How Not to Cover the Pope
With the news that Pope Benedict is stepping down, Catholic journalists will be offering their thoughts over the next couple weeks. There will be a stark difference between those who have read Pope Benedict's books, and those who have not.
This pope has left a record of hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of words and it is astounding how many liberal Catholics have read none of them. For a so-called Catholic pundit to talk about the pope and his place in history without having read a single word of the more than 50 books the Holy Father has written is like someone covering the Washington Nationals and not knowing Bryce Harper's stats.
This is why, for the next few weeks of media attention on Rome, the progressive, leaning forward Catholic left will offer the most juvenile and reactionary coverage. There are basically three requirements to writing liberals columns and books about the Catholic Church:
1) Don't know your subject. It is especially important that liberal Catholic intellectuals not read any of Pope Benedict's writings. His books, particularly the popular Jesus of Nazareth series, are much more accessible than the works of John Paul II, which could get bogged down in academic jargon. He has also written tens of volumes about the liturgy, theology, Church history, and his own life. And in the unfortunate event that you do read some of his work, make sure you misquote it or use deceptive ellipses -- see Wills, Gary.
2) Bring the snark. "The pope, following Sarah Palin's lead, resigns." So tweeted Chris Cillizza of the Washington Post shortly after the news broke of Pope Benedict's abdication. I call this the Ana Marie Coxing of journalism. In order to debase the pope, it's necessary to drag him into your pop culture frame of reference -- even if doing so results in a joke that is neither insightful nor funny. The low end of this is, of course, Andrew Sullivan, who jokes about the pope wearing a "dress" and nice shoes.
3) Bring straw men. Lots of them. Throw a party. The pope hates women and gays. He's turned his back on the Second Vatican Council. He doesn't understand the modern world. Crucial to this step is a firm grounding in step #1.
Equally important is the iron insistence that the western world has not moved to the left in the last 50 years. To ignore the liberal shift means that one can simply say that gay marriage, the welfare state, and sexual "freedom" are simple facts of life, and that to be against them is like standing against the tides.
Thus liberal Michael Tomasky: "How long is the Church going to resist the flow of history and keep choosing conservatives or reactionaries? This is a chance for the Church to join the modern world as it did in the early 1960s under John XXIII. But I would imagine it's an opportunity the Church won't take."
Tomasky then informs us that he's not Catholic. Tomasky is instead an atheist, which makes him a drunk and a child molester. From what I understand of atheism. (See what I did there?)
The great irony in all this is that as a prose stylist, Pope Benedict is superior to Tomasky and most journalists working today. His encyclicals, particularly God is Love, are models of sharp style and poetic rhythm.
Here is the opening of Pope Benedict's Jesus of Nazareth: "The Book of Deuteronomy contains a promise that is completely different from the messianic hope expressed in other books of the Old testament, yet it is of decisive importance in understanding the figure of Jesus. The object of this promise is not a King of Israel or a king of the world - a new David, in other words -- but a new Moses."
Here you have drama with understatement, command of language and facts, and a powerful foreshadowing of the events to come.
Don't expect the same from the professionals covering the retirement of Benedict, or the transition to the next pope.