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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Copyright Los Angeles Times
Copied from the PRODIGY(R) service 04/18/95 10:38