Of Popes and Presidents

Pope Benedict XVI has visited twenty countries, which is probably more than all Popes from the early church until the 1960s combined. Of course, John Paul II, Pope from 1978 to 2005, traveled more than all previous Popes combined many, many, times over. Your columnist has had the opportunity to observe the present Pope’s visit to the UK, and the contrasts with the only previous visit by a Pope – John Paul II in 1982 – are considerable.

Tens or even hundreds of thousands have turned up to see the Pope, but numbers have run at less than half that of 1982. Of the tickets allocated for visitors for Ireland – once one of Europe’s most devoutly Catholic countries – only a third were taken up.

There are reasons of circumstance, of course. John Paul II was the first Pope to visit the UK. Though his nearly immediate predecessor, Paul VI, had traveled extensively, John Paul’s travels were monumental. John Paul II was highly symbolic. He was the first non-Italian to be elected to the Papacy in centuries, and he was the first Pole to hold the position, elected at a time of considerable East-West tension. In the early part of his Papacy, much of that tension focused on Poland. He was hugely important in the closing stages of the Cold War. The reputation of the Catholic Church has also taken a beating in the past few years with scandals around not just child abuse by priests, but the active collusion of the Church in suppressing evidence of the abuse.

While all these factors have contributed, none is decisive. Even the most devout Catholic would concede that all Popes are not created equal, and the staunchest atheist would agree that John Paul II was a deeply charismatic figure. Benedict XVI is more a consolidator than a leader of change. It could be that the Catholic Church needs a consolidator at this time. Charisma can be tiresome in its own way, and too much rapid change, especially in an organization that venerates tradition, is not always good. But it does leave Benedict looking small by comparison with his predecessor. This is probably something the Pope himself would concede. They were allies, not rivals, and Benedict has fast-tracked the Beatification, and, ultimately, probable Canonization, of John Paul.

What is, then, this indefinable trait of charisma? Speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, always insists that Ronald Reagan was not the ‘great communicator’ of media fame. He communicated great things. The left, both in politics and the media, needed to believe that Reagan had some mystical talent because they could not conceive that he was persuasive by the force of his argument. Perhaps this is as true of other Cold War heroes such as John Paul. Certainly both contrast strongly with the current US President, whose genuine talents for communication are belittled by the meanness and sparseness of his message.

But this seems a false analysis. There is such a thing as charisma. Benedict lacks it, but Barack Obama does not. He is capable of rising to great occasions. It is the narrowness of his vision that defines the great occasion. As a legislator for more than a decade he wrote no significant piece of law, but found time to pen two volumes of memoirs. He will rise to the challenge of his re-election because, in his mind, that is what matters.

Article provided by Quentin Langley
Lecturer in PR and Political Communications,
School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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