Shortly after Pope John Paul II came home from his first February hospitalization, my NBC colleague, Keith Miller, sent me an e-mail. A foreign correspondent for decades, Keith has seen a lot in his time. But even he found “the level of speculation, rumor, and innuendo that surrounded the Pope’s bout of ill health…amazing.”
What accounts for all this? Is it the press (as the Vatican would insist), or the Vatican’s mishandling of the press (as the media would insist)? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
Two false assumptions continue to blur the vision of a lot of journalists (although not, I’m happy to report, the people in charge at NBC or my friend John Allen, whose CNN commentary was level-headed and perceptive, as usual). The first false assumption is captured in a default phrase we’ve heard since 1994: “the frail and failing Pope” – a phrase so common that it’s assumed it must be true. Yet these ubiquitous adjectives obscure far more than they illuminate. The Pope isn’t “failing,” if by “failing” we mean someone who’s likely to die at any moment. As for “frail,” when you touch John Paul II today, he still feels like the sturdy athlete he once was. Of course he’s got a serious neurological problem and terrible arthritis in his knees; twenty-six-plus years in the papacy have taken a considerable toll. But if “frail” connotes a porcelain figurine ready to shatter at any moment, that isn’t the Pope. A lot of the press corps believed its own “frail and failing” story-line – and overly excited reporting (not to mention groundless speculation) followed.
The second false assumption that distorts reporting from Rome is the widespread conviction among reporters that the Vatican lies, or at least dissembles, about everything. Like every other institution of consequence in the world, the Holy See “manages” the news, in the sense of putting out the story it wants told. In this instance, though, as in previous cases when John Paul II was hospitalized, the story was, in the main, accurate – if sometimes delayed longer than makes sense in a global 24/7 news environment. Still, if you believe “they’re always hiding something important” or “they’re always spinning,” it’s hard to see the facts for what they are. (At the beginning of the first February frenzy, I was trying to calm an interviewer who, following the “failing”/dissembling script, asked, “Well, then, why did they take the Pope to the hospital so late at night?” “Because,” I explained, “that’s when he was feeling poorly.”)
It’s certainly true that the higher echelons of the Curia could be more disciplined in their interactions with world press; ill-advised comments from one senior figure triggered a month-long sub-frenzy to the main frenzy, this time about a papal abdication being under active consideration among senior churchmen. On the other hand, that sub-frenzy was also the product of a media machine that, having been revved up to maximum RPMs, had to find something to justify staying at fever pitch for a while longer.
I hope some lessons were learned in recent weeks. It’s entirely possible that John Paul II will make many more trips to the Gemelli before he’s called home to glory; it would be ridiculous if every future papal hospitalization triggered frantic speculation and rumor-mongering. By the same token, the codicil to this first lesson is that people really do care; the outpouring of concern for the Holy Father bore global witness to the unique place he holds in the hearts of men and women around the world, many of whom aren’t Catholics. So attention should be paid – if it’s serious, sober-minded attention, not fevered, groundless speculation.
The other lesson to be taken from last month’s drama is that is that the cast of characters isn’t necessarily in place for the next conclave – at least not yet. Don’t be surprised, for example, if John Paul II creates new cardinals at some point this year.
All of which brings to mind a truth neatly articulated by that great metaphysician, Lawrence Peter (Yogi) Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.”
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.