April 9, 2005
by David Kopel
With all the mainstream media providing laudatory, mass coverage of the late Pope John Paul II, it might seem reasonable to conclude that anti-Catholic bigotry has been abolished from the Denver media. The conclusion would be mostly - but not entirely - correct.
The Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Posthave both been magnificent in their coverage. Newsreligion writer Jean Torkelson and Postreligion writer Eric Gorski have led the way with in-depth, insightful analyses of the life of a man who ranks along with Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan as one of the giants of the 20th century. I don't think that either Denver paper has ever provided such a rich tapestry of stories following the death of a non-American.
Yet despite the huge volume of coverage, two important parts of the story have been omitted. The papers have reported accurately on the pope's conflicts with the left wing of the Catholic Church, especially on issues related to sexuality. Such articles, including Gorski's humongous piece last Sunday, have left out the pope's equally significant battles with the right wing of the church.
Groups such as the Society of St. Pius X have been fighting to roll back many of the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council in 1965, such as celebrating Mass in the vernacular rather than in Latin, or allowing altar girls to assist the priest. On a worldwide basis, the greatest opposition to the pope has come from the Catholic right, as explicated by Hugh Hewitt in an April 5 article for weeklystandard.com.
The second thing that's been missing has been what made Karol Wojtyla tick, theologically speaking. The only serious examination of this issue in the Denver papers came from Newscolumnist Paul Campos, who shines when writing on religious issues. Campos explained how the young Wojtyla took up the philosophy of the Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, thereby finding hope and meaning after his nation was ravaged by the Nazis and Soviets, and all his family died.
Both papers ran a story about an AP/Ipsos poll which found that Catholic and non-Catholic Americans greatly respected John Paul II, but hoped that the next pope would liberalize church teachings. Although the poll's sample was skewed to the left (51 percent Democrats, 36 percent Republicans), the general direction of the answers was probably accurate.
But the pollsters missed the boat completely with their question whether the next pope should be "From one of the places where Catholicism is growing fastest, like Africa or Latin America . . ." As detailed by The World Christian Encyclopedia, however, Catholicism is growing in Latin America only to the extent that population is increasing. As a percentage of the population, Catholicism is losing ground to Protestantism and other faiths. For example, Brazil was 90 percent Roman Catholic in 1970, but only 83 percent in 2000. Mexico declined from 96 percent to 92 percent in the same period.
Notwithstanding the John Paul II coverage, Catholicism did not get a free ride in the Denver media last week. Gov. Bill Owens vetoed a bill requiring Catholic hospitals, among other emergency health-care providers, to offer rape victims either medication to kill a fertilized egg which has not yet implanted in the uterus, or a referral to a pharmacy that would provide such medication. Catholics view the intentional killing of a fertilized egg, at any stage of development, as a form of abortion.
The Post'sApril 6 coverage of the veto created a false dichotomy by contrasting the Catholic belief that the zygote is a human life with the views of unnamed "medical experts." Actually, both sides understand all the medical characteristics of a fertilized egg - including the fact that it has totally unique DNA and will, in the normal course of development, grow into a human adult. Philosophers differ about when that unique and rapidly-growing individual becomes entitled to the presumption against killing humans. Contrary to the Post'simplication, the question is not one of faith vs. science, but what moral conclusions to draw from undisputed scientific facts.
The most stupidly nasty comment, however, came from Postcolumnist Jim Spencer, who sneered at Owens' devotion to "sacred sperm." Although Gnostics and some esoteric non-Christian sects have believed sperm to be sacred, neither Catholicism nor any other mainstream Christian denomination has ever taught such a thing. Perhaps the only people who imagine that Catholics think so are those whose information about religion goes no deeper than the Monty Python song,Every Sperm is Sacred(from their film The Meaning of Life), which mocks large Irish-Catholic families.
Spencer also declared that Catholic hospitals' defense of their freedom of conscience "gives new meaning to the Hippocratic Oath." To the contrary, the hospitals are following the traditional Hippocratic Oath, by which a physician swears, "I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy."