Time magazine reporting of 1978 now looks both quaint and prescient. Then, as now, everything hangs on the choice of the next pope

I was on my way to morning assembly when my friend Smith called out: “Oy, Thompson, did you hear that the Pope’s dead?” I knew most boys couldn’t care less about the Catholic Church – but the Pope had died weeks ago and we already had another one. So I rolled my eyes and suggested that he really ought to keep up with the news. “No, the new Pope’s dead!” said Smith triumphantly. He’d heard it on the radio. I still wasn’t convinced, but a shocked Brother Simon confirmed the news in assembly. Thirty-three days. Incredible.

I’ve been thinking about that surreal period because my cousin has kindly given me three copies of Time magazine from 1978. The cover stories are: “In Search of a Pope” (August 21); “The New Pope, John Paul I” (September 4); and “John Paul II” (October 30). Reading them has been quite a culture shock, especially for a magazine journalist. So many lucrative full-page ads – eight of them for cigarettes in one issue alone. Dozens of exquisitely written colour pieces, published without bylines: Time’s hacks were so spectacularly well paid that they didn’t care if their names were missing.

In the first issue, the Letter from the Publisher boasted that “three correspondents, plus a flock of stringers, had to overcome the time-honoured secrecy of the Vatican to gather the new data that supplemented the files on Paul’s possible successor, which had been building for three years.”

Much good it did them. The cover carries photographs of Cardinals Baggio, Willebrands, Bertoli, Pignedoli, Pironio – and an empty slot with a question mark. Inside, the lavish reporting further hedges its bets by including lots of second-rank Italian papabile and some foreigners, including Basil Hume. But there is no mention anywhere of the Patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Albino Luciani.

Two weeks later, Time was more prescient. One reason Luciani was chosen, it suggested, was that he was already frail at 65 and the cardinals were “uneasy at the prospect of a lengthy papacy”. The issue devoted to John Paul II is understandably wary of making predictions. But its portrait of Karol Wojtyła reads well. He was “no pushover”, having learned “the art of byzantine manoeuvre and long-range tactics”.

Liberation theologians hoped that the new Pope would be sympathetic to their programme – “but knowledgeable observers in Rome expect the opposite”. The Russians certainly sensed danger: in most Eastern bloc countries “there was a telling hiatus of several hours before press and radio broke the news”. But Peking, “which has yet to announce the moon landings”, jumped on the story.

It’s an unnerving experience, reading old magazines whose quaintness makes you laugh (“most of us find the idea of having an actual computer in the house a little frightening”) and then realising how much of it you remember. Every American public figure is dead, with two exceptions: Jimmy Carter, now in his 90s, and Jerry Brown, who is miraculously holding down the same job, Governor of California. As for Brits, the only survivor I could find was a wheelchair-bound Cambridge scientist by the name of Stephen Hawking; his 1978 profile implies he hasn’t got long to live.

Every cardinal is gone, naturally, but the articles about the Catholic Church are nothing like as dated as the rest of the content. Alas, this isn’t a reflection of the timelessness of her teaching.

When Paul VI died, the Church was still going through the identity crisis provoked by the Second Vatican Council. Paul was the pope who initiated drastic and increasingly ugly liturgical changes; he was also the author of Humanae Vitae, which dismayed Catholic liberals. By the time St John Paul died, the factionalism had subsided. It was a slow process – in his first few years, he was careful not to upset liberal dioceses – and of course there were still conservatives and progressives. But they had to operate within parameters set by John Paul. So, too, did his successor, whose supposedly hardline traditionalism evaporated once he became Benedict XVI.

Now, in contrast, the factions are again flexing their muscles. The Church, disturbed by Amoris Laetitia and several other small wars initiated by the Vatican, is dividing along geographical lines. The articles from 1978 talked about the Dutch, Latin American and Polish churches as if they were rival denominations. That way of thinking is creeping back.

The direction of the Church is once again negotiable, even if John Paul II managed to cross women priests off the agenda (and can we even be certain of that?). Like Paul VI, Francis is out of step with committed lay Catholics, the difference being that he is theologically to the left of his critics.

But an even bigger difference is that secular society takes no more than a polite interest in the Church. It’s fair to say, as it was 39 years ago, that everything hangs on the choice of the next pope. When the moment comes, Catholics will be able to draw on unimaginable amounts of information compared to 1978. But they will look in vain for the meticulous, expensive and even-handed coverage squeezed between the ads for bourbon and Buicks in my vintage magazines. Time, like the rest of the world, has moved on.

Damian Thompson is editorial director of the Catholic Herald and associate editor of The Spectator.

This article first appeared in the May 5 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.