'Absolute Truth': another media 'job' on the Catholic Church

'Absolute Truth': another media 'job' on the Catholic Church

Michael Gilchrist

During Pope John Paul II's concluding address on 14 December 1998 to members of the Australian Conference of Bishops on their ad limina apostolorum visit to Rome late in 1998 (see pp 3-5), the Holy Father had occasion to comment on the role of the mass media: "Unfortunately, the teaching of the Magisterium is sometimes met with reservation and questioning, a tendency sometimes fuelled by media interest in dissent, or in some cases by the intention to use the media as a kind of strategem to force the Church into changes she cannot make."

A case in point was the recent four-part BBC documentary - Absolute Truth - which looked at developments in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council and considered her prospects in the third millennium of Christianity in the light of various perceived threats to her claims to "absolute truth". It was screened on ABC-TV last November-December in prime viewing time on four consecutive Sunday evenings after considerable advance promotion. A book on the series has been promoted in the ABC's network of shops.


One hoped against hope that at long last the ABC would screen a documentary on the contemporary Catholic Church that approximated objectivity and accuracy. However, despite an aura of academic expertise and detachment that accompanied Absolute Truth, in reality, it provided a forum for some of the Church's high-profile dissenters to apply further pressure for changes which, as the Pope put it, "she cannot make." And for many viewers, the "absolute truth" would be that claimed by the program, and not the Church's.

In technical and journalistic terms the series included revealing interviews with many key participants and historic film footage covering such areas as Vatican II, Pope John Paul II's impact on Eastern Europe, the Church in Latin America, Africa and Asia, and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

At a deeper level, however, Absolute Truth proved to be yet another example of the media's deep-seated bias towards the contemporary Catholic Church that has now become commonplace. In fact there is an unconscious irony in the program's title. For while its creator and presenter, Edward Stourton, continually emphasises the challenges to the Catholic Church's claim to "absolute truth", he and his team of progressively-minded commentators repeatedly pontificate, offering their own "absolute truth" that insists the Church accommodate herself to the beliefs and values of the secular world, which are held in common by both media pundits and Church dissenters.

The heavy bias of the series was evident in theological dissenter Hans Kung's frequent on-camera appearances during which he pontificates about the Pope, the Vatican and Church teachings.

The program's Consultant was John Wilkins, editor of the liberal-leaning London Tablet, so the fact that the program largely mirrored the editorial viewpoint of The Tablet came as no surprise, along with an ideology reflecting the agenda of groups such as Call To Action, We Are Church, and Australian Catholics Networking for Reform. There is never the faintest suggestion that there might be a respectable opposite - orthodox - reading of the situation. It is continually asserted that there is only one 'right' way for the Church to go if it is to survive - to accommodate and water down its teachings and disciplines to comply with 'modernity'.

While Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was on camera periodically to reply to charges made about a resurgent "Inquisition" and other "obectionable" features of the present Vatican and Papacy, his reasoned contributions served as little more that tokenism, given the series' clear agenda.

In part one of Absolute Truth, we are assured that until Vatican II Catholics had turned their backs on the 20th century - which might come as news to the many Australian Catholics who have been prominent in all areas of public life throughout the 20th century. Robert Blair Kaiser of Time magazine, who 30 years ago reduced the Council to a good guys (progressives) versus bad guys (conservatives) power struggle in his regular Time reports, made a number of appearances to repeat his 1960s interpretation of the Council.

Stourton repeats the progressive mythology of liturgical reform that the Council called for an end to Latin in the Mass and having the priest "with his back to the people." The liturgy document - presented in part one of Absolute Truth as the cutting edge of the "revolution" - said nothing of the kind, calling indeed for the retention of Latin and Gregorian Chant, while suggesting that some use of the vernacular could be helpful. Pope John XXIII, repeatedly typecast as a revolutionary, had issued a document earlier in 1962 that insisted on the continuance of Latin.


With the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963, we are told by Time's Kaiser that in electing a new Pope, the Cardinals were "passing judgment on John's revolution." Paul VI was duly elected as "the man who would continue John's revolution."

An early "betrayal" of the Council, we are then informed, came with Pope Paul VI's encyclical, Humanae Vitae. "Catholics in Pope Paul's modern Church," according to Stourton, "hoped the spirit of revolution behind the Council would impact on the traditional teaching on contraception too." But "the conservatives had not accepted defeat" and the Pope was "vulnerable to another conspiracy by the Curia." With the release of Humanae Vitae in 1968, the Vatican retreated into "a bunker mentality" and "loyal Catholics were beginning to question whether their Church did possess absolute truth." A succession of "loyal Catholics" appeared on- camera to express their dismay, shock and opposition to the encyclical. There was no sign of any orthodox comment, say from someone like Professor John Finnis, a well-known British apologist for Humanae Vitae.

Much of part two of Absolute Truth was a straightforward coverage of Pope John Paul II's impact on the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. This is one area on which Catholics of most shades of opinion are agreed. There were informative interviews with Edward Gierek, Polish Communist Party Leader from 1970-1980, Lech Walesa, General Wojciech Jaruzelski and Mikhail Gorbachev.

However, for Absolute Truth, the Pope's significant role in the defeat of Communism merely served to underline the "contradictions" in his Papacy - especially his later opposition to liberation theology in Latin America.

In Poland, following the arrival of the Western free market, John Paul II "did not like or understand what he found." In 1991, says Stoughton, "he hectored the crowds he once inspired". The Polish Church's refusal to give "a respected gynaecologist," who had publicly supported abortion and subsequently died in a car accident, a Church funeral was evidence that the Church under John Paul II was using "its power against the people in the name of absolute truth" and failing to compromise "even when it is out of step with the world around it." Kung again pontificates: "In many ways he [the Pope] does not understand the world."

Part three of Absolute Truth, titled "On the Frontline," was essentially an apologia for liberation theology, with ample scope for theologians Leonardo Boff and Jon Sobrino to state their cases. The first third of the program was devoted to the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, "one of the prophets of the new Church." It sets a sympathetic and emotive context for subsequent discussions of liberation theology, which Stoughton describes as deriving from the "new energies and ideas generated by the Second Vatican Council."

An admiring portrait is next presented of Fr Tony Terry, an Irish priest "inspired by the spirit of the Vatican Council", who moved to the Recife diocese in Brazil, where the bishop was "a champion of liberation theology."

The program's romanticised, simplistic treatment of liberation theology, as something embraced by the Church's grass-roots in Latin America, overlooked the inconvenient fact that the grass roots threw out the Marxist Sandanista Government in Nicaragua - one much admired by liberation theologians - at the first available free election in the 1980s.

The program treats the Vatican's disciplining of Leonardo Boff in a biased manner, with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith described as the Church's "ideological police force" and successor to the Holy Office of the Inquisition "where the scientist Galileo was condemned for saying the Earth turns around the Sun and this is where the punishment for heretics is still decreed."

Rome's "next target," we are informed, "was the Church leadership in Latin America." In Recife, a new bishop opposed to liberation theology is appointed. Two radicalised seminaries are closed, while the one left and run by the new bishop "is rigidly controlled," harking "back to the days before the Vatican Council ...". Fr Terry, among 18 foreign priests "driven out or resigned" from the diocese - is given a lengthy final word. He declares that "the people have lost hope."

Next we are shown the Church in Africa, including some "inculturated" African- style liturgies. In Rome, "the guardians of orthodoxy are wary." In the face of an AIDS crisis in Zambia, a Polish nun feels compelled to support the use of condoms, although an African archbishop defends Humanae Vitae. The situation is crystal clear to Stoughton: "In Africa Church teaching has been tested against reality and found wanting. But Rome remains unbending just as it did when the priests of Latin America became radicals in the name of the poor."

In part four of Absolute Truth Stoughton comments that John Paul II, with "rebellion and the threat of disintegration in Europe" and the challenges of "old religions" in the Church's "new frontier, Asia," now "sometimes seems at odds with the spirit of the Second Vatican Council." Then follows a lengthy and sympathetic portrayal of Fr Tissa Balasuriya, the Sri Lankan theologian excommunicated for his heretical writings, until an accommodation was reached with Rome after 12 months.

The program's theme of the Holy See's suppression of local Church autonomy is contradicted here by the fact that it was the Sri Lankan bishops who first took action against Fr Balasuriya. Archbishop Fernando of Columbo states that "the contents of Fr Balasuriya's book [Mary and Human Liberation] stand condemned."

Next, Stoughton tells us to the accompaniment of sombre music that "the full weight of Roman power was brought to bear." The Vatican's Australian-born Cardinal Cassidy might comment: "You practically wipe out half the Church's doctrines if you accept that book," and that Fr Balasuriya "was given every opportunity." Cardinal Ratzinger might also explain the Church's position persuasively. But to no avail. As far as the program is concerned, Balasuriya remains another "progressive" martyr, along with Boff and Kung.

Stourton concludes that the episode "shocked theologians right across the Catholic world" for "now it seemed Rome rewarded fresh thinking with harsh punishment." Balasuriya, himself, was "like the victims of the old Inquisition."

Absolute Truth then turns to India, where local efforts to "inculturate" Christianity into the predominant Hindu culture have caused concern in the Vatican that the faith is being diluted in the interests of accommodation with paganism. Stourton dismisses such concerns: "The new generation of conservatives in Rome are trying to regain the control their predecessors lost at the Second Vatican Council more than thirty years ago ... John Paul II and the men he has gathered around him fear the Faith is being undermined by the revolution the Council began ... The Vatican Council tried to bring the Church into the 20th century. Now it's once again in conflict with much of the modern world."


Absolute Truth concludes - predictably - with a rejection of the Church's stances on clerical celibacy and women priests. The former is "at the heart of the crisis in the priesthood," while the latter is dismissed by a British women's ordination activist, Emma Winkley, as "just ridiculous." Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Runcie, suggests - with unconscious irony - that on the matter of accepting women's ordination "the Anglican Church can teach something to the Catholic Church." Stoughton explains that "the question of women priests" (like everything else in the progressive wish-list) is linked to "the revolution that began at the Second Vatican Council."

Stoughton concludes: "At the last Council, the deeds of ownership to the Church were transferred. They left its Roman centre and passed to its people across the world. They will never be returned, no matter how jealously the Vatican guards its right to a monopoly on absolute truth."

As indicated, much of what was passed off as "absolute truth" in this documentary may well have been accepted as such by many Catholic viewers, who take their cues from the secular culture rather than the Church's teachings. That is of obvious concern to Pope John Paul II.

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