Do the media have to be cynical about every election?

Timothy Philen Freelance writer
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From a rumbling standstill to a roaring Winternationals peel off the line, the next election is suddenly full throttle.

And this past Monday, Chris Matthews opened “Hardball” with a breaking news analysis presuming that we will not see a woman in the top job, even though abortion, contraception and gender equality will continue to be hot-button issues for nearly one-third of Americans.

According to Matthews, the election will be won by a center-right male of Italian descent who is already very warmly regarded by the incumbent, who, as we know, will not be running.

Could it be Andrew Cuomo? Not conservative enough. Rudy Giuliani? Not warmly regarded. But what about Chris Christie, whose mother was Sicilian and whose “Bachelorette” moments on that Sandy shore have all but redefined the color of love for millions of us?

Matthews laughed that down as facetious, but E.J. Dionne wryly cautioned that the old Vatican adage might hold true: “after a thin pope a fat pope, after a fat pope a thin pope.”

Yes, folks, you heard it right.

The 2016 elections and the State of the Union address evidently weren’t enough to fill the voracious void of 24/7 cable news, so “The Race for the Papacy” is now front and center.

The “nearly one-third of Americans” I referenced are Roman Catholics who will, for the next few weeks, endure the indignity of seeing their religion reduced to a series of drag race heats, hosted by “progressive” Ivy League Catholics who, it’s easy to speculate, have no intention of being personally bound by any decision about anything by any pope or any conclave of cardinals or conference of bishops anywhere.

And to hear Chris Matthews tell it, that’s practically immaterial anyway, because the election of a pope “is a political enterprise. It’s a secular event. … My bet is that this pope wants a quick election because he wants that successor to be his guy: Scola from Milan.”

Harrumphing to E. J. Dionne about the slim chance of a liberal ending up as pontiff, he continued: “Seems to me we have two option plays here. One, we get a guy like Scola … who turns out to be more liberal than the pope thinks, and second, some outsider, some way-out candidate we never heard of … and we pull a big surprise because this guy Scola can’t put it together.”

Now, I’m no pollyanna, and like Chris Matthews, I was educated by the Jesuits, who stress critical thinking over sentimentality when judging a man’s ideas and motives, even the pope’s.

Still, this characterization of the papal election process as Machiavellian machinations in a smoke-filled room — albeit white smoke — strikes me as demeaning and even defiling, especially coming from one claiming the cloak of Catholicism. If you re-read the two quotes above and substitute “Hoffa” for “Scola” and “Trumka” for “the pope,” I think you’ll agree.

The overarching reality is that the Catholic Church has always taught that this process is ultimately under the infallible guidance of the Holy Spirit of God, despite the quotidian concerns and individual foibles of the fallible men who participate.

To be fair, Chris Matthews did confess to there being a spiritual dimension to the proceedings, with humility as well as ambition factoring in, but the clear tone of this discussion — like many others around the cable news dial this week — was crass and cynical. Which is disappointing, but not surprising.

That’s because this subordination of timeless spiritual truths to the temporal appetites of homo politicus is symptomatic of a larger problem for many within the American Catholic laity and even some religious: a desire to enjoy the comforts of a cultural Catholicism without having to submit to the teaching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, a contradiction which — as any pope will tell you — is irreconcilable.

Not that industrious Americans haven’t tried. Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills famously produced “Why I Am a Catholic,” a tortured rationalization for his simultaneous loyalty to, and contempt for, the historic Roman Church and the institution of the papacy. It flummoxed the faithful and has probably created quite a few Protestants along the way.

And why not? John Calvin was quoted as saying, “There’s a pope in every man’s heart.” If Mr. Wills and millions of other Catholics would admit that, they could simply become Lutherans and allow their Christian conscience, tethered to the scriptures alone, to be their guide.

But as it is, many American Catholics will continue to be conflicted and struggle in the practice of their faith because they don’t agree with their shepherds on matters of faith and morals. And their liberal minders in the media will continue to help justify that duplicity by painting portraits of those shepherds as less-than-holy men whose authority often comes conspiratorially from collusion with each other and not necessarily from God.

I’m not suggesting a hair-shirt revival led by Opus Dei here. And I certainly don’t mean to denigrate the NHRA. I’ve always loved watching Don “The Snake” Prudhomme “shake hands with the Devil as he roars through the gates of Hell!”

I’d just like to eliminate the “top fuel eliminator” spectacle that the “Race for the Papacy” is already becoming.

I implore all commentators in the media to exhibit some restraint — to give up any sensationalist and cynical tone and report the papal selection process with dignity and respect for the integrity of the pope and the cardinals who will do the voting.

At least give it up for Lent, for the sake of all of us: devout Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Timothy Philen is the author of Harper & Row/Lippincott’s “You CAN Run Away From It!” a satirical indictment of American pop psychology. He is currently at work on a latter-day “Walden,” a collection of essays on post-modern American culture.