Why is John Paul II on trial in the media today?


When John Paul II was dying, the media loved him; nothing has emerged that much changed the original assessment, though you wouldn’t know that from the current news coverage.

Do you remember the death of Pope John Paul II? Could you ever forget it?

For several days, during that first week of April in 2005, the attention of the entire world was riveted on the Vatican. Television networks kept vigil during the Pope's last hours, and when he finally died, there was a universal sense that the world had lost a great man. The reaction from crowd in St. Peter's Square was odd, yet appropriate: after a moment's hush, the people broke into spontaneous, quiet applause, paying homage to a life well lived.

Never before, in all of human history, have so many people paid attention to a man's death. Never before has the mourning been so universal. In the days after the Pope's death, when the Vatican moved on to his funeral, the reverential awe for John Paul II remained. When the congregation at the funeral took up the cry of "Santo subito!" everyone who heard it understood. The 20th century had given the world a series of giant historical figures, most of them morally flawed or even downright evil. But here was a man worthy of admiration: a man who, while human, was easily recognized for his essential goodness, for his outsized contributions to the common good – for what the Catholic Church calls his "heroic virtue."

Check back in the news archives for April 2005, and you will find only a few token criticisms of Pope John Paul II, most of them buried within the context of laudatory stories. The newspaper stories, summing up his prodigious accomplishments, were overwhelmingly favorable. Apart from the most inveterate critics of Catholicism (including a few who still identify themselves as Catholics), columnists did not question the overall record of the deceased Pontiff. The coverage of his funeral was solemn and respectful. The retrospective essays were appreciative.

Now, six years later, as the Catholic Church prepares to beatify John Paul II – to act on those Santo subito demands – the media have turned critical. Scan the news today, and you will find dozens of columnists questioning whether the late Pope should be beatified. The Vatican has moved forward too quickly, they say, and the sex-abuse crisis casts shadows on the legacy of John Paul II.

Why this remarkable change of perspective? Why has the near-universal adulation for John Paul II changed, in a few years, to widespread skepticism about his pontificate?

To some extent, the skepticism is a natural (if not healthy) function of today's media world. Reporters need something to talk about, and controversy catches attention. At the time of his death and burial, the life of John Paul II was a warm human-interest story. Now the royal wedding provides a more picturesque "feel-good" story, and the Pope's legacy is left on the laboratory table, ready for dissection. But there's more to it than that. People who have never before shown any interest in the process by which the Church declares saints are now weighing in on the pace of the late Pope's cause. More ominously, reporters are asking, again and again, whether John Paul II bears the blame for the sex-abuse scandal. Let's focus on that latter question.

What do we know now, that we didn't know in 2005, about Pope John Paul's handling of the sex-abuse crisis? Not much. The details of the scandal were fresh in our minds in 2005. For Europeans the shock may be greater now, since the major revelations have been more recent. For Americans the wounds are not quite so raw. We had begun to grasp the dimensions of the problem in 2002; by 2005 the corruption had been thoroughly exposed.

We have learned, in the intervening years, that some of the prelates in the Roman Curia were ready and willing to cover up sexual abuse in the 1970s and 1980s. But no evidence has emerged to suggest that John Paul II himself was involved in the cover-up, or even aware of it. We have learned that the Pope was duped by Marcial Maciel. But many thousands of other Catholics were duped, too, by that unique and dangerous man. We have learned that John Paul II didn't run a very tight ship at the Vatican. But we knew that in 2005; in fact, we knew it all too well by 1985.

So again, why has criticism of the late Pope come to the fore in 2011, when the world viewed him so favorably in 2005? The answer to that question, I think, lies in the way the discussion of the sex-abuse scandal has evolved.

Thus fingers are pointed at the Pope. But where is the evidence to support these charges?

In 2000, as the first outcroppings of the scandal appeared in public view, most observers were rightly outraged at the priests who had molested children. In 2002, when the extent of the hierarchical cover-up became evident, we were rightly outraged at the bishops who had protected the abusers. We realized, to our horror, that the corruption had involved not just a few twisted priests, but also dozens of complicit bishops. As the years have passed, critics of the Church (again, including some within the fold) have sought to broaden the scope of the censure still further, to condemn the entire Catholic Church.

By 2005, lawyers for sex-abuse victims had won billions of dollars in damages from the Church in America, driving dioceses toward bankruptcy. Then the most ambitious among them, led by Jeffrey Anderson, set their sights on a new target: the Vatican. With the help of sympathetic reporters, they too have worked to create the impression that the cover-up of sexual abuse was a worldwide strategy, dictated by Vatican leaders. Thus fingers are pointed at the Pope. But where is the evidence to support these charges? When John Paul II became aware of the cover-up prior to 2002, he summoned the leaders of the American hierarchy to Rome and denounced the corruption in clear, ringing terms. He cannot be blamed for abuses that occurred before he became Roman Pontiff; he cannot be held responsible for the malfeasance of other bishops, which occurred without his knowledge and which he denounced when he became aware of it.

Six years ago the mass media joined in the worldwide public acclaim for John Paul II. Were they wrong to do so? Because if the praise was merited in 2005, and no important new evidence has been discovered to stain the late Pope's reputation, the same homage is due to John Paul II today.




Phil Lawler. "Why is John Paul II on trial in the media today?" Catholic Culture - On the News (April 27, 2011).

Reprinted with permission from Phil Lawler and Catholic Culture.org.

The mission of CatholicCulture.org is to give faithful Catholics the information, encouragement, and perspective they need to become an active force for renewal in the Church and in society, working to shape an authentically Christian culture in a secular world.


Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

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