The Pope as Tinhorn Dictator? Time Writers Mock 'Useful Catholic Authoritarianism'

June 8th, 2007 10:50 AM

When covering religion, the news media has a tendency to grant the Roman Catholic Church the lion’s share of religion coverage – in part due to its size, and in part due to its centralized authority in Rome. Protestant denominations, even the evangelical Protestant mega-pastors, are covered less each year. Unfortunately, that centralized authority also leads to media caricatures of tyranny (remember New York Times editor nastily Bill Keller comparing the Vatican to the Kremlin, the Polish Pope to the Soviet autocrats?)

Time’s David Van Biema and Katherine Mayer crack a little too wise in this week’s story on Anglicanism (their cover story in the Europe and the South Pacific editions), noting not only "Roman-style lockstep," but a "useful Catholic authoritarianism." This has a very obvious whiff of politics, comparing Pope Benedict to a tinhorn dictator like a Francisco Franco or a Juan Peron. The pontiff is not a dictator, and no one is forced to join a Catholic church or forced to obey its moral dogmas.

The Time writers would say this is a small passage making a whimsical note that Protestants sometimes might wish for a little ecclesiastical whip-cracking, a growling "God’s Rottweiler," but it also betrays secular journalists’ feeling that every church is merely a democracy, and hopefully, each is a democracy secular journalists can help rule by trying to keep churches from the secular sin of being "outdated" and betraying the cultural "mainstream." Here’s the passage:

Anglicanism matters, and not just because it is one of the largest Protestant denominations. It matters because, like Roman Catholicism, it is global, uniting varied ethnicities, economic levels and social attitudes in an overarching understanding of faith. But Anglicans have foregone Catholicism's useful authoritarianism, staking their unity on a seemingly more attractive continual conversation, based on mutual respect. The sharp debate over homosexuality threatens that unity, and crystallizes a challenge facing everyone in an uneasy, newly wired world: can the North — rich and imbued with an ethos of individual rights — and the poorer South find a constructive interdependence?

Van Biema and Mayer should be commended in balancing their labels, that at least as they refer to one side as "archconservative" and "very conservative," they routinely use the word "liberal" and even pass on a Williams joke that he was a "hairy lefty" in his youth. But notice how they elide the issue of what Scripture says: the North has a rights ethos, and the South has a – what? They’re just poor and have a different ethnicity, apparently. The writers make no attempt to explore on their own that the Bible is quite clear on the sinfulness of homosexuality. It’s commendable that they report just how "progressive" the Archbishop of Canterbury is in reinterpreting Scripture, or declaring the plain text somehow "nonscriptural." What?

In 1989 he delivered a lecture to Britain's Lesbian and Gay Christian Movement in which he stated: "If we are looking for a sexual ethic that can be seriously informed by our Bible, there is a good deal to steer us away from assuming that reproductive sex is a norm." He continued: "The absolute condemnation of same-sex relations of intimacy must rely either on an abstract fundamentalist deployment of a number of very ambiguous texts, or on a problematic and nonscriptural theory."

The next time liberals complain that objectivity is a terrible journalistic method because it somehow lets truth and falsehood have equal places in the public conversation, show them this passage. This Anglican leader is allowed to argue that Scripture is ambiguous or nonscriptural – and the supposedly truth-obsessed reporters cannot seem to spend five minutes finding the passages in the Bible that would make all of this obfuscation quite obviously wrong.