Among the Catholic Commentariat: My Seven Hours of Fame

By Baumann, Paul | Commonweal, June 6, 2008 | Go to article overview

Among the Catholic Commentariat: My Seven Hours of Fame


Baumann, Paul, Commonweal


Commonweal is not very high on the media food chain, and I'm not one of the handful of usual suspects the media rely on to comment on papal announcements, demographic alarms ("Where have all the Catholics gone?"), excommunications, or the sexual-abuse scandal. Still, whenever there is some big papal news--a death, conclave, or visit--my phone starts ringing.

Shortly before John Paul II's death, I was interviewed by 60 Minutes, who wanted me to confirm the fact that many younger, so-called JPII-priests, are decidedly more conservative than their predecessors. Yes, I said, I could confirm that. The crew showed up at our offices with many bright lights, many busy technicians, and best of all, two make-up artists. It was a small invasion. Scott Pelley asked the questions, and I spoke earnestly about the decline of the Catholic subculture and the emergence of the curious hybrid known in some academic circles as "evangelical Catholics" (thank you, Bill Portier). None of that made it into the eventual segment--though I did manage to be quoted saying that yes, younger priests are more conservative. As it turned out, my two minutes of wisdom were framed by the sage observations of the much more familiar Thomas Reese, SJ, soon to be deemed subversive of "orthodoxy" and relieved by the pope of his duties as editor of America.

This time around, I first got a call from the Economist. More than one million subscribers! They wanted to know if Benedict would be carrying water for certain Catholic neoconservatives (more below) during his April visit to the United States. I was delighted to resort to what neoconservatives petulantly call "beyondism," noting that the pope's views would certainly transcend such partisan politics. I was even quoted accurately: "It's a stretch for the neoconservatives to recruit the pope as the leader of the war on terror, and it's also a stretch to associate him with the uncritical acceptance of capitalism."

As I assume many Commonweal readers know, the Catholic commentariat is a fairly select group. First among equals is the ubiquitous John Allen, the National Catholic Reporter's (NCR) man in Rome, who pops up with incorrigible entrepreneurial zeal on CNN, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, National Public Radio, as well as the op-ed page of the New York Times. Allen exudes the scrupulous demeanor of an anthropologist who, after years in the jungle, has returned to report that the strange beliefs and practices of the primitive tribe he has been studying and living among are just as sane and rational as ours.

Next comes the nearly ubiquitous Tom Reese, now at Georgetown's Woodstock Theological Center, evidently beyond the pope's infallible reach. If Allen is the anthropologist, then the equable Reese is much more the political scientist (with the degree to prove it). He likes to explain how the Roman system works, usually avoiding any discussion of beliefs or personalities. Also in the nearly ubiquitous category are the more ideologically focused (read neoconservative) Fr. Richard John Neuhaus ("I've known Ratzinger/Benedict for well over twenty years") and papal biographer George Weigel ("I've known Joseph Ratzinger for almost twenty years").

An alarming degree of coordination, as well as mutual admiration, exists among many of these players. Shortly before the pope's arrival, and with Allen at his side, Weigel informed a gathering of reporters that "John Allen is the best English-language Vatican reporter in history." (Next he'll be calling him John Allen the Great.) How someone can be both the left-teetering NCR's man in Rome and the neoconservatives' favorite American Vaticanologist surely raises the gospel's queston of whether it is possible to serve two masters. Yet somehow Allen manages to keep both his NCR readers and the neocons happy. (In addition to his many journalistic talents, Allen also seems to possess Padre Pio-like powers of bilocation, since he now covers the Vatican while living in New York City. …

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