Via the Corner, I’m using Morning Joe as just a representative sample of what the media will discuss in the wake of Benedict XVI’s resignation — and how they will miss the point. That’s not a sign of disrespect or intentional demeaning of the role of the Pope; Mike Barnicle asks questions that many in the media will ask, and he does so politely. But the panel manages to get a few things wrong, and doesn’t demonstrate much understanding of the role of the Pope, the Cardinals, or the Church itself:
First, let me start with the panelist who declares that the cardinals face a “snap election” and that the College of Cardinals are “totally unprepared” to make the choice, and now must “make decisions on the fly.” Just about every one of those claims is either nonsense or a description of normality. It’s true that Benedict XVI’s resignation is almost unprecedented, but the process of choosing a new Pope is the same regardless. It’s not a “snap election”; in fact, as I wrote earlier (and is easy to research, by the way), the seat must remain vacant (sede vacante) for at least 15 days before the conclave can even begin considering Benedict XVI’s successor. They can take as long as they need to make that choice, as the Vatican will enter into a regency of the cardinals during sede vacante. They don’t make “decisions on the fly”; they make decisions as a body, which as anyone who has worked in a large committee knows, is about the antithesis of “on the fly.”
As for being “totally unprepared,” that’s true of every transition to a certain extent, but is probably a lot less true when the Pope is 85 years old. The one transition that the cardinals may have been “truly unprepared” to handle in my lifetime was probably the death of John Paul I after 30 days in office. And let’s not forget that Benedict XVI gave them almost three week’s notice, which is more than the cardinals get with some papal deaths, as in 1978.
Barnicle then mulls over the politics of the event might play out:
With news of Pope Benedict XVI stepping down still emerging, the Morning Joe panel was quick to politicize the resignation and his successor. “It’s going to be a watershed moment for the Catholic Church. Where do they go?” asked Mike Barnicle. “Do they go right? The pope took the church even more to the right. Or do they come back toward the middle with the American church in their minds?”
I hate to break it to the panel, but the Catholic Church probably won’t be taking American politics into account when electing the next Pope. The US Conference of Catholic Bishops deals with those issues themselves, as part of their stewardship of individual dioceses in the country. The issue for the College of Cardinals won’t be whether to move the Church Left or Right; it’s how best to maintain doctrinal integrity and evangelize for the faith, consistent with the Holy Spirit’s will for the Body of Christ on Earth. It was Benedict XVI’s theological work that made him a good candidate for Pope, not his relative position on the American political spectrum.
The New York Times falls into the same trap:
Born on April 16, 1927, in Marktl am Inn, in Bavaria, he grew up the son of a police officer. He was ordained in 1951, at age 24, and began his career as a liberal academic and theological adviser at the Second Vatican Council, supporting many efforts to make the church more open.
But he moved theologically and politically to the right. Pope Paul VI named him bishop of Munich in 1977 and appointed him a cardinal within three months. Taking the chief doctrinal job at the Vatican in 1981, he moved with vigor to quash liberation theology in Latin America, cracked down on liberal theologians and in 2000 wrote the Vatican document “Dominus Jesus,” asserting the truth of Catholic belief over others. …
The announcement plunged the Roman Catholic world into intense speculation about who will succeed him, and seemed likely to inspire many contrasting evaluations of a papacy that was seen as both conservative and contentious — though perhaps not so confrontational as many had feared of the man they called “God’s Rottweiler” for his tenacious defense of church doctrine. …
When he took office, Pope Benedict’s well known stands included the assertion that Catholicism is “true” and other religions are “deficient”; that the modern, secular world, especially in Europe, is spiritually weak; and that Catholicism is in competition with Islam. He had also strongly opposed homosexuality, the ordination of female priests and stem cell research.
All true — and all related to Catholic doctrine. If the NYT expects the next Pope to endorse embryonic stem-cell research (the Church only opposes hEsc research) or ecumenical relativism, they’re going to be very, very disappointed. Popes evangelize the doctrinal faith; they’re not negotiating for popularity contests. The Church already teaches that all people deserve to be treated with respect and love regardless of sexual orientation, but they’re also never going to endorse same-sex marriage. Popes defend doctrines — they don’t rewrite them. Truth doesn’t change with fashion.
That’s the point that many media outlets will miss in the next few weeks — not out of malice necessarily, but just from unfamiliarity and a constricted context. The Catholic faith is much broader than politics or culture, and attempting to see this transition through a narrow lens will only confuse and frustrate reporters, readers, and viewers alike.