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News & Features

Piling on Pope Benedict
archived from: 2013-02-22
by: David Mills

It seems that every pundit has an opinion about the Holy Father

Catholic Sense

As soon as Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, you knew that everyone and his brother would be saying something about it, and that some of them would take the chance to make whatever anti-Catholic points they could. Even I, who read a lot of the secular press, didn’t expect the piling on we’ve seen.

We get the supposed experts who explain to their readers what’s really going on in that weird mysterious world of the Catholic Church. The church lives its life before the world in a way rare for institutions its size (How much do we really know about what goes on in Congress, for example?), but many people think the church is something like the Central Intelligence Agency. Some of these supposed experts just get things wrong, like the television reporter who solemnly told his viewers that Catholics wouldn’t know who to pray to this Easter and the Protestant magazine that explained Catholics believe in “the divinity of the pope.”

For some reason journalists can make almost any mistake about the church or religion in general and no one says “boo.” No editor would hire a guy who said the Steelers were going to draft a point guard to help improve their relief pitching, but religion? There it’s “OK, whatever, just say something.”

Then there are all the editors and writers who decided that the problem with Pope Benedict was that he didn’t agree with them. Many of them claimed concern for the future of the Catholic Church if it didn’t stop being so irrelevant and out of step, which meant ... if it didn’t stop disagreeing with them.

After Benedict, declared the editors of the Washington Post, the church will still suffer “debilitating problems ... above all, how to remain relevant to an increasingly secular world and to its own changing membership.” For them and the other writers of this sort, being relevant always means giving up Catholic teaching on sexuality and life issues like embryonic stem-cell research, with only a very few of them also mentioning its outdated doctrines. The usual journalistic form for this kind of article is praise first, even if thin, then criticism. The editors started with criticism and didn’t let up until the end. And even when they praised the pope they didn’t really praise him, claiming that the only two achievements they mentioned “came in response to the backlash triggered by his reactionary acts.” Which was not, as a matter of fact, true, but the whole editorial showed that the editors were a little wobbly on the facts.

And then there are the really cheap shots, like Slate.com writer William Saletan’s attempt at the classic “gotcha” article. As the heading put it: “Catholics who eulogized Pope John Paul II for serving to the bitter end now praise Pope Benedict for quitting. Make up your minds.” The title in the web link called it “Catholic hypocrisy.”

Saletan quoted people like George Weigel and Peggy Noonan as if they were just saying whatever they needed to say to praise the pope at the moment. “A clash between these two schools won’t be as tidy as a chorus of gymnastic apologists bent on defending both popes,” he said. “But it will be more fruitful and more honest.”

“More honest.” Were Saletan honest enough to try to understand someone else’s point of view, he would see that one can think John Paul II did the right thing in his circumstance and that Benedict did the right thing in his, or that both of them were doing the best they could when the right thing to do is not obvious. But then, if he honestly took them seriously, he couldn’t write the “gotcha” article about “Catholic hypocrisy.”

Reading all this can leave you feeling cranky. But there are two things to be said.

First, the church and its earthly head still have such importance in the world that all these people feel they have to try to bend it in their direction. This is true of no other Christian body.

And second, as G.K. Chesterton said in his great little book “The Catholic Church and Conversion,” the first stage of conversion is often feeling that someone’s being unfair to the church. Many people, reading this kind of thing, will feel some sympathy for Pope Benedict and his church, and from there they may find their way in. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, as Tertullian said in the second century, and the bruises of the popes may be, too.

Mills is executive editor of First Things (www.firstthings.com). He can be reached at catholicsense@gmail.com.




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