The National Catholic Reporter has accused the Vatican-controlled newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, of bad-mouthing - from the Reporter's viewpoint - Pope John Paul by painting him as a staunch conservative.
In a copyrighted story by veteran Vatican reporter Peter Hebblethwaite, the lay-edited, liberal-oriented Reporter examines the record of Albino Luciani as priest and bishop. Their findings differed sharply from L'Osservatore Romano's characterization that Hebbleth-waite claimed "gave the world the impression that Pope John Paul was a diehard conservative, an ecclesiastical version of Barry Goldwater."
Hebblethwaite's study portrays the pope as a churchman committed to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, to broadening the base of decision-making in the church and to the avoidance of Vatican politicking.
During the Second Vatican Council, according to Hebblethwaite, the then bishop of Vitoria Veneto "lived alone in the Roman Minor Seminary, stayed out of the intrigues of his fellow Italian bishops and used the time, in his own words, 'for study and conversion.'"
Within his diocese, following the council, Hebblethwaite continued, the future pontiff's priorities were "liturgical reform, the need for the church to be genuinely poor and the theological formation of the clergy." In addition, Luciani was said to actively encourage his priests to update their training by reading journals of contemporary theological thought.
"He ran his diocese on collegial lines," Hebblethwaite reported. "He always accepted the decision of the pastoral council, even when he personally disagreed with it."
The Reporter article said that Bishop Luiciani "accepted the principle" of priests and lay members having some voice in the selection of their bishops, possibly by their proposing "four or five candidates to the pope, who then would be free to choose from among them."
Hebblethwaite wrote that "style is the key" to Pope John Paul. "He is not pompous." The writer recalled the jocularity of the new pope's appearance at his first Angelus, the day after his election, and predicted: "There will be more laughter in St. Peter's Square."
Hebblethwaite criticized L'Osservatore Romano's widely quoted biography "Four points in particularly were stressed and none were reassuring," he wrote. "John Paul was said to have denied that any crisis of priestly identity existed,' which is rather like denying that grass is green.
"He was said to have denounced 'false pluralism' while advocating something called 'sacred pluralism'. He also denounced, it was alleged, theologians who were more interested in personal glory than in orthodox. And, reportedly, he was an intrepid and unquestioning supporter of Humanae Vitae.
"All of this suggested a negative pontificate in which condemnations and excommunications would fly thick through the air," he wrote.
Hebblethwaite's version of how the voting went at the secret conclave had Sergio Cardinal Pignedoli (a progressive) and Giuseppe Cardinal Siri of Genoa (a conservative) ahead of Luciani on the first ballot.
Franz Cardinal Koenig of Vienna, Eduardo Cardinal Pironio of Argentina and Joseph Cardinal Cordeiro of Karachi each received "a scattering" of votes, he wrote.
Luciani continued to gain strength until, on the fourth ballot, he received the required two-thirds plus one majority.
The Reporter article clears up one other mystery of the papal conclave, namely the chimney that refused to produce the white smoke signaling the selection despite the addition of chemicals for that purpose.
Said Hebblethwaite, the reason the smoke came out black at first: "they had forgotten to clean the chimney."