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Posted April 27, 2005

Heady days — but not as clear as we pretend

By Owen Phelps
Rockford Diocese

What is it . . . that people so hate about uncertainty?

It’s the human condition. We can be certain about very little. Even scientists tell us that.

Science is not the place to go for certainty. Probability, yes. Certainty, no. The only place we can find certainty is in faith.

And that’s not good enough for a lot of people. They want rock solid certainty.

It’s not a new hunger. Adam wanted it. So did Eve.

And if you’ll recall from your scripture studies, whether or not they were historical beings, they most certainly were archetypes for all people. The authors of Genesis are telling us that we all have a problem: we wish “to be like gods.” We each want certainty in and of our selves.

That doesn’t explain . . . all the talking heads on TV and in the newspapers telling us how this new pope, Benedict XVI, is going to behave.

Money explains them. Mass media is a business. It’s commerce: 24/7 news pays, especially when something big is going on, like a war or the death of one pope and the election of another.

Money explains why the airwaves and the news columns were these past two weeks full of information — much of it fascinating — about two popes.

But our drive for certainly explains why we watch and read so much of it — especially from the commentators.

I watched, listened and read until I couldn’t take it any more.

I loved the live coverage. I hated the pundits and all the speculation.

It would not be good TV . . . for someone to declare the obvious truth — “We can’t predict the future so we don’t know what this new pope will do” — and for the panel of prominent folks to then sit there quietly, nodding in agreement, for the rest of the program.

So instead people speculate.

Apparently, acknowledging the obvious makes for bad publishing too. One newspaper arrogantly told its readers: “New pope, same hard line.”

We journalists should be smarter than that. Or if not any smarter, at least we should have longer memories and refer to them now and again.

When Truman was nominated . . . to be president of the U.S. no one in the American media gave much thought to how he was likely to perform over the next four years.

Why not? They were sure he had no chance to be elected. All the pundits had Thomas Dewey heading to the White House in a stroll.

Months before the election, the most prominent magazine of that age, Life, ran a cover of a picture of Dewey with the headline: “The Next President of the United States.”

The New York Times, in its august wisdom, pronounced, “The [Democratic] Party might as well immediately concede the election to Dewey and save the wear and tear of campaigning.”


And what of the pollsters? Roper was so convinced of his early results showing Dewey in a cakewalk that he said in September that he would not issue any subsequent polls.


The Chicago Daily Tribune was so self-righteously, bull-headedly convinced that Dewey’s election was inevitable that it proclaimed his victory on the front page after people had actually elected Truman.

“Dewey Defeats Truman” screamed the headline at the top of the front page that President-elect Harry Truman was happy to hold up in the air for photographers to capture. So much for headlines and pundits and all of that.

You might have thought . . . the pundits would be wiser by the time Richard Nixon became president.

And you would have been wrong.

Nixon had been as overseas fiasco as vice president, so friends and foes alike seemed to assume that, Vietnam aside, he would achieve more on the home front than in foreign relations.

Instead he opened China to the western world again.

And on the home front he initiated wage and price controls.

Had a Democrat attempted either he likely would have been regarded as a socialist and a communist. And what would have happened to Nixon’s presidential aspirations if he had made these things planks in his platform?

Friends and foes alike considered Nixon a “conservative.”

So much for labels.

A priest friend of mine . . . who is very much a scholar and student of his church wrote to me after it was announced that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger of Germany had become Pope Benedict XVI.

He said that his colleagues were disheartened by the news. And that disheartened him.

“I wonder how many have ever read the serious works of Ratzinger. He is excellent when he writes, and very clear. I also wonder how many people know that he was very much at the cutting edge of trying new things in ministry when he was in Germany. I cycled through Germany several times ... He was anything but conservative. Perhaps this will come out of him now that he is his own man.”

My friend is doing two things that all of us should do a bit more of. He is wondering. And he is confronting the future in the context of perhaps.

About what the future holds . . . we cannot say. Wait, this is America. We can say any darn thing we want. Indeed, we can and we do. But we cannot say it with certainty.

And that suggests, perhaps, we should shut up and get back to work.