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Maureen Dowd Has Opinions About John Paul II

Listen up, everyone, because Maureen Dowd has some serious thoughts about this weekend's big double canonization. You'll find them in her April 23 column: "A Saint, He Ain't" (which, fortuitously, was published just after Alex Pareene's latest blog post detailing "Why Friedman, Brooks, and Dowd Must Go"). It's got all of that trademark Dowd style, which is what makes it so darn awful.

The trouble with Dowd's column is not that she is (as you have probably guessed) critical of the decision to canonize John Paul II. The trouble is that she's writing about it the way she writes about everything else: analysis via insult. Shallow thinking applied to serious subjects is her metier. It's bad enough when her topic is politics -- Pareene's latest post reminds readers of the time she turned a misquotation of John Kerry into a meme, and it is depressing to contemplate just how prominently her smart-alecky-potshot approach figured in the 2004 presidential campaign.

But Dowd's cute turns of phrase and offhand way with facts are particularly painful when she turns to writing about the church, as she does now and then, from her not-that-I-care-but-you-should-care-what-I-think perspective -- and I find her shallow arguments especially irritating when I more or less agree with her basic conclusions.

In this case: Dowd thinks John Paul's failure to act more decisively to address the sex-abuse scandal during his papacy should be counted against his legacy. So do I. She thinks canonizing him now reads as a sign that making things right after the scandal still doesn't rank as the priority it should in Rome. So do I. But I'm not prepared to go so far as to say "he ain't no saint," as she does, and not just because I don't think in rhyming punch lines. "Saint" is a term that has a number of different, overlapping connotations. Being a saint -- that is, being in heaven -- is one thing. Being officially declared a saint by the church is another. You can believe with all your heart that John Paul has gone to the Father's house and still question the wisdom of a ceremony celebrating that fact not ten years after his death. And then there is the question, a fraught one, of how the policy successes and failures of a papacy should figure into a man's case for sainthood.

So, the trouble I have with Dowd's taking this topic on is not that she's completely wrong, but that she's not thinking or writing seriously about something that I think deserves serious comment. It's not that she's scornful or dismissive of the whole charade -- she wants to take on what she knows is a grave subject, but without any proportionate gravity in her approach.

John Paul was a charmer, and a great man in many ways. But given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain't no saint.

The first sentence alone demonstrates how this column's subject and style are at war: it starts out snide, and then it's as if Dowd suddenly remembered to try to sound like she wants to be taken seriously. And the second sentence has the form but not the content of an argument: is it given that the sex-abuse crisis having happened during John Paul II's papacy means he is not a saint? Things would be a lot simpler if it were. But listing the things that went on while John Paul was pope, and then vaguely asserting his direct responsibility for them, doesn't do the trick. It's hard not to conclude that the rhyming conclusion here is leading the analysis instead of the other way around.

Dowd's breezy summary of the issues -- John Paul's appeal to conservatives and neoconservatives, Benedict XVI's role in promoting his cause, the Marcial Maciel Degollado affair, as well as John XXIII's contrasting legacy, John Paul II's not-so-neoconservative moments, and even the recent United Nations report (but of course) -- covers a lot of ground and brings up a lot of relevant points, but never convinces me that she's really reflected much on what it all means. And there are bum notes throughout: "The Vatican had a hard time drumming up the requisite two miracles" for John Paul, she says, making you wonder what she expected -- if they had brought forward five immediate claims of miraculous healings, would she have said, "Well then, that seems convincing"? And nine years is pretty quick; how long did she think this should have taken? And most significantly, does she know that the Vatican actually did not drum up the requisite two miracles for John XXIII? Yes, she does, because she writes about that later in the column: "the newly christened Pope Francis" -- Hey "christened" is a religious word, right, so it'd probably be clever to use it here -- "tried to placate progressives by cutting the miracle requirement from two to one to rush John XXIII's canonization." Dowd doesn't seem to mind that decision. But she didn't go back and change her suggestive line about "drumming up" the miracles for JPII, either.

In the same sentence about JPII, she refers to "Pope Benedict XVI, known as John Paul's Rasputin." Was he? By whom? Do you think she meant "rottweiler"? Is she aware of what it usually means when you compare someone to Rasputin? I am honestly not sure. She also, later, refers to Maciel as "the dastardly Mexican priest," which is an awfully cutesy way to characterize his crimes.

The personal holiness of John Paul II, and his theological teachings, never come up, though they are usually cited as the basis for his reputation for sanctity among the faithful. I am very sympathetic to an argument that such factors shouldn't outweigh the practical legacy of his papacy when it comes to canonization. But Dowd doesn't even touch on them. Her concept of what it means to call someone a "saint" is completely secular.

The church is giving its biggest prize to the person who could have fixed the spreading stain and did nothing. The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn't stop here.

"Its biggest prize" is a pretty shallow way to think about what sainthood is, but this is a Maureen Dowd column, so that's to be expected. But that second sentence is the one I'll quote back at you if you write to me to convince me that Dowd -- who, let's not forget, has received journalism's biggest prize for commentary -- is a great or even a pretty good opinion columnist. This is what happens when you take a topic like religion and sexual abuse and try to run it through the Maureen-Dowd-column-generator. The Dowdian template calls for a jokey line, optimally a turn of phrase related to some cliche. And so we get "The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer..." The trouble is, first, right when you're laying blame for the sex-abuse crisis at the feet of the former pope and present candidate for sainthood is actually not a good place for a joke, at all. And second, this is not actually a joke. It is at best a reference designed to make it sound like you know what you're talking about that ends up doing the opposite -- kind of like the "newly christened Pope Francis" line, or the bit at the beginning establishing that Maureen Dowd went to Mass on Easter Sunday, and they sang "Amazing Grace" to the tune of "Danny Boy." (How...would that even work?)

There is a sentence in the column that suggested, for me, the worthwhile analysis we might have had, in a better world that expected more from its newspaper columnists. Noting that "spectacular" mistakes can overshadow even the greatest accomplishments when we evaluate a leader, Dowd writes, "Lyndon Johnson deserves to be secularly canonized for his work on civil rights, but he never will be because of the war in Vietnam." That got me thinking: what would it mean to "secularly canonize" someone? Is it even possible for presidents, or have we shut the door on that after Lincoln (with a cut-down-in-his prime exception for Kennedy)? Reflecting on that could be a way in to examining the political side of non-secular canonization, which is the only side Dowd seems to be interested in anyway. She doesn't seem to notice, though, that when she quotes Kenneth Briggs saying that John XXIII came out of his five-year papacy "free and clear" while John Paul is under a cloud, she is naming one big reason the sainthood call is less fraught for Good Pope John: his papacy was short. Had he presided over the aftermath of the council he began, or had he been in the papal chair for another twenty years of upheaval in the church and in the world, he too might have a cloudier legacy.

There are a lot of good reasons to criticize, doubt, or argue about the decisions to canonize these two popes. Or any popes, for that matter. Maureen Dowd even mentioned some of the big ones in her column. But it's still an awful column. Opinion writers have to be more than basically right about the big stuff; they have to think things through carefully and then bring the rest of us along in doing likewise. They have to know when to be cute and when to be careful. Because when they're reductive and glib, and especially when they're prominent and (for some reason) taken seriously as Thought Leaders, they contribute to a general dumbing-down of discourse about things that are important. Dowd ends this column by characterizing the canonization of John Paul II as the church "winking at the hell it caused for so many children and young people in its care." But it's hard to take that indictment seriously coming from someone who doesn't ever seem to have a problem with winking.



Commenting Guidelines

“This cancer began in a specific geographical place, the United States, in the form of isolated cases.":

Wow! If that is what he really said, Navarro-Valls is totally out of it. It would be correct to say, "This cancer began TO BE WIDELY KNOWN in a specific geographical place, the United States, in the form of isolated cases." The cancer itself already was worldwide and out of control before it began to be known. If he still, in this day and age, thinks of the problem as being as small at the start as the first public inklings of it were, then he is still thinking of the problem as a blot on the church and not crimes against children. And with the problem as big and as widespread as it turned out to be, the Vicar of Christ was SUPPOSED to know about it before the NCR and the Boston Globe. That's  in the job description

Navarro should not be allowed to speak for Christ's church. He is a nincompoop and a disaster.

At the risk of self promotion- and becoming a target for nearly all who've posted in this blog - I'll mention my letter in NYT today... just to add grist to the mill whether you agree or not...

Check out the reflections of Fr. Thomas Reese SJ on NCR site and the four articles on AMerica website... all worthwhile, I think., in varied opinions about the efficacy and "integrity" of this process.


Personally, while I don't have a better ide and actually know well teh person who was the "first miracle" of St, Marianne Cope, ofm and beleive she truly was a "saint," the whole "miracle process" seems so...arbitrary?

The naming of saints is so complex and political.. can we do better in recognizing holiness worth emulating?

I note that a number of commenters have used the words "satire" and "satiric" to describe Dowd's work.  I don't read her regularly (as I don't subscribe to the NY Times) but I have read quite a few of her columns over the years.  Whatever the genre of this particular column, it's not satire.  In essence it's quite earnest, although it attempts to be earnest in a breezy style that (in my opinion) doesn't consistently succeed. 

I don't know if there are any prominent columnists these days who are master satirists.  Humor is so hard to write, and we live in an age that is more prone to seethe than chuckle.  We could probably use more good humorists and satirists.


Jim P. No one can write satire anymore. I am having dinner tonight with a two-time Pulitzer Prize winning cartoonist who retired because he cannot top this: Florida, whose governor says we can't afford to expand Medicaid, is about to spend $3.7 million (through the Ministry of Sunshine) to promote "medical tourism."

Jonathan Swift would break down his quill in two.

What is the word for the opposite of a miracle?


In the case of the collapsing 100-foot crucifix, I'm tempted to go with "engineering failure." But if we're limited to one word, it may have to be "coincidence." I'm hoping that "crime" and "devilry" can be ruled out.

It's possible, I suppose, that canonization and a too tall crucifix both arise from an entirely unsupernatural grandiosity as much as from reverence. Such is the spirit of the age.

Ann Olivier,

I don't doubt that John Paul II loved young people. The question is whether when this came up against other things, which did he choose? Did he choose protecting the property and reputation of the Church over ensuring the safety of children? Did he show more interest in investigating priests that were too friendly with gays, feminists, and communists than priests who raped children from their parish? Did he choose to ignore information suggesting that a powerful political ally was acting in a deeply immoral manner?

Calling him stubborn doesn't excuse his failings. A person who abets evil via stubborn ignorance is at fault for not correcting their ignornace.

I would venture that if a miracle is a blessing, then perhaps the opposite is the word "curse".  Could this be seen as that? Is there enough to point that even beyond the falling of a crucifix that much of this has fallen under the concept of curse?

It has just come to my attention that this is Dowd's second time (at least) writing on John Paul II's unworthiness for sainthood. The first time was when he was about to be beatified in 2011. It's a bit more sober but still scattershot, and just as unreflective on what precisely sainthood means, or how "worthy to be declared a saint of the Catholic Church" might differ from "worthy to be one of Maureen Dowd's heroes." Anyway, for what it's worth.

"Listen up, everyone"?  That's how she begins her column criticizing the writing style of an award-winning columnist?  Listen up, everyone.  Terrible opening.  It discounts whatever comes next.  Unless we're in a hoe-down or something.  

Pretty sure my deleted comment could be reinserted here.

Ryan --

I'm certainly not denying the objective evil of their lack of action.  But there are sometimes extenuating circumstances, both internal to a person and external to him/her, that makes the person not as responsible as would be he case without those circumstances.

Do you always act with totally good or totally evil motives?  I bet you don't either. 


For what its worth there are a number of canonized saints who do not deserve the title of "Saint."

JP II might well be in that category.

David Pasinski --

Good point in your letter about other leaders with feet of clay.  But my problem with JPII is that the sex scandal wasn't the only problem with his papacy.  The re-centralization of the Church structure seems to have been entirely his doing, and his bad, even unjust  treatment of some theologians was also a very large fault objectively.  In other words, it wasn't just his feet that were made of clay.  While he had some big virtues, I'm not sure that on balance he was exceptionally holy.  How do you balance these things anyway, when God is the only one who really knows the facts.

I am struck by the absolute absence of any discussion in this blog post and comments about the victims of sexual abuse by the clergy.  Dowd mentions victims in two paragraphs and vastly underestimates their number.  It is not thousands, it is millions of children.  In the United States alone there are an estimated half million victims in the second half of the twentieth century. The John Jay report enumerated (but did not name) 4392 priests for whom there was a credible allegation of sexual abuse of a minor. The National Institute of Mental Health states that the typical male who sexually abuses children has 117 victims in his lifetime. Do the math!  513,864 in the USA..


The Diocese of Rockville Centre website once reported that less than 10% of childhood victims of sexual abuse ever make an allegation.  There are many legitimate reasons why a child would not come forward, but just because the victims are unknown to the Church and to us, it does not mean that we should ignore them.  Sexual abuse of minors is epidemic, but rarely discussed.  There are reports that one in three girls and one in seven boys have been sexually abused as a child.


When the discussion of the merits of John Paul’s sainthood fails to acknowledge the victims, whether deliberately or not, it causes pain to survivors.  Victims need to know that we understand their struggle, that they will be believed, and that they are loved.  The institutional Church fails to recognize this, but Maureen Dowd does.

Please, always remember the victims and let them know that you understand their struggle.

Thomas Myles- without wishing to dispute any of the facts and inferences you make in your most recent comment, and without wishing to scrub John Paul II's record in any way, my view is that the pope, who often is mischaracterized as an absolute monarch, cannot make the sexual abuse scandals disappear, nor right all the wrongs that have been done to children.

To be sure, popes can do more than John Paul II did.  Nevertheless, I think we need to resist the characterization of John Paul II, or any pope, as Bogeyman In Chief of the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church.  The best remedies available, such as they are (as there is no sure remedy for abuse that already has occurred), are more local in nature.  Those remedies belong to local bishops, to clergy, to staff members, to parents, to local law enforcement - those of us at the grass-roots.  The Holy See can play a role in insisting that best practices are consistently followed across dioceses across the world.  We may see some welcome and long-overdue movement in that regard, and more can be done, particularly in regard to holding bishops accountable.  But I think it would be wrong to hold John Paul II responsible for the abuse of those thousands or even millions of children.  Surely the preponderance of culpability lies much closer to the sins and crimes.


Jim Pauwels, to be clear, I did not characterize JPII as "bogeyman in chief".  My difficulty is with those who are rushing to judgment on his canonization, while at the same time too little and too slowly has anything been done for victims.

One remedy is to release all information about known predators and those who covered it up, whether it was last week or last century.  Surely a pontiff can exercise his power to right those wrongs.

A number of years ago, I brought my daughter to accepted students days at both NYU and Fordham.  My daughter fell in love with Fordham partly due to Father Joseph McShane's sales pitch (I don't mean that in a pejorative sense -- but that's what this whole process is).  During his sharing Father McShane said that NYC was the "capital of the world". He went on to say that it wasn't Ed Koch or some other Big Apple celebrity to claimed this, but Pope John Paul II.  So, Father McShane continued, if we had a problem with the this boast we'd have to take it up "with a saint in heaven".  

So that's the rub. Subito for JPII.  Form a committee for the survivors. To whom should subito apply first? 

Fr. Thomas knew what John Paul II knew about the sex abise crisis and when he knew it:


That should have been Fr. Thomas Doyle.

After reading the Fr. Doyle piece that Alan Mitchell linked to, I suggest "Enabler in Chief."


I disagee with Mollie's take on the Dowd column.  I think the column and its style represent an important point of view.


I also enjoyed the New Yorker article that Bill Mazzella linked to.


I find Jim Pauwels  statement that the Pope "cannot make the sexual abuse scandals disappear" a red herring.



Tom Myles above really gets to the core of my own critique of MWO's rather superficial treatment of Maureen Dowd's article:  Focusing on the Catholic Church leadership's cowardly response to the sexual abuse and exploitation of children by priests and bishops.

Dowd writes for a different, wider and bigger audience than just us Commonweal lifers.  And I think she scores a bullseye by looking at JP2's canonization in light of the legacy for survivors.

The timing of JP2's canonization would be greatly improved if the Vatican waited until after a significant passage of time so that its much heralded commission could actually initiate much needed reforms in response to the abuse scandal.

I would start by the release of all personnel files of credibly accused priests; genuine good-faith efforts to identify as many survivors as possible; and dismissal of any hierarch who acted in complicity with the assaults.

Let the healing begin.  Then let's think about canonization for JP2.

I would start with the revision of statute of limitations laws across the country. For those in the USA, write your legislator and urge them to support passage of bills which are outlined in the link below.



As noted, I encourage all to read Fr. Tom Doyle's article posted on NCR website. It is quite damning.

Also, the accompanying article noting that the postulator for JPII's sainthood noted his sleeping on a cold floor and self flaggellation as signs of sanctity is quite telling... and in my mind - although traditional signs of penance -in this age, plain weird.

And now we have this, The Politics of Saint Making  

One would think that one saint could recognizze another, so why did JPII block the canonization of the martyr Ocscar Romero?

There were reasons why canonization took so long in the past, the saint had to stand the test of time.  Benedict fast tracked JPII to preserve his legacy of roilling back Vatican II.  I am beginning to think that sanctity is a construct that cannot really be tested.  JPII knew well why it was important to do away with the Devil's Advocate.  Had the people in St. Peter's square known what we now know of JP II I wonder if they would have chanted Santo Subito.



Ann, if you haven't already you should read Fr. Thomas Doyle's column in NCR.  Pope John Paul II was informed of the sexual abuse of minors from at least the mid-80s on.  The kindest spin that can be put on it is that he was in denial - a very human defense mechanism, but one that doesn' let him off the hook for gross negligence.  He was an authoritarian and very attached to his own opinions and apparently unmoved by the evidence.  This hurry-up canonization does not serve the Church and though probably not intended, is a direct slap at survivors and their advocates.

In New York, the Child Victims bill has passed the Assembly 6 or 7 times.  It never has come up for a vote in the state senate, thanks to the paid lobbyists hired by the NY state bishops and orthodox Jewish groups.  I have not contributed to the Bishops Annual Fund in 5 years.  If only one of them would come out publicly and say he was for passage of the bill, I would send my contribution to his diocese.  But, no.  They live in fear.

Ann and Tom - there actually is a hymn that begins "Amazing Grace will alway be my song of praise" that is very much based on the original. It is sung to the tune of Danny Boy - it's in our parish hymnal. 

As an aside - a parish priest once showed me that Amazing Grace surprisingly enough can be sung to the tune from the theme song of "Gilligan's Island." Do with that what you will.

From Wikipedia:

"Londonderry Air" was also used as the tune for the Southern Gospel hit "He looked beyond my fault" written by Dottie Rambo of the group "The Rambos"

Amazing Grace shall always be my song of praise,
For it was grace that bought my liberty,
I do not know just why He came to love me so,
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.
I shall forever lift mine eyes to Calvary,
To view the Cross where Jesus died for me,
How marvelous His grace that caught my falling soul.
He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.

If it doesn't have "a wretch like me," it can't be "Amazing Grace." One of our former pastors used to mutter, "I'm no wretch" every time the choir or congregation sang it. Sometimes his mic picked up his mutter. I told him about the author, but he still wasn't buying. But he never banned it.

It never has come up for a vote in the state senate, thanks to the paid lobbyists hired by the NY state bishops and orthodox Jewish groups.  

It has never come up for a vote because the elected leaders have chosen for it not to be brought up for a vote. Never forget who is responsible and accountable and that goes for the citiznes of New York, including Maureen Dowd, and many contributors and subscribers.

While I do not criticize the efforts of anyone attempting to change the statute of limitations in New York State (or elsewhere) I think it is important to know what is being proposed.  I am not an expert in these matters, but my understanding is that the Markey bill would eliminate any statute of limitations in criminal proceedings in sex cases, but it would not be retroactive.  In civil cases there would be a one year window to revive old cases.  If someone has better knowledge, please offer it.


As I wrote above, less than 10% of victims ever make an allegation.  Thus the proposed legislation may help some victims, but it is not a panacea. Perhaps the best result of successful legislation would be the discovery phase whereby Church records could be legally obtained.

Eliminating the timeframe to bring a criminal case would still be problematic. District attorneys may be reluctant to take an old case because of the difficulty of convincing a jury of the guilt of the defendant.   

I am still waiting to hear any priest say, “I knew Father Joe was accused of pedophilia and he was living in my rectory and I said nothing. I am sorry.”

If it doesn't have "a wretch like me," it can't be "Amazing Grace."

Tom - you probably know that some hymnals offered, probably still offer, optional substitutes like "That saved and set me free."  




You are correct on the statistics and not laying a charge or being found not guilty is different than being innocent. And not all victims avail themselves of that option. And no it is not a panacea but it is just.

In Canada, the statute of limitations has long been removed for criminal cases of sexual abuse. I know from being very close to people going through this that is is healing for the victim that there is a finding against the perpetrator. And, yes, standards of beyond a reasonable doubt are applied and this can indeed be challenging.

My experience is more with families and the dynamics associated with denial, shock, sadness, etc. Certainly, that is true for the Church family too and I see some of that, by analogy, occurring with the hierarchy often taking the place of mothers becoming aware that their husbands abused their children or step-children.  But, at the same time, it is a useful, albeit painful process that will at least bring to the fore some additional practices for the Church and a sober reflection on the damage that sexual abuse does have on many people's lives.

And, more importantly, for those who have undergone it, there is validation from a court that what happened to them was wrong and finally someone is holding them accountable. 


Plus it is a tangible, demonstrable action that we can do to faciliate justice. It is healthy, mature, and responsible and removes the wheat from the chaff. Legislation reflects our vlaues and commitments.

Jim P, What has the world come to when hymns need to be bowdlerized?

I'm with Tom Blackburn on the "wretch" front. If our egos are too tender to bear the term, we should sing a different song. And, for the record, I think that the Dottie Rambo song trades on a classic to croon a muddle of pop psychology mixed with sentimentality and old-fashioned evangelicalism. Amazing grace is just a MUCH better hymn. This, instead, is a sentimental comfort song. It's pretty indicative of the composer's shallowness that she had to steal BOTH "amazing grace" and the londonderry tune in order to ride their coattails to popularity.

Thomas Myles ==

There was one case of a priest who defied his archbishop and went to the press.

Back in 1990 Fr. James Tarantino lived in the same rectory as Fr.Dino Cinel, who taught history at Tulane at that time.  Fr. Tarantino noticed that Cinel would bring boys to stay with him and then found pornographic tapes in Fr. Cinel's room.  Fr. T. notified the Archbishop, who did nothing at that time.  Fr. Tarantino proceeded to tell a local newspaper, which broke the story.  After that the Archbishop did take action. 

When checking out the date of the case just now, I found a 2011 article which says that Cinel is now trying to sue the Church because he himself (he claims) was abused by a priest when he was a child!  Pots and kettles???  But, of course, the Vatican is ignoring him still.

Disgraced ex-priest Dino Cinel takes his case to Vatican |  

Madness, madness, madness.

P. S.  I should say in defense of the Archbishop that later he did seem to see the error of his ways, and apparenly he ended on good terms with Fr. Tarantino.  When the AB retired he chose to live in Fr. T,'s parish and said Mass there on Sundays.  Fr. Tarantino should be remembered as one of the heroes in this terrible, terrible mess, but his name seems about forgotten.  So I keep bringing up his story.  He was a great priest.  

John O'Leary did a great job summarizing why JPII should not be a saint. 

Mollie, any organization in this country that had a leader ignore the same kind of problem would have their CEO summarily fired and escorted out the door.  This mismanagement has cost $3 billion plus in this country alone.  Look at Penn State, for example.  There is a saying "the fish rots from the head down".  So, I think it is obscene that JPII was made a saint and Maureen Dowd calls it right.  Somebody has to.  Even today, the Vatican tells the United Nations they cannot control the rest of the Church.  What a bunch of baloney.



The one to ask about what JP2 really knew about clergy-bishop abuse of the vulnerable is Tom Doyle who once was a JP fan. And i stopped caring about officialdom's "saints" when they hoisted up Escriva. For shame, and only one more example of cries for truth and justice ignored in favor of the massive papal ego.