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

Who Am I?

The pope talks about gay people.

Pope Francis made an extremely peculiar remark about gay people yesterday: “If they accept the Lord and have good will, who am I to judge them?” The pundits and Vaticanistas went into a frenzy of speculation as to whether this signaled his intention to change the Church’s policies in any number of areas. My interest was more in the phrasing that the pontiff chose: “who am I to judge them?”

Who is he? He is the guy with the Keys to the Kingdom. He lives in Rome; he must have seen the crossed keys that are displayed nearly everywhere. There must be at least one hundred sets of them in St. Peter’s Basilica alone. According to the most central doctrine — bar none — of the Catholic Church the pope, and only the pope, possesses the authority to determine the requirements for eternal salvation. The words of Matthew XVI encircle the dome of St. Peter’s: “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Other opinions are immaterial. “Roma locuta est, causa finita est.”

The Church has never made a big issue of homosexuality. No pope has ever come down as hard on gays as, say, the nineteenth-century popes did on the Freemasons. So, the inclusive tone of Pope Francis’s message did not surprise me, but I found the wording to be absolutely astounding. I have read a considerable amount about every single pope, and I can never recall even one of them who expressed the slightest doubt that he had the authority to condemn a set of acts, a lifestyle, or a specific person. I also cannot remember any pope who considered “good will” as an overwhelmingly mitigating factor when exercising his pontifical judgments.

It is inconceivable that Pope Francis does not know the official interpretation of Matthew XVI. It is the sole basis for the canonizations that he recently announced. So, the only conclusion that seems reasonable is that this pope considers himself qualified to judge that at least two men were worthy of eternal salvation, but he does not feel that that his authority allows him to condemn actions done with “good will.” Pope Urban VI, for one, certainly felt no such reluctance. He formally excommunicated King Charles of Naples three times a day for several years.

Reflections on the Conclave

Assessment, predictions, etc.

Now that the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI has come to an end, it is time to reflect on its achievements and shortcomings. Actually, it is difficult to think of much to put in either category. Benedict continued virtually all of the policies of his predecessor. He had none of Pope John Paul II’s flair, however, and nothing that he did comes close to matching the latter’s accomplishment of serving as the wedge that toppled the Iron Curtain in Europe. I would say that no pope since the end of the Papal States in 1870, with the exception of the short-lived John Paul I, has been less influential. If Benedict XVI is remembered for anything, it will be for his attention to his appearance. He hired a new tailor, wore fabulously jeweled crosses, and, of course, he often appeared in his red Prada loafers. He was almost certainly the most style-conscious pontiff since Paul II, the flamboyant Venetian of the cinquecento. Benedict even made a splashy exit by taking a helicopter to Castel Gandolfo, which can be reached by car in an hour or so.

The conclave was much shorter than I expected, but the outcome was exactly as I predicted. The electors chose a male Catholic. According to the reports of the most reliable vaticanisti, no woman received more than 20 percent of the vote on any scrutiny (the official term for a round of voting in a conclave), and no Jews or Muslims were seriously considered.

The new pope selected the name Francis. He has not personally disclosed the thought process behind this choice, but a Vatican spokesman has announced that “Cardinal Bergoglio had a special place in his heart and his ministry for the poor, for the disenfranchised, for those living on the fringes and facing injustice.” So, it appears that, until the pontiff expresses himself, we must conclude that he was dedicating his pontificate to the memory of St. Francis of Assisi, the thirteenth century ascetic who founded the order now known as the Franciscans.

So, what can we expect from a new pope named Francis? Based upon my years of research of papal history and fully cognizant that my heretofore perfect record of pontifical predictions is on the line, I confidently make the following two predictions:

  1. There will be no change in the official Church policies on ordination of women or abortion.
  2. We have seen the last of the red Prada shoes and the bejeweled accoutrements for a while.

That a Jesuit such as Cardinal Bergoglio would take the name of the founder of another order is certainly peculiar. There have been a couple of Franciscan popes before. By some strange twist of fate, in fact, the pope who suppressed the Jesuit order, Clement XIV, was a Franciscan.

Evidently Pope Francis wants Catholics to focus their attention on the spiritual matters that were important to St. Francis in the thirteenth century rather than the material concerns that he had completely forsaken. As a matter of fact this same dichotomy was the focus of a rather famous controversy that came to a head ninety-eight years after the saint’s death in 1226.

A lot had transpired in the interim. The order established by St. Francis had grown dramatically. The popes for the last seventeen years had not been living in Rome; instead they had usurped the bishop’s residence in Avignon in the Provence and had transformed it into a colossal palace/fortress for their own use. The resident at the time was an irascible and miserly figure named John XXII. His was the sort of pontificate that Scrooge McDuck might have been aspired to if he had been a Roman Catholic cleric.

The Fransiscan order at the time was split into two sects, the “Conventuals” and the “Spirituals.” The latter argued that St. Francis and Jesus before him had ordered their followers to reject all of their worldly possessions in pursuit of spiritual salvation. The Conventuals opted for a more lenient and less literal interpretation. A previous pope and council had ruled in favor of the Spirituals, but Pope John issued a bull that endorsed the position of the Conventuals.

At this point the story gets interesting. The Spirituals argued that the matter had already been settled by the pope and council. The fact that John XXII was contradicting established doctrine was irrefutable evidence that he was not in fact a legitimate pope! John XXII responded with another blustery bull, Quia Quorundam, in which he declared their positions as outright heresy.

Pope John meant business. Sixty-four of the Spirituals were summoned to Avignon. Some were remanded to the Inquisition, and four of them were burned at the stake in Marseilles.

Incidentally, when Pope John XXII died in 1334 he was so rich that some people thought that he had found the Philosopher’s Stone and that it gave him the power to transmute base metals into gold.

A Jesuit Pope

A short history of the Society of Jesus.

The new pope is a member of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuit order. He is the first pope to be chosen from the ranks of the Jesuits. The Jesuits, apart from the pontiff himself and the four Jesuit cardinals, are known for their simple black robes, Most of them are teachers and missionaries. Many of the most well-known Catholic universities in the United States — Georgetown, Boston College, Marquette, St. Louis University, and all of the Loyolas to mention a few — are run by the Jesuits.

I know a little about them; I went to a Jesuit high school for four years. I can still remember my very first religion class there. Fr. Bauman began the first class by challenging us freshmen to answer the following question, “The Bible: book or books?” I was very impressed that he actually wanted us to think about it. Prior to that day religion classes for me consisted of memorizing the catechism and speculating about whether one could use water from a car’s radiator for an emergency baptism if it contained antifreeze.

The primary reason that no Jesuit had previously been elected pope is that all Jesuits swear an oath that they will not accept any such election. That Pope Francis felt compelled to break this vow might be the most underreported story of the entire event. The other reason is that Jesuits have been so historically controversial that they were actually disbanded for decades by one of the popes whom they swore to serve. This is a story worth telling.

The Jesuits were founded in the sixteenth century by a Basque mystic known as Ignatius Loyola. The group devoted itself to the pope for two purposes: to counter the intellectual arguments of the Protestants and to spread the faith outside of Europe. They were more successful at the second objective than the first, largely owing to the fact that they were perfectly willing to adapt to the customs and cultures of those whom they aimed to convert. In China they worked so closely with the emperor that one of them helped him manufacture cannons. The Jesuits there learned Chinese language and customs and even adopted Chinese modes of dress. A few Confucian notions were even integrated into the celebration of the mass. The results were overwhelmingly positive.

In Latin America the Jesuits likewise converted huge numbers of natives to Christianity and fought hard against their enslavement by the Portuguese. This struggle was dramatically portrayed in the 1986 movie, The Mission.

For two centuries the Jesuits amassed tremendous power in the Church. The process of their ascendancy, however, ruffled a few feathers. The Dominicans objected to their unconventional tactics in the Far East, and eventually they were recalled from their missions in China and India by Pope Benedict XIV. The Bourbons and other European powers complained about their activities in the New World, which occasionally ventured into entrepreneurial realms that competed with the activities of the kings and their relatives. Matters came to a head in 1767 when all Jesuits were rounded up and banished from Spain. In 1774 Pope Clement XIV issued a bull that officially disbanded the order. Within a month he died a horrendous death, and many blamed the Jesuits for poisoning him.

The Jesuits were officially suppressed, but they did not disappear. Jesuit priests were still priests, but their order had no official standing. In a few countries they continued to operate openly, but in most places they were forced to keep a very low profile. In 1814 Pope Pius VII reinstated the order after four decades of suppression, and the Jesuits almost immediately resumed their positions of influence, which they have maintained until yesterday, when one of their number assumed the Throne of Peter to lead the entire Church.

Incidentally, the correct answer to Fr. Bauman’s question is “Books.”