Pope Benedict XVI Still Unnerves the Media
True to form, CNN, Reuters, and other media outlets used the announcement of Pope Benedict XVI's retirement to dwell on ancient sex scandals, opposition to gay marriage, and a host of other things the media have never liked about a Pope who would not hew to whatever worldview the chattering classes embraced at the moment
"As a Catholic, I'm not buying this," tweeted hysterical chatterer, Piers Morgan, a "modern world" Catholic by his own lights. "Popes don't just quit because they're tired. What's going on here??" I am not sure I know either, but I am pleased to see the Pope unnerve the media once again.
I have had an unusual perspective on this. On April 19, 2005, I was in Paris to attend an international conference on TWA Flight 800. I remember the date without having to look it up. It was Patriot's Day, the tenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, the twelfth anniversary of the massacre at Waco -- not that our media reflected much on the tank assault that left seventy-four Christians dead, more than half of them racial minorities, twenty of them children.
Having arrived that morning in Paris, I had a day to kill. I had expected to reach Notre Dame about four hours earlier, but I took the wrong Metro and ended up at the Eiffel Tower, hung around there for a while, boated down to Notre Dame Cathedral, and arrived at an historic moment.
In one of life's more providential moments, I walked unsuspecting into Notre Dame roughly thirty seconds before the Vatican announced that Cardinal Josef Ratzinger was the new pope, Benedict XVI. At first I had no idea what was going on. The center section of the cathedral, which was "reserved for the faithful," was actually full of faithful. This was strange enough in itself, but even stranger were the large screen TVs posted around the perimeter.
About fifteen seconds after I entered the cathedral, the French talking head yielded to the Vatican balcony and seconds after that came the announcement. The faithful in the center section leaped to their feet as one and cheered. I impulsively did a fist pump and said louder than I should have, "I know that guy."
"Know" was a bit of an overstatement. In 1998, in my most cosmopolitan moment ever, I interviewed then Cardinal Ratzinger in Rome, in French no less, for a documentary called "Pilgrimage" that I had been commissioned to produce on the traditional revival within the Catholic Church. Partly out of reverence, and partly out of self-aggrandizement, I have been using
a still shot of that interview for my Facebook picture. My guess is that the photo means more to me than it does the Pope.
Not everyone was as pleased by the announcement as I was. An American woman standing next to me at Notre Dame started shrieking, "This is a terrible day for women. Ratso hates women." Her husband gave me a resigned look that said, "She's a nut job. What can I tell you?" So I chose not to say anything and just walked away.
About twenty minutes later, I left the cathedral, and by this time French TV crews had descended on the square in front to get some quick reaction interviews. One crew approached me, and I obliged them in my vaguely passable French. "He was a good choice," I said. "He respects the church and its traditions." The interviewer rolled his eyes and quickly cut me off. I presumed my French was not good enough.
When I watched the news that evening, I began to suspect that the eye roll had less to do with my French than with my opinions. The mood at Notre Dame, the announcer said, was pure disappointment. The French word for disappointment is "déception," which seemed an entirely appropriate word for this bold bit of léger de main.
In fact, the French TV producers showed a talent for propaganda that would make their American counterparts look amateurish. Every person they interviewed outside Notre Dame that day said something awful about the new Pope. As to the thousand or so cheering faithful, they must have all left by a side exit.
The European media had been preparing their audiences for this announcement the way they might have an Ebola outbreak. When Cardinal Ratzinger emerged as a leading candidate for the papacy, the eminent U.K. Times headlined its main story, "Papal hopeful is a former Hitler Youth."
Seven paragraphs into the Times story the reader began to learn the facts of Ratzinger's youth. He was six when Hitler came to power. His father was so outspoken an anti-Nazi the family had to move multiple times. He joined the Hitler Youth at 14 only when membership became compulsory. He quickly got a dispensation to join the seminary. When conscripted into defense work, he deserted and ended up in a concentration camp.
Although almost no one in Europe goes to church any more, the announcement consumed the European media for the two weeks I was there and was headline news for a solid week. Back in America, the media were nearly as hysterical. The Daily Kos greeted Ratzinger's selection as Pope Benedict XVI with the headline, "Call Ratzinger Nazi Pope." The hysteria barely subsided as the years went by. In 2008, to deflect criticism of President Obama's ties to crackpot reverend Jeremiah Wright, Chris Kelly of the Huffington Post blustered, "Bill O'Reilly -- who claims to love America -- spent Sunday at a 'church' run by a former Hitler Youth named Joseph Alois Ratzinger."
Added the daringly blasphemous Kelly, "Ratzinger has gone to elaborate ends to hide this connection, including taking on the absurd pseudonym "Pope Benedict XVI." In the one religion Kelly and friends have seen fit to defend, that kind of insult could provoke a well-deserved fatwah.
In the next few weeks the media will bash the Pope and the Catholic Church in every which way they can think of. They will talk about sex scandals, "outdated" policies on celibacy, "hidebound" opposition to contraception, the refusal to ordain women, and the failure to embrace gays, but they will rarely, if ever, mention the one idea that has sparked media animus for the last forty years-the Catholic Church's unswerving opposition to abortion. Quelle tromperie!