Canonization of Two Popes

Do they deserve it?

Two popes will be canonized on Sunday, John XXIII and John Paul II. Maureen Dowd has recently written in the New York Times that there was only one halo between them, and it belonged to John XXIII. She objected to the way that John Paul handled the numerous scandals caused by abusive priests. Particularly offensive to her were the ways that he dealt with Cardinal Law and the unbelievable story of Marcial Maciel Degollado. Dowd argues that these shortcomings outweigh the good that the pope did in other areas, most especially his role in the overthrow of the Communist regimes in eastern Europe.

If you take the question seriously, and she almost certainly does, the first issue must certainly be establishing criteria for evaluating a pope’s determination that someone is worthy of canonization. The theory behind this (and much of Catholic doctrine) is entirely based on two verses in the Gospel of Matthew. The pope, as the successor to St. Peter, has the Keys to the Kingdom. If he says that someone is in heaven, then that person is there. Live with it.

It is therefore clearly heretical for Dowd to claim that Pope Francis is wrong in canonizing John Paul II. I have not read about anyone calling her a heretic, but it seems obvious to me that an article entitled “A Saint He Ain’t” puts her in the camp of Jan Hus and Giordano Bruno, and the last thing that entered their nostrils was the stench of their own burning flesh.

One could, of course, consider this from the perspective of a historian of the Church. Did these two popes do an outstanding job of promulgating the Church’s message and advancing its principles? That seems to be the approach that Dowd took, but many Catholics would think that she has it backward. To them John XXIII took the first steps on the Church’s disastrous journey to becoming a more humanistic and less dogmatic institution. John Paul II, on the other hand, stood up to the Commies and helped restore respect for the traditions and doctrines throughout the world.

There are several other ways of looking at this. The first is to compare these decisions with the canonizations of other popes. Only three popes who served since the eleventh century have been canonized, and they had almost nothing in common. It is therefore not easy to make intelligent comparisons, but I feel confident that the historical record indicates that the recent popes seem at least as saintly as the previous trio. I made that case here.

Another approach is to judge the popes by the standards of Church history. How closely Pope John Paul was involved in decisions to cover up the clerical abuse cases is not clear. I would argue that even if he personally decided to stonewall on the issue, that was consistent with Church principles and the actions of previous pontiffs.

In the first place one should bear in mind that the most basic Catholic doctrine concerns forgiveness and redemption through the sacraments. Even the most serious sins can be forgiven, and even the most incorrigible offender can be given a second chance. The most outrageous pope of all time, the first John XXIII, was, after being convicted of five serious felonies, eventually welcomed back into the Church and was even restored to the rank of cardinal. The most serious crime in the Church’s eye is not murder or rape. It is heresy because the heretic is actively recruiting others to reject the Church’s teaching. He (or in this case she) is actively trying to deceive others with the expressed intent of denying them access to the means of achieving salvation. The Inquisition was specifically convened to exterminate these people and their ideas.

So, while no pope* would condone pedophilia, a person who commits pedophilia is just an ordinary sinner. All people are sinners, and the way that the Church deals with known sinners has been consistent throughout its history. If they show contrition and have “a firm purpose of amendment,” they are forgiven. They are probably counseled to pray for sanctifying grace and to avoid “near occasions of sin.” The same rule applies to children who disrespect their parents and to serial killers and rapists like the first Pope John XXIII.

Furthermore, priests are special people. They alone have received the sacrament of Holy Orders. The Church has always preached that this confers upon them divine grace that empowers them both to administer the sacraments, the only path to redemption, and to spread the Church’s message. These men have always been considered a valuable resource that is to be husbanded.

In this context it is perfectly reasonable for Church officials to keep quiet about the foibles of one of its priests, all of whom, after all, are sinners. It is perfectly reasonable to expect the officials, assuming that the offenders repented and seemed sincere, to forgive the abusive priests and to try to help them with their problem by moving them away from temptation.

How many times should you do this before you consider them beyond the pale? The Bible says that the answer is 490 (Matthew 18:22)! I have not heard of even one priest who approached the biblical limit on forgiveness.

And what of mental illness? Aren’t the pedophiles sick? I don’t know, but this way of looking at things is not consistent with Church teachings. The fact that some people are more strongly drawn to one type of sin or another is not really germane. We all must struggle with the temptations that come our way.

Of course, the Church’s approach does not consider the rights of the victims. From its perspective, however, we are all mistreated in one way or another. Our job is to “offer it up,” forgive the sinner, and to try to use the experience as a way to increase our own resolve. I don’t remember anything in the catechism about hiring a lawyer to sue the Church for millions of dollars.

* * *

In sum, I have no idea whether either pope is actually in heaven. I think that they are both admirable men. If neither is in heaven, I don’t want to go there either. I do want to go to Africa to see the animals, and I hope to visit Italy several more times.


* Well, maybe one. Pope Julius III had a very strange relationship with an adolescent ironically named Innocenzo.

Person of the Year?

Are words and symbols enough?

TimeSmallTwo popes had previously been named Time magazine’s Man of the Year. John XXIII was chosen for 1962, the year that he opened the Second Vatican Council and charged it with bringing the Church into the twentieth century, or at least the Age of Enlightenment. It was a dramatic decision. The Church had not convened an ecumenical council in a century, and that last one was called to rubber stamp decisions made by Pope Pius IX. In contrast, John XXIII had set in place a mechanism for listening to new ideas and implementing the best of them.

MOYSmallJohn Paul II was chosen for 1994. By that time the pontiff’s role in undermining the Communist governments in eastern Europe was becoming clear. He provided spiritual support for all of those movements, and he did much more than that for Poland. Many people still do not realize that the Vatican bank underwrote the political campaigns of the Solidarity Trade Union that eventually brought independence and democracy, not to mention the resurgence of Catholicism, to the Polish people.

Plenty of Catholics would argue that either or both of these two dynamic leaders were misguided (or maybe even tools of Satan), but no one could claim that they were ineffective or that their acts were of little consequence. Both pontiffs were masters at public relations, but they also knew how to convert their popularity into meaningful changes. They were actors.

Bestowing this title on Pope Francis seems to me comparable to giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama in his first year in office. I suspect that the people in Oslo would like a do-over on that one. The evaluations of both of these men seemed based not on what they had done so much as what their predecessors had done. Obama seemed ready to disavow Bush’s doctrine of preventive war, and Francis has at least eschewed the plodding mannerisms, luxurious accommodations, and red Prada shoes of Benedict XVI.

FrancisPope Francis has certainly made a number of startling statements and gestures. It is difficult to imagine any of his 263* predecessors uttering the words, “Who am I to judge?” His washing of the feet of others and, indeed, his choice of the name “Francis” were no doubt acts of symbolic importance.

But what has Pope Francis actually done? I read the Time article to see if I missed anything. OK; he has set up some commissions to look into some tricky issues, but that is the same tactic that Clement VII employed back in the sixteenth century to put off Henry VIII’s request for an annulment of his marriage. The only actual act that I could find was the elimination of the rank of “monsignor.” I suppose that that is something, but it did not go far in eliminating the hierarchy. There are still deacons, priests, bishops, archbishops, patriarchs, cardinals and who knows how many other levels. The curia may feel threatened, but it has not yet been attacked directly.

Don’t tell me that Pope Francis has done everything that he could be expected to do. He is the man. He can make judgments! For example, he could eliminate the ban on contraceptives tomorrow morning right after his two hours of prayer. There is no basis in scripture, and the reasoning is convoluted. Other popes have contradicted their predecessors on far weaker grounds.

Someday Pope Francis may be widely recognized as a great pope. I strongly feel that Time should have waited for that day and instead selected someone who sacrificed his livelihood if not his life to bring to light the shenanigans in and around the NSA.


* Pope Francis is #266 on the list of popes, but Benedict IX’s name is there three times

The Two New Saints

I did not see this coming.

The Vatican recently announced that Pope Francis would canonize two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. This is truly astounding news. Only three popes since the eleventh century have been canonized. Each of those should probably include an asterisk.

  • Detail of a fresco in Castel Nuovo in Naples.

    Detail of a fresco in Castel Nuovo in Naples.

    Celestine V (1294) should never have been pope. He was a reclusive and ascetic hermit, who had had little contact with humankind for decades. He never even made it to Rome; he took up residence in King Charles’s castle in Naples. After five months of incompetent bungling he was persuaded to resign by his successor, Boniface VIII. The latter promptly imprisoned Celestine, who died in his cell. The King of France, Philip the Fair, hated Pope Boniface, and, after the pontiff died, the king worked hard both to have Celestine canonized and Boniface condemned. He succeeded in the first, but not the second.
  • PiusVFacePius V (1566-1572) was a Grand Inquisitor before he was elected pontiff. He set up a network of spies and informants who fingered people who blasphemed or expressed opinions that could be considered heretical. He also tirelessly strove to rid the world of all forms of evil, and that included Protestants. He conspired with Catherine de’ Medici to exterminate the Huguenots in France. Their plot culminated in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which occurred a short time after the pope’s death in 1572.
  • PiusXPius X (1903-1904) campaigned against “modernism,” which in his mind included nearly everything that St. Thomas Aquinas had not thought of by the time that he died in 1274. He banned much beautiful music (Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, et al.) from the liturgy. I have long thought that he must have been tone-deaf. He continued the fiction perpetrated by his two predecessors that he was a prisoner in Vatican City. He did not take sides in the runup to World War I, but he definitely admired Kaiser Wilhelm.

All three of these men were saintly, in that they prayed both fervently and continually throughout their lives. I, for one, am happy, however, that very few of their prayers were answered.

When Pope Benedict XVI paid scant attention to the cries of “santo subito” that rang out during the burial ceremonies for his predecessor, John Paul II, I assumed that canonization would not be coming for decades, if then. Many popes have been beatified, but naming one as a saint has been considered by Vatican-watchers as a politically risky move. I never thought that John XXIII (1958-1963) had a chance.

TimeSmallBoth of these pontificates were somewhat controversial. Pope John called the Second Vatican Council, which, in the minds of millions of conservative Catholics, started the Church on a long downward slide. A strong feeling persists among a very large segment of the clergy that he lowered standards to the point that the Church lost its way. They played guitars during mass! Also, he told jokes.

MOYSmallThe highlights of John Paul’s pontificate included his many celebrated trips around the world. The first visit to Poland helped to coalesce the Polish people around the idea of Christianity as a counter to Communism. There is no question that the pope contributed a great deal to the struggle that eventually resulted in the fall of the Iron Curtain. The millions of dollars that the Church directed to the Polish Labor Union Solidarity enabled it to become a political force strong enough to oust the puppet regime and begin the process of freeing the central European countries from the clutches of Russia.

Pundits have speculated that John Paul’s seeming disinterest in the many clerical sex abuse cases would weigh heavily against the prospects of his canonization. Among the clerical hierarchy this might not be that important. Most of them would have done the same thing if they were in his brogans.

Bishop Paulius Marcinkus.

Bishop Paulius Marcinkus.

On the other hand, there is the little matter of the Vatican Bank scandal that spanned the last years of Paul VI’s pontificate and the early years of John Paul’s. If there were still a Devil’s Advocate process, I wonder how the person defending the pope’s reputation would answer the charges that the bank lost hundreds of millions of dollars while engaging in schemes that involved some of the shadiest characters around, at least two of whom ended up murdered. The director of the bank, an American named Paulius Marcinkus, was indicted by the Italian government, but he was never arrested because he avoided Italian soil by staying in Vatican City. Pope John Paul definitely protected Bishop Marcincus, who had twice saved the pontiff’s life by subduing armed assailants.

SGSmallOne good thing that may come from this unusual event is to diminish the emphasis on so-called miracles. These two men did not walk on water; in fact Pope John hardly ever walked on land because in his time the pontiff was still carried around in the outrageous sedia gestatoria! The miracles mentioned these days almost always are based upon testimony that someone was cured of a fatal disease or injury because someone prayed to the new saint or used an object related to him to effect a cure.

I assumed from what I had read that the conservatives in the Curia were too powerful for any pontiff to consider nominating John Paul II, much less John XXIII, for canonization. In theory the pope can do whatever he wants, but every pope in the last few centuries has been careful about stepping on the toes of those of high rank. Maybe their power was just overrated; maybe Pope Francis just doesn’t care. It will be interesting to see if any backstabbing results from this.

I know one thing: conservative American Catholics cannot be happy. John XXIII was an unrepentant liberal, and John Paul II, although conservative when it came to doctrinal matters, had absolutely no use for George W. Bush and his wars. He personally persuaded several leaders to vote against the UN resolutions concerning the invasion of Iraq.