Monday’s extraordinary announcement of Pope Benedict XVI’s resignation was the top news story around the world this week. An interesting feature of many of the commentaries was how they revealed the pre-conceived ideas of those who wrote them.
Benedict XVI’s response to the Church’s problems was to “insist that only uncompromising adherence to past doctrine could preserve the faith,” intoned an editorial in the Washington Post. As if somehow it was not the role of the papacy to faithfully hand on the doctrine of the Church, but rather to conform to the latest fashionable opinions.
The Washington Post, along with a number of others media sources, expressed hope for a “more progressive successor.”
The New York Times published a range of commentaries on the news of the resignation, some of them reasonably positive. Not lacking, however, were the negative, and at times simply spiteful opinions.
“He was utterly bereft of charm, tone-deaf and a protector of priests who abused children. He’d been a member of the Hitler Youth. In addition to this woeful résumé, he had no use for women,” was the contribution of John P. Shanley, who could not help himself from repeating the stereotyped views of not a few in the media.
For the Los Angeles Times editorial writer, Benedict XVI was "traditionalist” and “authoritarian.” Then, however, the author took on a more puzzled tone, by noting how it is those who are liberal who say a pope should resign if he is too old to continue. The editorial had difficulty in explaining how someone was so much a traditionalist could be so progressive.
From Britain an editorial in the Guardian newspaper praised the “liberal” social policy of Benedict XVI, but went on to express criticism for a failure to “rethink moral doctrines,” which included the familiar laundry list of homosexuality, celibacy, abortion and contraception.
According to the Guardian this failure is behind the decline in Christianity in Europe and North America and the fall in vocations, leading to the importation of clergy from Africa and Asia — a view which ignores the fact that it is the more “progressive” dioceses and religious congregations that have seen a drastic decline in vocations, while others who do not accept such an approach enjoy a significantly higher number of vocations.
A London Times editorial was more generous in its judgment of Benedict XVI, calling his decision to resign “a noble and selfless decision,” and acknowledging his role as an intellectual leader.
Nevertheless a Feb. 13 report from Rome by James Bone was singularly spiteful. He said that the Ash Wednesday ceremony was being transferred to St Peter’s Basilica “to accommodate the “princes of the church,” who are not usually present.”
He somehow ignored the fact that by holding what was Benedict XVI’s last major liturgical ceremony in St. Peters a greater number of people could participate and also that by avoiding a journey outside the Vatican it would be easier for the Pope, who had himself just admitted his lack of strength.
The reaction from the German press was not too favorable, at least according to a summary of editorial views published in English by Der Spiegal. The daily Süddeutsche Zeitung referred to Benedict XVI as “the last old-style church patriarch.”
The front page of the Die Tageszeitung newspaper carried the title of “Thank God,” and also had an editorial with the title of “Even Worse than Expected.” According to the editorial: “It would be a good thing if Pope Benedict XVI were the last of his kind.”
Other reactions, however, were more gracious. In its commentary, the Economist recognized Benedict XVI as a “modernizer” for his attitude to the media, giving interviews and having a Twitter account. While they couldn’t help themselves recalling how he had headed the office that was the successor to the Roman Inquisition prior to being elected pope, at the same time they did say he was “less abrasive and more cerebral than his billing suggested” — perhaps, almost an admission of the fact that the media may just have been mistaken in how they had portrayed him in the first place.
The divergence between media preconception and the principles that guide the Church was highlighted by Brendan O’Neill, writing on the Web site Spiked.
“Today’s fashionable allergy to the pope, and to the Catholic Church more broadly, is driven more by a petit-bourgeois disdain for firm commitment to a cause and belief in something bigger than ourselves than it is by a grown-up critique of Catholic theology,” he commented.
There were, as well, a number of positive opinions. Writing for Canada’s National Post, Father Raymond J. de Souza praised the humility of Benedict XVI, who recognized “that it is the service that the Church needs, not any particular servant.”
In the end many of the commentaries and editorials provided more of an insight into the mentality of those writing them, than any kind of reasoned analysis. A situation that is not likely to change when it comes to opinions about whoever will be the next pope.