There is something disarmingly likeable about Mark Dowd. Following on from his benign article about Pope Benedict in The Catholic Herald last week, his film on BBC2 last night, Benedict: Trials of a Pope, was not the waspish hatchet job that one would expect from, say, fellow journalist Polly Toynbee, who was furious with the Church yet again in the Guardian earlier this week. (It can’t do her blood pressure any good.) Indeed, I got the distinct impression that he respects – if not reveres – the Holy Father, but feels constrained by the task of making a BBC documentary into taking a heavy public “stand” on controversial issues.
In the article he wrote, Dowd agrees that “when you have to make a one-hour programme on one of the most clever and gifted people on the planet you have to look behind the headlines and angry rants on the blogosphere. In short, you have to do justice to the man as best you can.” This, in Trials of a Pope, he has sincerely tried to do. Of course, he still has to ask portentous rhetorical questions in the Beebspeak manner: “What is the Benedict agenda?” “Is being on the throne of Peter now a poisoned chalice?” “What happened to the Rottweiler?” and so on.
He also feels compelled to interview an elderly German academic by the name of Hans Küng, who is sad that the young and progressive Ratzinger of the heady 1960s, when the world and the Church were young and everything seemed possible, had finally settled for dull old conservatism. Fancy: the Pope even admitted to Kung, “I have to keep the tradition”, when brave Kung himself, talking in his heavily accented English, “tried to digest [the 60s student protests] intellectually”.
Admittedly, although Dowd doesn’t challenge Küng – TV programmes don’t have the time for proper debate – he doesn’t spend much time with him. He seemed more at ease with the pianist Stephen Hough and a priest, Fr Stephen Wang, to whom he put “tough” questions on the Church’s teaching about homosexuality. How can such a holy and loving man such as the Pope use such strong and hurtful language about this orientation? Fr Wang’s response was calm, clear and courteous – a model reply to a subject which, like child abuse, often causes a volcanic reaction in the media.
Dowd, himself a homosexual, was determined to be positive, commenting on Fr Wang that he “puts a gentle gloss on some very difficult teaching.” No fury, no fireworks. There was a moment of unintentional humour when he spoke to a pretty, young, red-haired woman, recently married, who said she had spent her honeymoon in Rome. Learning that she agrees with Church teaching on contraceptives, Dowd is concerned for her: “You might be at risk of a large family?” He gets a polite and feisty reply to this.
Predictably, the issue of child abuse crops up again and again. “Should he resign the papacy?” asks Dowd. “In my opinion – no.” I am sure the Vatican will be relieved to know that Dowd is on their side over this one. John Allen, of the National Catholic Reporter, also comes over as moderate and sensible in his views: Benedict is “a great teaching Pope”; it is clear he had no personal involvement in the abuse scandals.
The documentary includes several shots of Dowd on public transport and walking up steps and across piazzas. I have to say he does not do these walk-on bits with the panache of the late Lord Clark when he was shown strolling beside fallen pillars in the great Civilisation TV series. But this is an unfair comparison: Clark’s series was a high water mark of BBC excellence and Dowd is doing his best in a very different, less patrician and more vulgarised world where nothing is sacred.
Dowd’s final thoughts: “I never thought I would hear myself saying this,” but might it not be time for the return of the Rottweiler, to clean up the Church? Funny, I thought that was what he was doing.