The Mango Stand

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Papal blogging

As others have noted, the U.S. press and foreign press has taken completely different approaches to the death of John Paul II. The American press has been extremely kind, verging on the hagiographic. And don't forget the American flags at half-mast and the vast migration of American politicos to the funeral--finally, a point of bipartisan agreement: the pope was a good guy.
The foreign press (even in Ireland) has been more critical, with even an Irish newspaper laying into the dearly departed.

Much of the Pope's legacy is not in dispute: history will remember him as the traveling Pope, the ecumenical Pope, and the Pope that ended Communism. (A lot better than his predecessor, Pope John Paul I, who, in his 33 days, is the "Smiling Pope.") John Paul II is certainly one of the most significant Popes of modern times, and one of the most important people of the 20th century.

That said, as others have pointed out, his papacy had its moments of controversy--his ultra-orthodoxy on matters of church doctrine, his squashing of liberation theology, his militant opposition to contraception even in light of the AIDS crisis--and yet, the American press and polity have been very hesitant to point all this out.

I think this difference reflects two things: the retail nature of journalism and politics in this country, and a lack of confidence in our religious institutions overall. First: retail. The 66 million Catholics in this country comprise the single largest religious denomination, and, as everyone who watched more than five minutes of news last fall knows, are a major swing constituency in American politics. Advertisers and politicians both are hesitant to do anything to piss these people off, and running more than the occasional op-ed piece critical of the Pope might do that. And about the journalists specifically: as news agencies have become parts of large corporate empires, the broader corporation becomes susceptible to PR problems created by the news division. So the NBC, for example, doesn't want to do anything that will get GE in trouble with its suppliers, customers, etc. or get the entire corporation targeted by a religiously motivated boycott.

Speaking of boycotts (and while we're at it: protests, demonstrations, letter-writing campaigns, etc.) again, this is old hat-but with the Christian Right's wholesale coopting of the civil right movement's playbook, the Christian Right has adopted the stance of the victim, and with it a sense of insecurity, the idea that the status quo could change and their position within society could be undermined. Therefore, it seems, these political Christians are more sensitive to perceived slights in ways that, say, Christians in countries with established churches like Ireland and England are not.

Therefore, we get hagiography where we should be getting journalism. Oh well.


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