On Tuesday's CBS Evening News, Katie Couric asked Father Thomas Williams (formerly an NBC expert) to comment on Pope Benedict's arrival in America. Couric, who fretted out loud in 2006 about Catholic orthodoxy "infringing on civil liberties" in a new Florida town, stressed to the priest that the Pope was "extremely conservative," and "very conservative," and at odds with "62 percent of Catholics" who say the church doesn't reflect their views. It's a little strange for an anchor to note someone else is "out of touch" with the public when their network is consistently dragging behind in third in the ratings.
After two generic questions about what the Pope is like, and whether succeeding John Paul II is a tough act to follow, like Gordon Brown replacing Tony Blair as British prime minister, Couric brought up Benedict's first two papal encyclicals, deep intellectual tracts that aren't easy to characterize for TV anchors:
COURIC: The feeling was that he was going to be extremely conservative, yet the two encyclicals he's issued so far, which really is sort of his philosophy, have belied that notion, haven't they?
WILLIAMS: Very much so. Everyone expected him to come down very hard either on some bioethical question or doctrinal orthodoxy, and he decided to write about love and about hope, which really surprised an awful lot of people. And it also opens up our minds and think, you know, "What's this guy really like?"
It should be said that writing about love and hope does not disqualify a pope or pundit from being a conservative. But Father Williams is suggesting that the Pope is pursuing a pontificate that's different from the "God's Rottweiler" cartoon drawn by his enemies in the church and in the media. But Couric wasn't letting go of her idea of the Pope as an extremist:
COURIC: Having said that, he is very conservative. And I know a recent poll says 62 percent of Catholics believe the church isn't reflective of their views. Does that mean entertaining issues like women as priests or use of birth control will be really off the table as long as he's Pope?
WILLIAMS: I think they will be off the table, Katie. I think the way he would respond to that is that the church is really called to challenge people and not so much to be a reflection of society as a challenge for society to be at its best. And I think that's the way he thinks of it.
It's fascinating to observe how anchors complain that subjects like women's ordination are not up for debate at the Vatican, and then they fail to debate them on their programs. Instead, they merely cite them as markers of progress the church is sadly failing to meet.
The other half of the six-question interview dwelled on the sex abuse scandal, and whether the church is doing enough to prevent it. (Father Williams could have mentioned that many American dioceses have grown quite thorough in prevention efforts over the last five years. In the local Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, anyone who teaches in their parish's religious education program has to be fingerprinted at the police station.) Couric suggested the church couldn't possibly be doing enough:
COURIC: According to a recent poll, about three quarters of Catholics disapprove of how the church dealt with the sex abuse scandals. Even Pope Benedict said he was deeply ashamed. Is enough being done to prevent that from happening in the future?
WILLIAMS: Well, I think the Pope has done everything he could to reassure us right now that they're trying. And I think that he underscored one particular means, which is the screening of candidates for the priesthood. He said on the plane, better to have fewer priests but good priests than a lot of priests but allowing anything.
COURIC: What else can be done, though?
WILLIAMS: Well, the other thing that's being done is actually how to deal with the abusers themselves, the one-strike rule which says that once a priest has been found to have offended, instead of shuffling him around, giving him another chance, really he has to be removed from the priesthood.
COURIC: So you don't think we'll be hearing about these scandals well into the future?
WILLIAMS: Well, I hope not, Katie. I think that human nature is what it is, and sin will always be among us. But I think that they're doing everything to just nip this in the bud.
As Couric cited these poll numbers (from the Washington Post), she and Father Williams did not discuss one problem with the polls: that they include anyone telling the pollster they are Catholic, regardless of whether they attend church regularly -- or attend church at all. If you quit attending meetings of any other voluntary organization, would you still be considered a member?