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The Life of Pope John Paul:

Shepherd of Souls or Antiquated Authoritarian?

2.John Paul vs. Conservatism

Since the Holy Father was not a conventional worldly politician, but a man devoted to leading a global flock to greater holiness, he could be claimed as an ally by conservatives on some issues (abortion, homosexuality, embryo-destroying stem cell research) and claimed as an ally by liberals on others (wars, capital punishment, the cry of the poor). While the media protested the conservative influence of the Pope John Paul and his bishops on sexual issues during his reign, sometimes as a grievous invasion of the Church upon the State, when the Pope sounded a note more pleasing to liberals, suddenly his influence was lauded as a voice of booming moral authority against conservatives:

The Pope’s 1995 visit to America put him right in the middle of the Clinton vs. Gingrich political dynamic. Robert McFadden covered the Pope’s arrival for the October 5, 1995 New York Times: “Without naming names, or even mentioning the Republican-dominated Congress, the Pope also seemed to admonish the supporters of proposed laws to restrict immigration and dismantle many of the nation’s programs for the poor. In doing so, he appeared to echo many of President Clinton’s warnings.”

The next day, after the Pope called legal abortion a “moral blight” on America, Times reporter Celestine Bohlen pronounced: “Though he mentioned the rights of the ‘unborn child’ at Giants Stadium last night, his most striking statements...have been warnings against what he perceives as a rising movement to limit immigration, reduce subsidies for the poor and weak, and retreat to an isolationist position.”

The same spin made its way onto television. On Good Morning America October 6, ABC reporter Bill Blakemore proclaimed: “He’s striking a theme that runs directly counter to Republican plans to limit welfare programs for the poor.” PBS anchor Robert MacNeil wondered: “Is the Pope against the Contract with America?” 

greeley041405NBC’s appointed papal expert in three morning interviews, liberal Catholic priest and novelist Andrew Greeley, told Today co-host Giselle Fernandez on October 7: “I heard a Catholic conservative last night say that the Pope’s words have nothing to do with American politics, and I can’t imagine anybody being more totally wrong. The Pope has come to the United States when it’s in a very mean-spirited period, when it’s bashing immigrants, bashing poor people, bashing minorities. And the Pope has come to say ‘Hey, stop that!’ He isn’t talking about specific legislative measures, but he’s certainly addressing himself to the spirit that elected and sustains the Gingrich-Dole Congress.” 

textbox0414_5But when asked about Catholic reaction to the Pope’s moral authority on sexual matters, Greeley flip-flopped and found the Pope had nothing to do with America on these issues: “Well, most Catholics choose to be Catholic on their own terms....Where they think the Pope really doesn’t understand, they reserve the right to follow their own consciences and appeal to a God who does understand.” 

On October 10, CNN anchor Judy Woodruff challenged Pat Buchanan on Inside Politics to defend himself against the idea that his politics was betraying his faith: “How do you, as a Catholic, reconcile that with what your own party has done this year and is talking of doing with regard to cutting back programs for the poor in this country?” Reporters couldn’t distinguish between the believer’s personal duty toward the poor and the believer’s support for government programs for the poor, whether they actually helped the poor or harmed them.

Two years later, NBC touted papal intervention in a Virginia murder case. On the July 23, 1997 NBC Nightly News, Bob Faw found religion in telling the story of Joseph O’Dell, convicted of raping and murdering a Virginia Beach waitress in 1985. Tom Brokaw opened the story: “The clock is counting down for a convicted murderer who does have a powerful advocate, no less than Pope John Paul, asking that he be spared, but so far not even the Pope has been able to persuade Virginia’s governor to reopen this case.”

On January 28, 1999, CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather opened with how the governor of Missouri agreed to the Pope’s request to commute a death sentence: “Good evening. Joseph Stalin once mocked the power of the Pope, asking, ‘How many divisions does he have’? He doesn’t have any, but again today there was on display the power of John Paul II to prevail over politicians.”

Reporters have failed to challenge liberal Catholic politicians, from Mario Cuomo to Ted Kennedy to John Kerry, on how they reconcile their stands for abortion or government approval of gay “civil unions” or “marriages” with their professed faith. Just as cafeteria Catholics embrace the parts of the faith they like and reject the rest, the media highlighted the parts of the Pope’s message they perceived to merge with their political aims — and then returned to words like “rigid” and “old-fashioned” to describe the Pope’s message on abortion and sexuality.