In his book Can We Save the Catholic Church? (London: William Collins, 2013) Hans Küng casts a very cold eye on the massive PR-savvy rallies that began to be a hallmark of the contemporary papacy with the actor-pope John Paul II, who was convinced that focusing media attention on the papacy through massive well-staged (and lavishly funded) rallies, especially featuring young Catholics who were familiar with rock stars from popular culture, would save the Catholic church.
Küng notes that while the kind of Catholic youth that attend such rallies (who are, he points out, decidedly in the minority among contemporary Catholic young people) are happy to cheer for the carefully crafted "traditionalism" spoonfed to them by the hierarchy, they have no deep contact with or knowledge of the Catholic tradition for which they are cheering. He writes,
Moralizing papal platitudes are given a cheering reception by the young people at the huge youth rallies with the pope, even as those same young people continue using the pill and condoms, leaving the vestiges behind on the very grounds where the day before they had so enthusiastically cheered the pope (54).
He also points out that the youth drawn to these rallies are members of the church's new right-wing Catholic movementi and are drawn primarily from young Catholics in southern Europe and Poland (230). They are therefore in no way representative of most Catholic youth today, he argues.
He adds that "many Catholics are alienated by the slick, media-savvy, ostentatious papal personality cult that spares no expense to demonstrate militant Catholicism," and he notes that immediately after "Pope Benedict’s spectacularly staged visit to England," Ushaw College, the last Catholic seminary in the north of England, was closed at the same time that news of the closure of the 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery Weingarten in Upper Swabia was announced (231).
His conclusion about the rallies:
The monstrous triumphant rallies staged for the predecessors of Pope Francis do not demonstrate strength, but instead reveal the extent to which the Church has become largely an external façade for an interior urgently in need of repair (231).
As Küng also observes, the popes who have governed the church since Vatican II up to Pope Francis appear to have been under an illusion that the Catholic church can survive its current crisis and avoid implosion by setting up a church that is a defensive bulwark against post-Enlightement modern culture, with its liberal-democratic tendencies and its secularizing impulse. The PR tricks are part and parcel of this attempt to establish the image of a church that rivals modernity and is a fortress against it, in which the people of God can safely shelter as they reject the Enlightenment, modernity, liberalism, and democracy.
In Küng's assessment, all of this has been a rather grim failure — the attempt to set up a triumphalistic, PR-savvy bulwark to rival the modern world, along with the attempt to establish the bulwark at the price of running away critics, theologians, the many Catholics who refuse to accept key papal teachings such as those about sexual morality. This is what has spectacularly failed:
the belief that centralization and bureaucratization can modernize the Church and intensify its claims to power by setting up an alternative Roman Catholic world in opposition to the modern secular world, and by arresting the growing alienation between the Roman hierarchy and the Catholic people with improved PR tricks and sanctions against dissenters (249).
Which is to say, the papal reigns of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI spectacularly failed to address the deep sickness unto death within contemporary Catholicism, and they contributed significantly to that sickness by refusing to face it honestly and proposing, instead, expensive, futile nostrums for it, many of them dictated by super-rich elites who have a vested interest in helping the papacy "manage" the church by squelching dissenters and amping up the lavishly funded mega-rallies.