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Seen but not heard (continued)

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John Paul II: The Millennial Pope

This Frontline documentary, first broadcast in 1999, was updated and rebroadcast last weekend following the popeís death. If you missed it, it will be shown locally again this Friday, April 8, at 8 p.m. on Channel 44. The programís Web site features video clips, interviews, and the complete transcript of the documentary.

The Pontiff in Winter

Subtitled Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II, this critical biography, by John Cornwell, takes a look at the successes and failures ó with an emphasis on the latter ó in the popeís declining years. Cornwell is particularly good on John Paulís stunningly inadequate response to the pedophile-priest crisis.

"John Paulís Soldiers"

CBS Newsís 60 Minutes reports on a new generation of young, ultraconservative American priests who were being trained under the watchful eye of John Paul II.

"Opus Dei and the Pope"

An NPR report on Opus Dei, a conservative, secretive Catholic society that made considerable gains during John Paul IIís papacy.

National Catholic Reporter

A liberal Catholic weekly. Vatican correspondent John Allen is the go-to guy for all things related to John Paulís funeral and the papal succession.

In his book The Pontiff in Winter: Triumph and Conflict in the Reign of John Paul II, John Cornwell observes that John Paulís too-little-too-late attitude regarding priests who rape "contrasts starkly with harsh denunciations of those who failed to achieve the high standards of sexual morality he set for the Catholic laity." That is another way of saying that, in the popeís world-view, it was a greater sin for a couple to use birth control than for a priest to force an altar boy to administer oral sex. Cornwell also takes note of John Paulís statement that a "dark shadow of suspicion is cast over all the fine priests who perform their ministry with honesty and integrity." Cornwell writes: "John Paulís first thoughts, then, were not for the victims but for the image of the Catholic priesthood and the effect of the repercussions of this abuse on Ďfine priests.í "

The popeís defenders might argue that he was old and decrepit by the time the pedophile-priest scandal became a national ó even an international ó crisis. But, in fact, the problem was one of long standing. As far back as the early 1990s ó again, with a Boston priest, James Porter, at the epicenter ó the pope pledged to work toward a solution. As far as anyone could tell, his solution was to let the problem fester for another 10 years.

In fact, John Paulís refusal to step away from the papacy he had reinvigorated may stand as his greatest flaw. It is telling to flip through the December 26, 1994, issue of Time, which placed John Paul on the cover as the magazineís "Man of the Year." Nothing much changed over the next decade. The popeís greatest accomplishments ó mainly the end of the Soviet empire ó were already behind him. He was frail and rumored to be sick with Parkinsonís. A sidebar on possible successors featured some of the same names being bandied about this week. And a poll of American Catholics showed that they werenít paying much attention to the pontiffís message: substantial majorities favored married priests, female priests, and church marriages for divorced Catholics. Fifty-six percent disagreed with the notion of papal infallibility on issues such as birth control and abortion, and fully 89 percent believed it was "possible to disagree with the Pope and still be a good Catholic." Itís a poll that could have been taken last week.

In comparing John Paul with Pope John XXIII, a great liberalizing force and Timeís "Man of the Year" in 1962, Paul Johnson described their "main achievements" thusly: "Johnís [was] in introducing the Catholic reformation and John Paulís [was] in terminating it." By most accounts, many American and European Catholics are still waiting for their reformation.

THE MEDIA deathwatch that accompanied John Paulís demise was an odd spectacle. The pope was old and sick, and thus the wait for him to breathe his last was accompanied by little drama. Fox Newsís losing battle with the truth provided the main diversion: the fair-and-balanced network reported early Friday afternoon that John Paul had died, and then had to take it back, as though it were Florida 2000 all over again. At 2:30 p.m., the Fox headline read VATICAN: POPE NOT DEAD. Within a half-hour, that had been changed to a slightly less macabre VATICAN: POPE STILL ALIVE.

The reverential tone of much of the coverage was understandable, but there were times when it went too far. Tim Russert, on Sunday morning, did manage to pose a few slightly tough questions to his Roman-collared guests about the possibility of female and married priests. But the logo ought to have been changed from Meet the Press to Church Chat, with Russert at one point blurting out, "We are a sacramental church. We need priests." We? He closed the program with a clip of the pope blessing his son, Luke, some years back. On Saturday night, ABC viewers were treated to an old clip of an armless man playing guitar with his feet and singing for the pope. And on Sunday night, CNNís Anderson Cooper referred to the pontiff as the "holy father" ó surely not the only journalist to speak those words during the weekend. (Letís have a shoutout to MSNBCís Lester Holt, who, during the Friday deathwatch, spoke of "the man Catholics refer to as the holy father." Good for him.)

Still, it wasnít all supine wallowing. PBS rebroadcast the aforementioned Frontline documentary, which was quite tough and very good. And, on Sunday, CBSís 60 Minutes cast a critical look at the North American Pontifical College, in Rome, which is preparing a new generation of young, ultraconservative American priests to serve as "John Paulís soldiers."

Next up: John Paulís funeral this Friday, followed by several weeks of speculation over the next pope. The sense among many observers is that it will be a man in John Paulís image ó that is, an archconservative who will hold the Church back from modernity for at least another generation. There are plenty of them out there. As Belief.net editor Steven Waldman wrote in a piece for Slate, Francis Cardinal Arinze of Nigeria, touted as possibly the first African pope, has said that marriage is "mocked by homosexuality"; and Oscar Andrés Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga of Honduras once compared the "ferocity" with which the media have covered pedophile priests to Stalin and Hitler.

But speculation, ultimately, is useless. As Paul Elie wrote in the Atlantic Monthly last September, one of the main reasons that Karol Wojtyla was chosen as pope in the first place was that he was thought to be a liberal. The ó well, letís call them pontificators ó could be wrong again. There are millions of Catholics in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere who hope thatís the case.

Dan Kennedy can be reached at dkennedy[a]phx.com. Read his Media Log at BostonPhoenix.com.

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Issue Date: April 8 - 14, 2005
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