Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 20, 1999
TV documentary on pope limited by secularism
At times, PBS documentary rises up to give pope, the Church a fair shake
By GLEN ARGAN
The most basic fault of mainstream media when it turns its attention to the Catholic Church is to judge the Church by how well it lives up to the precepts of late 20th-century secularism.
Invariably, the Church is found wanting. It doesn't ordain women to the priesthood, it views contraception and abortion as intrinsically immoral, and it refuses to water down its teachings in order to supposedly keep up-to-date.
There is certainly lots of that thinking in John Paul II: The Millennial Pope which runs on PBS-TV the evening of Sept. 28. But what is most interesting about this 2-hour Frontline documentary is the number of times it rises above stereotypical secularist thinking.
There is the story of Donald Cabana, a practising Catholic and former warden of the Mississippi State Penitentiary. Cabana oversaw the executions of numerous murderers, but had growing doubts about the death penalty following the release of the pope's encyclical The Gospel of Life.
Cabana tells of ushering the last young man he executed into the gas chamber. The man told him, "I love you. Thank you for treating me like a human being. I love you for that."
Cabana adds: "Inside that gas chamber, both that young man and myself suddenly discovered clearly what I think the pope's message is about the culture of death - we discovered that there is dignity that a human being is entitled to."
There is the story of Gilbert Levine, a Jew who came to the Vatican to pray with Pope John Paul after the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
"There were no words spoken, and yet I knew who he was in communion with," Levine said of praying silently with the pope. "It was transforming, and in my spiritual life I have never been the same."
The Millennial Pope is a serious effort to do a fair TV biography of Pope John Paul. It portrays the pope as "a man standing against his time."
At some points, the program falls seriously short.
It falls short when, because of the Church's stands against contraception and women's ordination, it portrays the pope as being "obsessed" with seeing women as nothing more than bearers of children.
Although the program is determined to provide counter-balancing opinions on other issues, it's strange that it has to stoop to vilifying the pope as a misogynist without providing any comments which might help to explain the Church's position.
It also falls short when it in effect says, either that one favours liberation theology or one supports the status quo of grinding poverty for the masses of people in Latin America. Whatever one thinks of the Church's attitude towards liberation theology, it's hardly fair or accurate to portray this pope as a supporter of Third World oppression.
One need only to recall Pope John Paul's words north of Edmonton 15 years ago - or at dozens of other venues - to get a different picture.
Still, Catholics are getting used to having the pope and their Church's views misrepresented and bashed about in the secular media.
What is refreshing about The Millennial Pope is that, while it does air plenty of dissident views, it also provides many moments when it is clear that the Church is on the side of humanity and that faith is an utterly reasonable response to the human condition.
The pope is portrayed as having a dark view of the 20th century. But is that so unreasonable?
It is well worth pondering the closing words of the program, spoken by Washington Post reporter Robert Suro: "On the one hand, the pope can seem this lonely, pessimistic figure, . . . a man so dark and so despairing that he loses his audiences. That would make him a tragic figure.
"On the other hand, you have to ask: Is he a prophet? Did he come here with a message? Did he see something that many of us are missing? In that case, the tragedy is ours."