SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. — Greg Tobin is like a lot of American Catholics. He and his wife are excited at having a sacramental encounter with the leader of their Church.
The media, however, has other plans. Where the faithful see unity, news outlets will foster division and dissension, top media analysts predict.
“People are excited for a reason,” said Tobin, senior adviser for communications at Seton Hall University and author of Holy Father: Pope Benedict XVI: Pontiff for a New Era (Sterling, 2005). “Those few who will be able to go are enthusiastic.”
His assessment was backed up by a new national survey commissioned by the Knights of Columbus and conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
In the survey, 58% said they view him favorably, compared with only 13% who have an unfavorable opinion.
Furthermore, 65% of Americans have a favorable opinion of the Catholic Church, compared to 28% who have an unfavorable view.
The results were released by Supreme Knight Carl Anderson March 25 at the National Press Club in Washington.
Yet, journalists have different expectations.
Journalists are “all waiting for the arrival of the tidal wave that is a papal visit,” said Terry Mattingly, columnist and director of the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges. “Above all,” he wrote at his blog GetReligion.org, they are “waiting to find out what the ‘real’ issue will be for this papal visit. There will have to be a ‘real’ issue or two in there to cover, which means, of course, anything that can be seen as affecting politics and, thus, real life.”
William Donohue, president of the New York-based Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, said that surveys will be at the center of that effort.
“I expect the proverbial silly surveys will be dumped on us,” he said. “They won’t differentiate between practicing and non-practicing Catholics, but will ask them all the same questions about whether women should be priests.”
In fact, in early March, Cleveland’s The Plain Dealer featured a Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke titled, “40-Year-Old Contraception Ban Strains Relations Between U.S. Catholics and the Vatican.” The article began and ended with quotes from Catholics who disagreed with the Church’s teaching on the issue.
The Washington Post ran a story about the Pope’s planned speech to educators at The Catholic University of America featuring the headline, “Catholic College Leaders Expect Pope to Deliver Stern Message.”
In the 1996 book Salt of the Earth: The Church at the End of the Millennium, an interview with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith addressed such issues as the “canon of criticism.”
“I would stress again that all of these are certainly genuine issues, but I also believe that we go astray when we raise them to the standard questions and make them the only concerns of Christianity,” said Cardinal Ratzinger.
Out of Touch?
But will this affect media portrayal of the Pope?
“I think Pope Benedict will be portrayed unfavorably [compared] to his predecessor,” said Bill Donohue. “They’ll say that unlike his predecessor, he’s endangered ecumenical relationships. They’ll say that his challenge to theological relativism has upset some Protestants and Jews. They’ll say that he has injured relations with Muslims and that the Latin Mass is a throwback to the Inquisition.”
Tobin shared some of Donohue’s pessimism.
“The media’s all wet about Benedict,” he said. “They’ve tended to underestimate him and view him as ‘not sexy’, but he’ll surprise them with what he says.”
“I think he will have a message for the American Church that will not be dissimilar to his approach to the Church in Europe,” said Tobin. “Although I understand that he has great affection for America and American Catholics, we are perhaps viewed by the Holy See as veering off the reservation. I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t address that.”
Why is he coming? Tobin says: “He appreciates history and the importance of the American Church to the universal Church, and I believe he’s really quite actively seeking to promote vocations to the priesthood here and wherever he goes.”
“The media wants to see the Church as out of touch,” said Tim Graham, director of media analysis with the Alexandria, Va.–based Media Research Center. “Rather, it’s the people they use [for interviews] who are out of touch with the Church.”
Judging from the media coverage that John Paul II received in the United States, Graham doesn’t think that Pope Benedict will receive any less critical coverage. In April 2005, the Media Research Center released its special report, “The Life of John Paul II: Shepherd of Souls or Antiquated Authoritarian,” examining the previous Pope’s media coverage in the United States.
Noted Graham, the largely positive coverage during his death and funeral was completely different to the coverage he received during his pontificate.
“Our Pope John Paul special report showed that they see everything through a very political lens,” said Graham of the media. “When he did something they didn’t like, they construed him as intervening in our politics and he got negative coverage. When he did something they liked, such as on the death penalty, they covered it positively. They want to impose upon the Church a democratic power structure.”
Said the study:
“Reporters glorified and enlarged the influence of John Paul’s opponents, constantly lobbying for what they called the ‘many Catholics’ who wanted to attack the traditions and teachings of the faith.”
EWTN’s Raymond Arroyo said that the coverage, or lack thereof, for Pope Benedict’s visit may be influenced by ignorance, political news in the United States, and dealing with the protocols of the Church.
“With the Pennsylvania primary on April 22, they’re going to be spending an enormous amount of time covering the Democratic primary races. That will consume them,” said Arroyo, news director with EWTN, who will be providing wall-to-wall coverage of the Pope’s visit. “The Pope’s visit comes at a time when television networks are hemorrhaging. They don’t want to dispense a huge number of reporters and commentators to venues.”
“My guess is that they’ll take some of the feeds of the visit — the White House, the U.N. speech, and maybe some photos from his visit to Ground Zero — and that will just about do it,” said Arroyo. “They’re not going to pull away for an hour to cover his talk at Catholic University or the John Paul II Cultural Center.”
Consequently, Arroyo predicts that the major networks will reduce the Pope’s visit to a few reader stories and 30-second spots “shoved between Hillary and Obama’s stump speeches.”
“They really don’t know Benedict,” said Arroyo. “From their perspective, the last time he came out of the hole was at Regensburg.”
Based on conversations Arroyo has had with other editors and producers, there’s a “great deal of ignorance” regarding Benedict. “They don’t know him or his work, and he’s seen as not as compelling as Pope John Paul II was. He doesn’t have the same resonance.”
Graham noted that politics isn’t what’s drawing tens of thousands to Washington, D.C., and New York.
“The media sitting in their newsrooms are worried about, in this election year, what effect the Pope’s visit can have on Obama’s or McCain’s campaign. But the people in the pews aren’t coming to see Pope Benedict for the politics; they’re coming for the Eucharist and to honor this great theologian.”
Tim Drake is based in
St. Joseph, Minnesota.