of living out an imitation of Christ in the modern world.

"Under John Paul," the magazine said, these people say they have seen "dedicated people demoralized, careers ruined and lives shattered by a system godfathered by a Pope whose ability to centralize authority has been truly remarkable."

In effect, critics argue, John Paul II has not been faithful to the spirit of Vatican II, however much he has supported its specific reforms.

Supporters of Pope John Paul II argue, however, that "liberals and progressives took a wrong message from Vatican II," as Novak, of the American Enterprise Institute, puts it. "They became attached to 'the spirit' of Vatican II, which they detached from the actual documents of Vatican II. In light of that spirit, they justified to themselves a lot of things they should not have justified to themselves.

"This Pope called a halt to that."

But the difference in media coverage of Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II go beyond Vatican II and what was or was not intended by either its spirit or its documents.

To begin with, John XXIII was Pope in a simpler, more optimistic era, and he benefited from a far less skeptical press, much as did his contemporary, President John F. Kennedy. John Paul II is Pope in a more contentious, cynical time, and like other world leaders, he is subjected to a more probing media examination.

John Paul II is also Pope at a time when issues such as abortion, women's rights and gay rights- -not even on the public agenda during John XXIII's day--are regularly the subjects of heated debate and intense media coverage.

Furthermore, just as John XXIII profited by comparison with his more traditional predecessors, so John Paul II sometimes suffers by comparison with the pioneering, easygoing John XXIII.

John XXIII received favorable coverage in part because he seemed so human and approachable and in part because, as the first modern reform Pope, he was a novelty, says Marty, the University of Chicago theologian.

Marty likens media coverage of John XXIII to that of a reporter writing about an elephant dancing the ballet. "It's not that the elephant is elegant when he dances," Marty says, "but the fact that it's an elephant that's dancing makes it interesting."

By the time John Paul II became Pope, the dance had to be elegant too. The media were "no longer surprised that the Pope is interesting," Marty says. They want to know "what he's interesting about"--and why.

In looking for those answers, many find John Paul II to be more bullish than elegant.

Moreover, with a much longer pontificate--16 years to John XXIII's five--John Paul has had more time to make enemies and to see the glow and novelty of his early years wear off. As Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles says: "The shorter the term of a Pope, the more glorious the memory."

Vatican II did more than simply establish John XXIII as a hero in many quarters though. It also helped to ignite media interest in religion in general and Catholicism in particular.

Ironically, Pope John Paul II--the most widely covered Pope in history--is now reaping the often bitter harvest of those early seeds of interest.

Copyright Los Angeles Times

Copied from the PRODIGY(R) service 04/18/95 10:38