Time misses big Benedict picture

pbxvi The cover of Time this week features a large image of Pope Benedict XVI with an American flag in the background. As I will try to show later, this is ironic, but for now it’s worth noting that the cover story is “Why the Pope Loves America.”

The gist of the article is that the pontiff admires the American form of government and its diverse, religiously minded citizens:

[H]e entertains a recurring vision of an America we sometimes lose sight of: an optimistic and diverse but essentially pious society in which faiths and a faith-based conversation on social issues are kept vital by the Founding Fathers’ decision to separate church and state. It’s not a stretch to say the Pope sees in the U.S.–or in some kind of idealized version of it–a civic model and even an inspiration to his native Europe, whose Muslim immigrants raise the question of religious and political coexistence in the starkest terms.

Benedict, the story notes, shows his appreciation for America in many ways: He has appointed American prelates as his No. 1 and No. 3 officials in his office at the Vatican; he enjoys the frankness and intellectual independence of the United States bishops’ doctrinal office; and above all, he likes Americans’ notion of the importance of peaceful coexistence.

The story is true. It’s also besides the point.

Bono isn’t touring the United States next week; Pope Benedict XVI is. Reporters David Van Biema and Jeff Israely elevated a minor element of Benedict’s pontificate to the status of a major one.

Yes, the story acknowledges that Benedict is concerned about moral relativism and secularization in American life. But the reporters treat this as a side issue. Their emphasis is misplaced, and not just because one of Benedict’s key messages is that a “dictatorship of relativism” threatens Western civilization.

As my friend Dan Kearns points out, a second theme of Benedict is that Christianity offers “consolation, hope, and joy in a seemingly dark universe.” His first encylicals are titled “God is Love” (Deus Caritas) and “Hope” (Spe Salvi). The theme of his visit is “Christ Our Hope.” Consider, too, his recent announcement about the purpose of his visit to America:

“Following in the footsteps of my venerable predecessors, Paul VI and John Paul II, I shall come to United States of America as Pope for the first time, to proclaim this great truth: Jesus Christ is hope for men and women of every language, race, culture and social condition,” he said. “Yes, Christ is the face of God present among us.

“Through him, our lives reach fullness, and together, both as individuals and peoples, we can become a family united by fraternal love, according to the eternal plan of God the Father.

“I know how deeply rooted this Gospel message is in your country. I am coming to share it with you, in a series of celebrations and gatherings. I shall also bring the message of Christian hope to the great Assembly of the United Nations, to the representatives of all the peoples of the world.”

Van Biema and Israely miss this central message of Benedict’s pontificate. Instead of summarizing and critiquing this theological view, the reporters emphasize his political philosophy:

This Pope, more a student of global drama than an eager protagonist, knows that rising religious conflict may be the 21st century’s great challenge. He also appears to sense that American power alone won’t solve it–but that the power of American values still might. In rummaging through our founding precepts for a path for his own purposes, he might find something important for us to remember too.

Why the reporters missed the real story about Benedict is difficult to say. They read through many of his writings and talked to various sources. All I would recommend is that reporters covering the Pope’s visit read Zenit.org, a Web site about the Vatican. It contains all of his public sermons, speeches, and documents. As such, the site is the best first-hand account of his thinking and message.

The staff at Time should read the site. If they had done so, the cover no doubt would have been more accurate: a big picture of the Pope and a cross or crucifix, with an American flag in the distant background.

Print Friendly

  • http://avitus.blogspot.com Alex Vitus

    A minor correction: Zenit is not the official web site of the Vatican. It is a non-profit (I think loosely associated with Regnum Christi.) I do agree that it is the best place to get news about Catholic Church.

    Vatican News Service is the Official Vatican news site.

  • Daniel H. Conway

    Well, yes and no.

    I think the role of America in the mind of this pope is well covered by Allen and Weigel at their Pew Forum. America differs significantly from other Western countries in the overt religious character of its people, and even Catholic Workers from Australia note this. Admiringly, one pacifist/anarchist from Brisbane was enthralled by the Church attendance record of the US and suggested this as an enormous strength. And contrasted this to Europe.

    And B16 has written admiringly of the way the Americans have structured religious and government life.

    Now “dictatorship of relativism” is catchy for some, but the Eurocentrism of this Pope’s interventions need to be emphasized, and that he looks to the US as a little different. B16, while critiquing relativism in Western society, is very focused on Europe.

    In this forum dedicated to “critiquing” religion articles in the MSM, again, while not entirely my opinion on the Pope or the correct angle on the Pope’s visit, this posting by Mr. Stricherz serves more as an op-ed piece, not really critique. He has a different analysis than the writers of the Time mag articles.

    There is a difference from having an opposing or alternate analysis than critiquing religion coverage.

    Oh, and Zenit is substantively biased to conservatism, and did poorly with the Maciel reporting.

    Now there’s a religious media critique that could be its own book.

  • Pingback: In Other Words

  • MaryMargaret

    Be still my heart! The NYT doesn’t understand PBXVI! I’m happy that Pope Benedict is coming to the US, but I would be happier still to see some semi-responsible reporting. I am gob-smacked to hear that the Pope may think that the “power of American values” could solve the problems of the 21st century. Wow, can you say “egotistical crap”–I knew you could. I’ll go out on a limb here, and say that the Holy Father thinks that Jesus Christ is the answer–you know, that Savior of the World; Gospel; Faith, Hope and Charity stuff.

    I love this country, but we are way too self-centered. The United States is neither the center of the Universe, nor the hope of the world. I hope that we will see good reporting on what PBXVI has to say when he is here, but I am sorry to say that I don’t expect it. I expect more of the same ignorant, willfully blind nonsense, with a side of how he is a “strict enforcer”, “backward”, “former Hitler youth”, who “cracks down on dissident theologians”. Please, American media, prove me wrong this time. Do some serious research and report the news without putting a political spin on this visit.

  • FW Ken

    I believe Zenit is run by Regnum Christi or members thereof, RC being the lay auxiliary of the Legionnaires of Christ. That just might explain their difficulty with the accusations against Fr. Marciel. In any case, they might as well be an in-house organ of the Vatican and really are a good source of primary material.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz

    Zenit is not the official Web site of the Vatican. I regret the error — and changed my post accordingly.

    Daniel H. Conway writes that my post was an op-ed piece rather than a critique. I disagree. I summarized the story’s main points, quoted passages from it at length twice, and suggested why the reporters missed the real story. No op-ed I know of does such things.

  • Maureen

    Aw, c’mon. This is classic Americana. Ever since De Tocqueville and before him, even, Americans have liked to know what the visitor thinks of America. So now Time is doing it too. I think it’s kinda cute.

    Papa spent a lot more time in _South_ America than here, though, in his job as CDF head. We’re a concern, and he likes us; but to be honest, I think Papa’s the kind of guy who likes most people he meets, eats most of what’s put on his plate, and enjoys most places he visits.

  • http://www.getreligion.org Mark Stricherz


    I agree: Americans like to know what visitors think of them. But Time’s story largely failed to do this. It was like the father at the dinner table who either won’t or can’t tell his family and friends the truth.

  • Martha

    Youtube has the Papal video message up:


    That’s what the Pope thinks he’s coming to do, anyway :-)