Wanderer Logo

Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Covering the Papacy

(Reprinted from the issue of May 26, 2005)

Capitol Bldg, Washington Watch logo 
for Covering the Papacy Boyer, Cornwell, John Paul II, Pius XII, Benedict XVI, A few days ago I picked up two very readable but liberal and anti-Catholic magazines, Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, both of which featured long articles on the papacy. I didn’t expect any surprises, let alone a happy one.

The piece in Vanity Fair was a long, tiresome attack on the papacy of John Paul II. The author, billed as an “expert” on the Vatican, was John Cornwell, famed for his book maliciously portraying Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” — an epithet that would have startled Pius, whom Hitler’s own circle dismissed as a “mouthpiece of the Jews” for his protests against racial persecution.

Cornwell’s new article merely continues the assault on John Paul that was already begun in Hitler’s Pope. It complains that the late Pope didn’t fulfill the promise of the Second Vatican Council — a “promise” that only liberals heard, a “promise” to repeal the very teachings the Council expressly reaffirmed.

Among other things — among many other things — Cornwell accuses John Paul of “Gnosticism.” Now I know just enough about Gnosticism to see that Cornwell doesn’t understand what it means; and I doubt that he really cares. A Gnostic Pope? Preserving orthodoxy isn’t exactly a liberal priority; and Cornwell shows a certain audacity in objecting to the Polish Pope for being too traditional and unorthodox at the same time.

By now it should be obvious that liberals are forever beating around the bush. They complain about “the Vatican’s doctrine” on birth control or divorce or women priests when they really want to deny that Jesus rose from the dead. But of course that would give the game away, so they confine their criticism of the Church to narrower questions, even as they write books on a fictional “historical” Jesus who never said or did the things He has always been worshiped for.

This same mindset naturally gives centrality to an equally fictional Vatican II that interrupted, rather than continued, the Church’s Tradition. And so the Church is said to “betray” or “reverse” the Council whenever she affirms that Tradition.
The Lost Power of Liberalism

After reading Cornwell’s piece, I turned to The New Yorker article with foreboding. “The Pope’s U.S. Strategy,” boomed the cover headline. “Benedict XVI wants a more fervent, orthodox, evangelical Church — even if it drives people away. Will Americans go for it? Peter J. Boyer reports.” Uh-oh!

The article began more or less as I feared and expected. Boyer spoke of the “fundamentalism” shared by John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger; cited the usual opinion polls showing that most American Catholics favored liberalization on contraception, married priests, divorce, and so forth; and quoted the usual suspects, Charles Curran and Richard McBrien, making waspish comments about John Paul’s pontificate.

But by the end of the article I was elated. Boyer also let the orthodox have their say, and the sheer force and cogency of the quotations — from Archbishop Charles Chaput (“one of the worst” bishops appointed by John Paul, says McBrien), Fr. Benedict Groeschel, and other enemies of watered-down Catholicism — shifted the balance of the whole piece.

Boyer himself candidly acknowledged that liberal churches, including the mainline Protestant ones, have been declining in appeal, while the most orthodox and demanding have been gaining. (Is there such a thing as a lapsed Episcopalian?) Fr. Groeschel’s strict reform community of the Capuchin Franciscans has hardly been able to accommodate all the new members it has attracted.

Liberalism has lost its power to inspire young people, and this fact still baffles liberals. What they once assumed was the wave of the future has turned out to be a fad of the past — among the “novelties” Cardinal Ratzinger warned against, a novelty that can now be seen for what it always was, even at the peak of its vigor. Permissiveness may excite and seduce, but it can’t really inspire.

Boyer is the only liberal journalist I’ve read who grasps the relevant nuances. He doesn’t accuse John Paul II and Benedict XVI of rejecting or reversing Vatican II; he understands that Catholics have been divided over the real meaning of the Council, and he never assumes that the liberal interpretation must be the right one.

The result is a piece of journalism that is both accurate and stimulating. In fact Boyer notes that it was a Francis X. Murphy, under the pseudonym “Xavier Rynne,” who by 1965 had promulgated an influential but misleading picture of the Council in The New Yorker itself. Yet even “Rynne” had admitted that the Council had made no radical changes in the Church, though he hoped that “in the course of time” it would “remake the face of Catholicism.” This has been the hope of liberals ever since.

One striking fact about the liberal and orthodox Catholic voices Boyer quotes is that one side appeals to progress — to the alleged “spirit” or “atmosphere” of the Council — while the other appeals to fidelity to Christ. One side speaks of “social progress,” the other of personal sanctity. It’s probably unnecessary to say which is which.
Political Realignment

A political footnote to the above is that in 2004, the Methodist George W. Bush got more Catholic votes than his nominally Catholic opponent, John Kerry, who apparently got his understanding of Catholicism from the secularist liberal press, where “social progress” is everything and personal sanctity is nothing. He thought Catholic voters wouldn’t mind if a divorced, pro-abortion Catholic candidate (remarried outside the Church) went to Communion.

They minded. Maybe some of their bishops didn’t mind, but the people in the pews did. And the Democrats are finally realizing that the “Catholic vote” isn’t entirely a thing of a bygone era. As Boyer reports, Bush himself has credited his re-election to the influence of the bishops appointed by John Paul II.

(McBrien complains that “there are a lot of Catholics who probably thought it was a sin if they voted for Kerry.”)

Recall that in 1992 the Democrats wouldn’t allow Pennsylvania’s Catholic, anti-abortion governor Bob Casey to speak at their national convention. They won’t make that mistake again. From 1928, when they nominated the Catholic Al Smith, to 1960, when they nominated John Kennedy, the Catholic vote was not only theirs, it was the party’s electoral backbone.

After that, they contemptuously frittered it away as the Republicans became the Catholic-friendly party. Now the Democrats want the Catholics back.

So one of the seismic effects of the papacy of John Paul II has been a partial realignment of American politics. He was unmoved by what the opinion polls said American Catholics wanted, and his indifference to politics — his emphasis on sanctity — has changed political reality in this country. This is the opposite of what John Cornwell would have us believe — he says John Paul was a media hound who courted personal popularity — but Peter Boyer has proved a far better reporter.

SOBRANS salutes a forgotten giant of Hollywood’s golden age. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

Already a subscriber? Consider a gift subscription for a priest, friend, or relative.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission

Washington Watch
Archive Table of Contents

Return to the SOBRANS home page
Send this article to a friend.

Recipient’s e-mail address:
(You may have multiple e-mail addresses; separate them by spaces.)

Your e-mail address

Enter a subject for your e-mail:

Mailarticle © 2001 by Gavin Spomer


The Wanderer is available by subscription. Write for details.

SOBRANS and Joe Sobran’s columns are available by subscription. Details are available on-line; or call 800-513-5053; or write Fran Griffin.

FGF E-Package columns by Joe Sobran, Sam Francis, Paul Gottfried, and others are available in a special e-mail subscription provided by the Fitzgerald Griffin Foundation. Click here for more information.

Search This Site

Search the Web     Search SOBRANS

What’s New?

Articles and Columns by Joe Sobran
 FGF E-Package “Reactionary Utopian” Columns 
  Wanderer column (“Washington Watch”) 
 Essays and Articles | Biography of Joe Sobran | Sobran’s Cynosure 
 The Shakespeare Library | The Hive
 WebLinks | Books by Joe 
 Subscribe to Joe Sobran’s Columns 

Other FGF E-Package Columns and Articles
 Sam Francis Classics | Paul Gottfried, “The Ornery Observer” 
 Mark Wegierski, “View from the North” 
 Chilton Williamson Jr., “At a Distance” 
 Kevin Lamb, “Lamb amongst Wolves” 
 Subscribe to the FGF E-Package 

Products and Gift Ideas
Back to the home page 

This page is copyright © 2005 by The Vere Company
and may not be reprinted in print or
Internet publications without express permission
of The Vere Company.