Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

April 3, 2005

For what is John Paul II “most noted”?

Filed under: — Different River @ 12:07 am

Earlier this evening I heard a report on our local news radio station that epitomized everything that’s wrong the the mainstream media’s reporting on religion. Basically, they report on religion the way they report on politics, as a series of conflicts between opposing “sides” — and it’s always fairly clear which side they support. Now, any large organization, even a religious one, is going to have some disagreements and some internal politics, but they report this as if that’s the main thing going on in any given religion.

In this particular report, the reporter introduced an interview by saying that John Paul II’s papacy was “most noted” for his opposition to abortion, birth control, and the ordination of women. She then interviewed a woman from a “liberal” Catholic magazine, who explained how (in her view) the Pope’s encyclical opposing the ordination of women as priests was in fact a violation of, or at least inconsistent with, the Church’s Canon Law.

Now I’m not Catholic and I don’t know anything about Canon Law, but I do know one thing — and that is that John Paul II was the 265th consecutive Pope not to ordain women. I can’t see how, from a journalist’s perspective, he can be “most noted” for not doing something all 264 of his predecessors also did not do. (Remember the motto of journalism? “When a dog bits a man, that’s not news. When a man bites a dog, that’s news.”)

I haven’t really done a full-scale investigation, but I would bet that all his predecessors also opposed abortion and birth control, at least to the extent that the enabling technologies were available in their times (and they have been around in some form or another for a long time; the physician’s Oath of Hippocrates, which pre-dates Christianity by centuries, includes a prohibition of abortion.)

The interviewer and interviewee then began handicapping the election for the next pope, with an eye toward guessing how likely it would be that the next pope would not be such a stick-in-the-mud and finally realize that all 265 of his predecessors were wrong about not ordaining women. Folks, I don’t have any inside information on this, but I’ll bet it’s extremely unlikely. As a non-Catholic, I don’t really think it’s appropriate for me to take a position on this — so I don’t — but I find it hard to believe that very many of the Cardinals would think that the Church should change a position they’ve held for nearly 2,000 years to satisfy a relatively recent, secular ideology (feminism). Plus — correct me if I’m wrong — I’d be surprised if many non-American Catholics are strongly arguing for ordination of women. (Americans make up only about a twentieth of Catholics worldwide.)

The question is, why do the (American) media think that this is what John Paul’s papacy is “most noted” for? Why do they think he is more noted for taking the same position as two millenia of predecessors rather than the things he did that were different, such as opposing Communism (not an issue for the first 1,800 or so years), traveling the world to promote the faith (not possible for the first 1,900 years or so), repudiating and asking forgiveness for 1,500 years of Church-sponsored antisemitism, and solidifying the Vatican’s position as a strictly spiritual, rather than temporal authority. (OK, so this last one maybe hasn’t changed much since 1870 — but still.)

The answer, I think, is that whatever their family background, nearly everybody in the media is non-religious. Nearly everyone believes that abortion, birth control, and feminism are right. Most of them live their lives on that basisAnd they are professionals, and see everything through the lens of professionalism. Women can be reporters, so why not priests? It’s just another educated profession, right? They can’t imagine a world in which reasonable people disagree with those propositions, so when educated, nice, and apparantly reasonable people do disagree with the media folks on these things, that is immediately what they find to be “most notable.” It’s notable because they can’t comprehend how someone could think that way. Their field of view is their own lives here and now, not — even when reporting on a Pope — the relevant, in this case, 1,973-year history and the doctrines and views of a billion-member church. To them, when a pope disagrees with modern liberal views, it really is like “man bites dog.”


PowerLine has a particularly telling example here. Apparently, the New York Times couldn’t find a supporter of John Paul II on short notice. That should give you an idea of how narrow their world is.


Read the comments. There are some good points made there. “Romy” gives some more informed answers to the title question and gives a non-American example of advocacy for female ordination, and “JPE” points out that relative to Vatican II’s “liberal” reforms, John Paul II could be considered differentiated relative to the recent past as “conservative.” In response to this, I’ll only point out that Vatican II obviously didn’t sanction ordaining women, or they’d have been doing it long before John Paul II took office. Also, in relations with the Jews (I know, not a high-profile issue to all), John Paul II took things in the same direction as Vatican II, only quite a bit further.


Michelle Malkin has an extensive list of other silly, misinformed, and/or rude things TV networks and newspapers have said in covering this issue. She also links to a post on the Democratic Underground which calls for praying that the Bush dies soon also.

5 Responses to “For what is John Paul II “most noted”?”

  1. romy Says:

    well, a couple things.

    1. “Plus – correct me if I’m wrong – I’d be surprised if many non-American Catholics are strongly arguing for ordination of women.” actually there’s a whole group of excommunicated female “priests,” based in germany. i think the most liberal catholics the world over are pushing for women’s ordination. ever since the 70s, as far as i understand, there’s been a push to get women up to the altar, and an equally strong reaction to the push. yesterday at evening mass the priest was assisted by two altar children, a boy and a girl – also technically not permitted by canon law.

    2. “The question is, why do the (American) media think that this is what John Paul’s papacy is “most noted” for?” i’m not sure that’s what the american media think. my guess would be it is ONE thing the american media think. i for one watched CNN and they gave a very compassionate and diversified overview of the many things pope jean-paul ii was noted for, including helping in the fall of communism, offering atonement for past church sins and oversights, reaching out to the world, instituting 5 new mysteries for the rosary, instituting at least one new feast day (today! divine mercy sunday), beatifying mother teresa, addressing compassionately the issue of AIDS, changing the living conditions of the cardinals for the next conclave, instituting the JMJ (world youth days), entering a mosque, facilitating dialogue with israeli and palestinian leaders, facilitating dialogue with russian and eastern orthodox religious leaders, giving a living human face to aging/suffering with dignity, and – yes – maintaining a conservative stance on abortion, birth control, and the ordination of women. hardly a reductive list.

    maybe you’re choosing the wrong news stations.

  2. romy Says:

    on an unrelated note, dr, thanks for always giving me something interesting to read here. even if i don’t always have a comment worth making about it!

  3. Different River Says:

    Romy, that comment was certainly worth making. Thanks for the info about the women in Germany; I didn’t know about that. Is there anything like that in the very-predominantly Catholic countries, like Poland or those in Latin America?

    As for the CNN report: I’m glad to hear they presented a broader view. Perhaps I was just over-reacting to one interview on one radio station. However, that interview did perfectly play in to my pre-existing notions of the media’s coverage of religion, which is based on other things I’ve seen. So even if it’s not completely representative, it’s certainly not an isolated case.

    Also, thanks for the list of other things for which John Paul II’s papacy was “noted for.” My brief lisdt was not meant to be exhaustive; it was just the first few things that popped into my head. And of course, some of the things on your list I was not even aware of.

  4. mrsfish Says:

    NPR had a very nice commentary on his papacy about 8:00 am Saturday morning. I thought it was a eulogy/obituary but the time it aired was almost two hours before he passed.

  5. jpe Says:

    You’re severely missing the historical context – Vatican II. JPII was the pushback from that liberalizing moment, so of course there’s going to be lotsa coverage on his conservatism.

Leave a Reply

Powered by WordPress