Among the Catholic Commentariat

My Seven Hours of Fame

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.)

John Allen is, let us agree, an excellent reporter. Everyone is rightly impressed by Allen’s knowledge, and especially by his extraordinary access to what seem like all the important players in the Vatican. Still, I am a little wary of that access. Like any good political reporter, Allen has to cultivate those he is writing about. (The Vatican, too, has a story line it wants to get out; as Allen has characterized it, the mantra is “affirmative orthodoxy.”) Like a marriage, the relationship between a reporter and his sources is bound to be complicated.

As it turns out, the embrace of Allen by influential conservatives can be traced in part to a Road-to-Damascus-like experience provided for him by the grace of God—and Commonweal. In 2000, Allen published a biography of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Commonweal’s reviewer, the theologian Fr. Joseph A. Komonchak, criticized the book for presenting a simplistic “Manichean” view of Ratzinger and of the conflicts in the post-Vatican II church. To his credit, Allen took this criticism to heart, and his reporting became more nuanced, and much more attentive to the concerns of conservatives. This, I hasten to add, is all well and good; after all, nuance is Commonweal’s principal commodity, and we ship tons of the stuff through the mail (slowly, slowly, I know) each year. My only worry is that sometimes the beliefs and practices of the natives in Rome aren’t as nuanced as Allen reports. Even Benedict has had his unnuanced moments. Ask Tom Reese or Jacques Dupuis.

Allen came to lunch at Commonweal a few years ago, shortly after relocating from Rome to New York. I had reviewed his book about Opus Dei critically in the Washington Monthly, expressing skepticism of, among other things, his claim that pious self-flagellation is not all that different from a strenuous workout at the health club. (One could say, for instance, that they differ in their proper ends, and therefore in their true natures.) Allen took no umbrage, showing himself both exceedingly gracious and imperturbable. Speaking in that clipped, staccato way of his, he answered our questions with good humor and in exhaustive detail. The highlight of the lunch came when he fixed me with that anthropologist’s gaze and, in an attempt to reorient our parochial American perspective about the church, delivered the earth-shaking news that most people in the Vatican had never heard of Commonweal.

Frankly, I was more relieved than disappointed by this revelation. I certainly wasn’t surprised. Truth be told, most of the people who ride the elevator with me to our offices each morning here at the Interchurch Center have never heard of Commonweal. “Commonwealth magazine,” I was told by a TV reporter who was about to interview me the week after the pope’s visit. “Commonweal,” I stressed, “W-E-A-L. We’re an independent journal of opinion edited by lay Catholics.” He cut me off with a laugh. “That’s way too many words.” Perhaps if anyone in the Vatican does read Commonweal, he feels the same way.

Which brings me back to the subject at hand, namely the media coverage of the pope’s visit and my emergence as a media star in the media capital of the world. Yes, my star turn did finally arrive, in the form of NY1, the local Time Warner cable news channel (2 million subscribers!), which was looking for a papal commentator. Unfortunately for them, the big names had already been booked. In addition to those mentioned above, I’m referring to, among others, the irrepressible James Martin, SJ, acting publisher of America, and author of the best-sellers A Jesuit Off Broadway, Another Jesuit Off Probation, and The Last Jesuit in America (I’m just teasing, Jim). Martin, who appeared on WABC, is nearly as prolific as John Allen, and much more upbeat about everything. In short, he’s a very congenial television presence. Equally congenial, though of a markedly different temperament, was Commonweal’s own Peter Steinfels (rumors have it that he occasionally writes for the New York Times), who traded quips about the idiosyncratic nature of the papacy with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show. Once again a papal visit is shown to be capable of breaking down all sorts of cultural barriers. Frequent Commonweal contributor and Notre Dame stalwart Scott Appleby, I am told, appeared on the Charlie Rose Show. (Past my bedtime.)

In other words, competition was stiff for Catholic commentators, and the NY1 news director, looking far down the bench, called on me to pinch hit. I was happy to do so, and a bit daunted. NYI was providing “wall-to-wall” coverage of Benedict’s visit to Washington and New York. How to fill up all that air time? I cautioned the news director that I was no papal historian or pope watcher. I wasn’t going to be able to explain the significance of Benedict’s outfits (Pius IX’s miter, those stylish red slippers, that ermine cope!), let alone expatiate on the personnel or the intricacies of the Vatican’s bureaucracy. No problem, I was told. Quite right, too. As it turned out, I was on for nearly seven hours over two days, including the farewell offered by Vice President Dick Cheney (if only it had been the other way around) and the departure of Shepherd One, or as we in television call it, “Wheels up.”

How did I do? Channeling Billy Crystal from his Saturday Night Live days, Jean Lumb, who does volunteer work for Commonweal, said I “looked fabulous.” Since Jean is a Brooklyn resident and a registered Republican, the impartiality and soundness of her judgment is beyond dispute. I was similarly complimented by the Albanian doorman of an apartment building on West End Avenue, but since he doesn’t speak much English, I’m not sure what he was complimenting me about. Perhaps I looked fabulous in Albanian as well.

As for how Benedict came off, and what I said about him on air—well, perhaps I should first confess that the papacy has never loomed large in my own Catholic cosmology. No pictures of popes decorated our suburban home when I was growing up. If pressed, I’m inclined to think that the papacy, like one’s genetic inheritance, is a mixed blessing: it is impossible to escape, but it would be somehow un-Catholic to let it determine one’s fate or faith. I woke up the day before the pope’s arrival to hear Fr. Neuhaus, in that stentorian voice of his, telling listeners to WCBS radio in New York that the pope was coming to “encourage,” “instruct,” and where necessary, “reproach” the flock. And so it came to pass.

In that regard, I was especially struck by Benedict’s remarks at the ecumenical prayer service at St. Joseph’s Parish in New York. His appeal for Christian unity seemed, well, a bit reproachful. He called for Christians to be in “communion with the church in every age,” arguing that unity can be achieved only “by the purity of normative doctrine expressed in creedal formulae,” and acceptance of “the notion of normative apostolic teaching.” He complained about those who would change “fundamental Christian beliefs and practices” by “so-called ‘prophetic actions’ that are based on a hermeneutic not always constant with the datum of Scripture and Tradition.” You know who you are!

I wondered what Benedict’s ecumenical audience made of this. How exactly does the dogma of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, of which there is no record either in Scripture or the early church, fit into “the notion of normative apostolic teaching”? Or are Protestant concerns about Catholic Mariology so much “prophetic” nonsense? (Just to be clear, let me add that Mary’s Assumption can fit into a robust notion of the development of doctrine.) Then there is the Petrine ministry itself, which has developed in rather surprising ways over the past few centuries. How does the current exalted Catholic understanding of the authority of the bishop of Rome conform to normative apostolic teaching, to the belief and practice of the church in every age? Awkwardly, I think. What it might mean to be in communion with the church in every age is as complicated as the history of the papacy itself.

I had spent a few days the week before the pope’s arrival at an ecumenical conference at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey. As you might suspect, Presbyterians with lilting Scottish brogues, and even a few Presbyterians with lilting Chinese accents, were thick on the ground. These strangely mirthful Calvinists, who are as quick with a quip as they are with a theological argument, are not exactly pikers when it comes to “the notion of normative apostolic teaching.” They are, nevertheless, guilty of a number of those “so-called ‘prophetic actions.’” Shouldn’t the ecumenical road between Edinburgh and Rome go in both directions?

As a papal commentator on NY1, I tried to raise some questions about the actual historical development of Catholic doctrines, hopefully in a form suitable to whatever audience was listening. All in all, the experience didn’t leave me convinced I was born to be a TV pundit. But serendipity can play strange games. NY1 is located on the lower West Side of Manhattan, in a converted factory now called the Chelsea Market. Only on my second day there did I realize that the block-long brick building had once been headquarters of the National Biscuit Company. Around 1910 my paternal grandfather, born and raised in Brooklyn, left school in the eighth grade to go to work for...you guessed it.

I have a vague memory (possibly invented) of him showing me a photograph of himself standing outside the factory, holding his packet of samples. I do know that he spent the rest of his life selling bread for one company or another. At his funeral, the homilist observed that “the bread of life” were words my grandfather lived by in more ways than one. He was the most conventionally pious of all my relatives, a hoarder of holy cards, pennies, coupons, and string—a dear soul of a man, who was always mumbling his prayers and thumbing his rosary beads in church. Benedict, I’m sure, would have commended his faith. What my grandfather would have said about my public remarks about the pope, I don’t think I want to know. Then again, perhaps he might simply have said that I looked fabulous, and left it at that.

Published in the 2008-06-06 issue: 

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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