Benedict and the Art of Avoiding Controversy


On Pope Benedict XVI’s recent visit to the US, he was treated better than God. The President personally met his plane, news stations played his speeches and prayers on a loop, and newspapers reprinted his every word and liberally quoted his adoring fans. Those criticisms that did appear in the press tended towards the apologetic.

Will the Australian media be any less starstruck when Benedict visits Sydney for World Youth Day in July? Going on the Aussie coverage of his US tour, I’d say, sadly, no.

The media here has mostly focused on the Pope’s comments about sexual abuse in the American church. Fair enough, too – it’s a huge story. According to Church commissioned research, around 4500 American Catholic priests and deacons have been accused of sexually abusing more than 13,000 children since 1950. Victim advocate groups claim the numbers are even higher, but all agree that the suffering has been immense and an acknowledgement from the head of the Church overdue.

So, when the Pope repeatedly expressed "shame" and "sorrow" over the abuse, the media rushed to report this long awaited apology. Unfortunately, few outlets bothered to include the protests of victim advocate groups who were unhappy that no commitments for action were made.

Similarly, while Benedict’s admission that the sex abuse allegations were "badly handled" was widely reported, the fact that, as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 1981-2005, he was the one responsible for handling them was barely mentioned. The West Australian did refer to claims of a Church cover-up, but provided no details. ABC Radio told listeners the Pope used to be in charge of investigating alleged abuse, but not about the 2001 letter he sent to all US bishops ordering them to report allegations directly to Rome and never speak of them again.

This is not a minor omission; it was under the authority of this letter that American bishops moved known child rapists from parish to parish, rather than reporting them to police.

Timid as it was, the critique of Benedict’s contrition was downright fierce compared with that of his address to the United Nations. The Sydney Morning Herald‘s report reads like a Vatican press release, telling us that "Pope Benedict has used his moral authority to promote human rights…" Note that the man’s "moral authority" is presented as fact with no acknowledgement that he has authority only over Catholics, and that his morality is widely disputed.

Thanks to Bill Leak

Many people reject, for example, his calls for women to be denied access to contraception and abortion, and many reject his calls for gay and lesbian people to be denied the right to marry and have children. Many find his hostility to liberation theology – the belief that Catholics are called to fight social injustice – objectionable, and many are horrified that he describes the conquest of Indigenous Americans as an act of "purification and civilisation". With the AIDS epidemic killing millions a year, a great many people consider it unspeakably immoral that he forbids his followers to use condoms.

To say, without providing context or background, that Benedict "promotes human rights", is to beg the question of if he really does. It also leaves readers with an incomplete understanding. Imagine reading that Sheik Al-Hilaly used his moral authority to promote women’s rights. Would you not expect at least a mention of the uncovered meat controversy?

I know this article will be construed as an attack on Catholics, but it’s really not. Catholics are of such diversity in views, behaviours and beliefs that speaking of them as a homogenous group – whether to praise or condemn – is absurd. I’m writing here about one man and the inappropriate reverence with which he is treated by the media.

It’s true that World Youth Day has copped a heap of criticism, but it’s all been about costs and inconveniences, not a word about the man presiding over it all. A man who, apart from anything else, meets the Department of Immigration’s definition of a "controversial visa applicant", due to the "likelihood of … part of the Australian community being vilified or defamed" if he starts mouthing off about homosexual people being "objectively disordered" and tending towards "intrinsic moral evil" again.

To be clear, I’m not suggesting he should be barred entry. Rather, I’m perplexed by the absence of the usual rowdy debate over the entrance of people of questionable character into Australia.

Come July, let’s hope at least a few journos and editors remain immune to the pomp, ceremony and aura of claimed mystical power. Sure, the Pope is mega famous and has many fans, but he’s just a man, and his words and actions are as deserving of analysis and criticism as those of any other public figure.

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.