Pope trip: when the news isn’t really new

April 22, 2008

Pope Benedict at Yankee Stadium, 20 April 2008/poolIt seems that we’ve been writing for the past three years that Pope Benedict is different from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The fact there is a kinder, gentler person there than the worn-out “God’s Rottweiler” tag suggests doesn’t seem to be news anymore. But it apparently still is. When I sat down to write a summary of the pope’s trip to the United States, what struck me most was how many people were surprised by how favourably impressed they were. There were comments that he’d “changed his image” or “softened the edges” on this trip. In fact, he changed his image three years ago. What happened on the trip was that these people changed their view of him.

Here’s my analysis of the trip — he came, they saw, he conquered.

One comment I thought was particularly good was from Alicia Colon in the New York Sun: “It doesn’t matter if it’s a Roncalli, a Wojtyla, or a Ratzinger who wears the white robes and mitre; it’s the words that will always resonate in our hearts. It’s not the singer, it’s the song.”

How do you think his trip went? Was it the trip you expected? Was he the man you expected?


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I’d like to take your thoughts one step further and say that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger didn’t change who he was at all when he became Pope Benedict XVI three years ago. Anyone who had worked with him, both conservative & liberal slanted Cardinals, already knew him to be a docile, sweet, intellectual, and grandfatherly man.


Posted by Tito of Custos Fidei | Report as abusive

Tom, with respect, I’m a Protestant. I was aware of Ratzinger before he became Benedict, and I didn’tneed to work with him to know that he was not the Rottweiler the media portrayed. Good grief the man is even Bavarian – they come with beer and humour – not a dour Prussian in the best stereotypical tradition. Indeed you can’t even read his books, listen to his lectures or sermons before or after he became pope, and even formulate the impression of him as some arch Rottweiler.

And that’s the issue: it’s the media’s portrait, always has been, and a false one at that.

It’s why many Catholics too, now call him ‘Our German Shepherd’, not just as a reflection of his pastoral heart, but as a backhander to the media.

Your headline should have been “We wuz wrong — Media”

Posted by saint | Report as abusive

Ditto Tito! Viva this Papa

Posted by joel | Report as abusive

I don’t know what to make of the Pope’s visit but I think the coverage that I’ve seen of it in the mainstream press has been universally awful. It seems that reporters have been acting more like press agents for the Vatican than investigative journalists.


—– We’re told that President Bush met the Pope at the airport – a unique sign of respect accorded no other visitor. We’re shown pictures of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and NYC Fire Chief Salvatore Cassano in his official uniform bowing down to the Pope and kissing his ring. Nobody seems to be questioning whether this is appropriate in a country in which church-state separation is an important principle.

—– President Bush has indicated that he has a God-inspired mission to spread democracy around the world. The Pope is the leader of a proudly undemocratic organization and was selected by 115 unelected cardinals to rule over roughly a billion people. How can President Bush lavish such praise and honor on such a man? Again, no reporter seems very interested in finding out.

—– The Pope has been lavishly praised for his defense of human rights, yet he and his organization strictly ban women from all positions of authority and leadership. No reporter seems to have tried to square the former praise with the latter fact.

—– The Catholic Church has been enmeshed in a terrible and ongoing sex abuse scandal that the New York Times tells me has involved some 10,000 American youngsters. Criminal and civil cases inspired by this scandal apparently continue; new ones may well be filed in the future. Is it appropriate for the highest officials of the US government to uncritically embrace the Pope given these facts? Can the alleged victims get a fair shake in court when the man at the top of the organization allegedly responsible for their abuse has been so completely endorsed by so many powerful officials? Again, these questions simply haven’t come up in any of the coverage I’ve seen.

There are other questions I wish someone in the news media had thought to ask this past week but I think these are some of the most important and obvious ones. The fact that I saw an overwhelming number of extremely positive puff pieces instead of any attempt to ask these questions didn’t change my mind one way or the other about the Pope but it sure did cause me to drastically lower my opinion of the mainstream press.

Posted by DJB | Report as abusive

DJB, thanks for your questions. They’re all good ones to ask but I wonder if you’re looking in the right places for the answers. As you say, consider:

— President Bush regularly meets with U.S. religious leaders, as do many other politicians. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives have chaplains. There are chaplains in public hospitals as well as in police and fire departments. Some public holidays are Christian holy days (Christmas, Easter). Dollar bills carry the motto “In God We Trust” and the pledge of allegiance includes the phrase “under God.” Certain politicians openly proclaim their Christian beliefs when they’re out on the campaign trail. Bush meeting Benedict (who is also a head of state, like W) doesn’t seem to me to be any more of a violation of church-state separation than these other aspects, which seem to be accepted in the U.S. So is it that necessary to ask this question in this case when it is not asked in so many others?

I would also question your understanding of the separation of church and state. It sounds like you subscribe to the French version, which effectively tries to minimise or even eliminate religion in the public sphere. The American version has no problem with religion in the public sphere. But both accept that the actual core of this concept is that the state does not sponsor or support any religion. The test is whether it finances religious activities or whether and how it allows religious activities to use public facilities. A short meeting between Bush and Benedict does not seem to challenge this in any fundamental way.

— Equating Bush’s democracy drive and the internal state of the Catholic church is really mixing apples and oranges. He talks to many leaders whose countries are not democratic and there is no debate about that (like the Saudis). Also, the Catholic Church is not a country, but a religion. I think if we wrote an article based on your premise, we would actively contribute to the same deterioration of the image of the mainstream press that you lament.

— The Catholic Church has given women second class status for almost all of its 2,000 years of existence (there were some exceptions in the very early Church). That fact is not new. If there were a big public dispute about this linked to the pope’s visit, we would have written about it.

— The question of who should meet whom is so broad that a news report about a papal visit is not the place to look for an answer (if there is one). To be a fair article, we would have to ask not only whether Bush should meet Benedict, but also whether Benedict should have met the U.S. president responsible for Abu Gharib, Guantanamo and waterboarding. Other examples would have to be cited to show what others have done. That is beyond the scope of what we were doing with this visit. If you found this nowhere in the media, it could be because it is actually a question for another forum. The question of whether the victims of the scandal can get a fair shake in court is another one that goes beyond the issue of a papal visit. You seem to have a low opinion of the independence of the U.S. judiciary if you think a short meeting in the Rose Garden will sway American judges and juries.

The mainstream press is not without its faults, but I do find that its critics sometimes base their criticism on questionable assumptions. They can also assume the media is factually wrong simply because it does not agree with their opinions.

Posted by Tom Heneghan | Report as abusive

Dear Tom –

Thank you for taking the time to reply at length to my earlier comments. I could argue with much of what of you said but I know you’re a busy man so I’ll limit myself to a single point: At least a few professional journalists seem to have noticed some of the same things I have.

Consider Jason Berry, the investigative reporter who perhaps more than any other single individual is responsible for bringing the sex abuse scandal to light. Here is what he’s quoted as saying quite recently:

“We live in a world of images…. Newspapers are getting thinner and thinner, TV news is turning into a joke … we are looking at the raw commercialization of the media.”

He was also quoted as asking this question:

“Why haven’t the 15 bishops who abused children been defrocked?”

I found these quotes only because I specifically went looking online for his latest views – and I found them in the campus newspaper of the University of Rhode Island, of all places.


It seems to me that the rarity with which his question has been raised by the mainstream media this past week adds weight to his comments about the nature of that media.

Second (and finally), professor/reporter/editor Ron Bishop has a new book out entitled “Taking on the Pledge: The News Media and Michael Newdow’s Constitutional Challenge.” According to a review by GateHouse News Service’s Antonio M. Prado, “In the first chapter, Bishop expresses the belief that reporters are not functioning as watchdogs of institutions. Rather, he believes reporters are functioning as ‘guard dogs’ for these institutions.”

http://www.enterprisenews.com/entertainm ent/x450927368

Prado and Bishop seem to be exactly describing the situation I witnessed this past week with regard to the Pope’s visit.

None of which proves that I’m right and you’re wrong, of course. But I hope it is sufficient to show that there’s perhaps more behind my original comments than just questionable assumptions and/or personal prejudice.

Again, many thanks for your time and consideration.

Posted by DJB | Report as abusive