Kenneth L. Woodward: Why the Press Keeps Missing the Papal Succession Story

Roundup: Talking About History

Kenneth L. Woodward, in the NYT (4-11-05):

[Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, is working on a book about religion and American culture since 1950.]

ACCORDING to an old Vatican proverb, popes come and go but the Roman Curia remains. The latter can be said of the news media as well. In the long pause between papacies, journalists have two tasks: the first is to assess the significance of the pope who has died, and the second is to appraise those cardinals most likely to take his place. Now, with a week to go before the cardinals meet to choose a successor, perhaps a look at how the press handled these assignments in the past can shed some light on what to expect in the future.

Of the popes who reigned in the last half-century, two were easy for journalists to peg. Both Pius XII (pontiff from 1939 to 1958) and, to a lesser extent, Paul VI (1963-78) were well-known figures and clear frontrunners going into the conclaves that elected them. The remaining three - John XXIII (1958-63), John Paul I (1978) and John Paul II - were surprises.

At his death in 1958, Pius XII won enthusiastic praise from Jews as well as Christians, even though the infirm pope had been in his final years a virtual hermit inside the Vatican. "This man, saintly in his private life," an editorial in this newspaper predicted, "will be mourned by people of all religions and many nations." Life magazine was even more effusive: "It was common to call him a 'modern pope,' " Life said. "But he did not merely come to terms with the modern world. He invaded it."

At that time there were eight or so cardinals - all Italian - considered possible successors. Most journalists used two categories in sorting them out: "pastoral" or "political" (though Newsweek used a curious third: "religious"). One, Angelo Roncalli, had a presumed edge because of his age: at 78, he would be the perfect caretaker until a younger pope could resume the vigorous one-man rule of Pius XII. When Roncalli became John XXIII, the Rome correspondent for Australia's Sydney Morning Herald counseled readers not to look "for any major change in policy." In this, he was only marginally more wrong than other journalists.

In his short term, John XXIII issued major encyclicals on social justice and world peace, opened a dialogue with Soviet leaders and, by convoking the Second Vatican Council, pushed the church into the modern world. And, not least, by the example of his compelling humanity, he also transformed the image of the papacy itself.

At his death in 1963, the entire world paused to mourn this "universal father" (Time magazine), this "epoch-making pontiff" (The Times of India) who "leaves a mark unlike any pope of this century or perhaps since the Reformation" (The Manchester Guardian). With Vatican II still in session many editorial writers urged the next conclave to elect a pope who would continue its reformist trend.

The council itself, however, was divided between a group of (mostly European) bishops who embraced reform and another (mostly Vatican-based) who resisted it. Thus the news media began - for the first time - to characterize potential successors in purely political terms, as either "progressives" or "conservatives." When the conclave settled on Giovanni Battista Montini (Paul VI), a shy, cultured man who had served in the conservative Vatican of Pius XII, he was immediately dubbed a "moderate."

Paul VI's challenge was to bring the fractious council to a productive conclusion. That he did. He also delivered a memorable speech at the United Nations calling for "No more war! War never again." But the burden of trying to please all factions wearied him. In Latin America, he justified revolution as a last resort, but on birth control he yielded to conservatives and reaffirmed church opposition.

The widespread rejection of that encyclical so anguished him that he became reclusive, leaving the church in a state of torpor. Unsurprisingly, the press reaction to his death in 1978 was reserved. The New York Times noted that "he conveyed a hesitancy that was difficult for some to understand." Searching for the proper label, the paper settled on a term now familiar to Americans: "compassionate conservative."

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