Building Block

It's Time for St. John XXIII

The Vatican's decision to speed Pope John Paul II on the road to sainthood aroused great elation—and a backlash among Catholics who see the rush as unseemly. There is an obvious remedy that could bring contending Catholics together and send exactly the right message about the church's attitude toward the modern world: It's time to declare Pope John XXIII a saint.

Here's a prayer that Pope Benedict XVI uses this Sunday's beatification ceremonies for John Paul in Rome to announce that the Vatican is eager to complete the saint-making process for the good Pope John, the church's great modernizer who embraced democracy and religious freedom.

And there is a natural link between the two papacies. When historians look back, John Paul's greatest achievements will inevitably be seen as liberal, in the broadest sense: his commitment to human rights and religious liberty, his calls for greater social justice, his embrace of workers' rights ("the priority of labor over capital"), and his strenuous opposition to religious prejudice. Recall that John Paul was the first pope—not counting St. Peter—to visit a synagogue, where he issued a ringing condemnation of anti-Semitism.

None of these achievements would have been possible if John had not ended Catholicism's war with modernity by calling the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. John called upon Catholics to discern the "signs of the times" and upbraided "distrustful souls" who saw in the modern era "only darkness burdening the face of the earth."

"I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in," is an adage widely attributed to John. It's a lovely idea still. Fr. Joseph Komonchak, one of the premier historians of the Second Vatican Council, likes to point to John's view that "the church is not a museum of antiques but a living garden of life."

John is already beatified, the prelude to sainthood in the Catholic tradition. But his beatification in 2000 was marred when John Paul tied it to the beatification of Pope Pius IX, one of the modern era's most reactionary popes. Pius famously referred to liberal Catholicism as "pernicious," "perfidious," "perverse" and "a virus." John's approach was the antithesis of Pius IX's, and a good thing that was.

When John died in 1963, progressive cardinals tried to expedite his beatification by way of confirming the church's new direction. Their efforts were rejected. But Pope Benedict embraced comparable efforts on behalf of John Paul immediately after his death, leading to Sunday's beatification ceremony.

The fact that tradition was enforced to block rapid sainthood for John but ignored to go full speed ahead for John Paul suggests that, yes, a certain amount of politics is involved in these supposedly otherworldly matters.

And the celebration of John Paul has been tarnished by legitimate controversy over his unwavering support for Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican priest who founded the conservative Legionaries of Christ movement and was eventually condemned by Pope Benedict for, among other things, abusing members of his order and fathering children out of wedlock with at least two women. John Paul protected Maciel; it fell to Benedict to discipline him.

On the abuse scandals more generally, Ross Douthat, the staunchly Catholic New York Times columnist, was right to note that "the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet" while the "uncharismatic" Benedict "was left to clean them up." And John Paul's vigor in condemning dissenting theologians suggested the paradoxical personality of his papacy: more liberal on many questions involving the outside world, more conservative on internal matters.

The church should have applied the same standard to John Paul as it did to John and taken more time on beatification. Nonetheless, even the most progressive Catholics have felt the draw of John Paul as a dynamic, intrepid and genuinely holy man. Having covered him for two years as a reporter, I can testify to his magnetism. As Fr. James Martin, the liberal Jesuit writer, noted this week, John Paul "was prayerful, fearless and zealous.... And, in my eyes, anyone who visits the prison cell of his would-be assassin and forgives the man is a saint."

Yet John Paul's most widely admired acts built on John's legacy. It's hard to imagine St. Augustine without St. Paul, Washington without Jefferson, John Paul without John. A church that needs to open windows again would do well to honor the pope who freed it to be refreshed by modernity's bracing breezes. 

(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group


Related: John Paul II's Legacy, with reflections by Irving Greenberg, Jim Forest, Nancy A. Dallavalle, Richard P. McBrien, Stanley Hauerwas, and Terrence W. Tilley

Topics: 

Comments

Commenting Guidelines

Agree wholeheartedly! Pope John Paul II indicated that his adoption of the name John Paul was in part his recognition of the legacy of this great Pope and leader. Would only seem appropriate to acknowledge the same respect by pushing for his canonization.

Amen Brother!  Pope John XXIII got the Church on the right track.  Pope John Paul VI did many positive things.  Neither man was perfect.  I agree more with what Pope John XXIII did in his brief papacy.  But Pope John Paul VI did many good things as well in a very long tenure.  I don't agree with every direction he took the Catholic Church over the last 30 years, but many of them were positive.  The Catholic Church should show the world that we are big enough to encompass and celebrate the strengths and gifts of both Popes.

If we are in such a rush to make Pope John Paul VI a saint, lets also bend the rule that bars a look-see - for 150 years - into the official repository of documents created during his papacy, which are under loick and key in the Vatican Library. Are we rushing to sanctify or sanatize? 

The difference is obvious:  John XXIII did wonderful things for members of the church; John Paul !! occupied himself in destroying these in order to reinforce the power of the corporate heirarchy.  Guess who decides on sainthood.

Thanks to E. J. Dionne for his welcomed insights into the greatness of Pope John XXIII and into the tarnished greatness of Pope John Paul II.  While there is difficulty in defending John Paul's protection of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, there are greater problems making Pius IX a model and patron for the Church Universal.  Maciel Degollardo is a symbol of clerical degradation but Pius IX, in wrangling through his will in Vatican I, left unresolved the issue of papal infallibility.  There are those who confuse papal infallibility with "papal impeccability." These are the ones who repeat John Acton's dictum regarding "absolute power" without considering Acton's reference.

John Paul was a masterful politician, but as a certain president of our country has stated, "no one practices politics without getting a little dirty".  His politics were clear, determinate, and forceful in attacking the worse parts of Soviet socialism.  His politics were for the most part moral and may we say in this context "holy."  But we can say it was for largely political reasons that John Paul insisted on the rapid canonizations of the founder of the Opus Dei and of the visionary Aztec, Juan Diego.  Juan Diego had every reason to be canonized, as did St. Christopher or Theodulph of Orleans from the court of Charlemagne.  Theodulph still bears the title of Saint among some musicologists for his dubious contributions to the hymn "Gloria, laus, et honor tibia sit."  Juan Diego, Christopher, and Theodulph, though objects of legend, are sources of pious inspiration as much as Sydney Carton in his Paris dungeon.

Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer seems a more honorable man than Marciel Maciel Degollardo but other than his Iberian anti-communism and a certain overt piety, he is less worthy of heavenly intercession and imitation that the mythical Christopher, the studious Theodulph, or the poor Aztec who in fact generations enthusiastic prayerfulness among millions of unfortunate but happy Mexicans.

Dionne's eminently sensible observation about the value of comparable regard for two modern Popes seems so obvious that we are left to wonder where does the thinking come from that links the fate of recgonition for John XXIII in any way, even simply the same breath, with Pius IX. That John Paul is considered to rise above his near predecessor and champion of modernity marks the trampling of the human politics of the now over the keeping of the Church's proper reverence for its leading figures of holy inspiration.

John XXIII was undoubtedly a mobilizer of the entire Body of Christ he was holy in his times; judging by the numbers of first world Catholics driven from Church by santimonious bishops appointed by John Paul it is difficult to see how the same could even remotely be said of JP. The rush to sainthood is not just untimely it is unseemly given the questions sensible people have about John Paul's none-too-subtle rejection of the modern Church as envisioned by Vatican II.

Canonize John XXIII now, let John Paul wait until a couple of papacies have passed to see just what mark he really left on the Church.

Thanks to E. J. Dionne for his welcomed insights into the greatness of Pope John XXIII and into the tarnished greatness of Pope John Paul II.  While there is difficulty in defending John Paul's protection of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, there are greater problems making Pius IX a model and patron for the Church Universal.  Maciel Degollardo is a symbol of clerical degradation but Pius IX, in wrangling through his will in Vatican I, left unresolved the issue of papal infallibility.  There are those who confuse papal infallibility with "papal impeccability." These are the ones who repeat John Acton's dictum regarding "absolute power" without considering Acton's reference.

 

John Paul was a masterful politician, but as a certain president of our country has stated, "no one practices politics without getting a little dirty".  His politics were clear, determinate, and forceful in attacking the worse parts of Soviet socialism.  His politics were for the most part moral and may we say in this context "holy."  But we can say it was for largely political reasons that John Paul insisted on the rapid canonizations of the founder of the Opus Dei and of the visionary Aztec, Juan Diego.  Juan Diego had every reason to be canonized, as did St. Christopher or Theodulph of Orleans from the court of Charlemagne.  Theodulph still bears the title of Saint among some musicologists for his dubious contributions to the hymn "Gloria, laus, et honor tibia sit."  Juan Diego, Christopher, and Theodulph, though objects of legend, are sources of pious inspiration as much as Sydney Carton in his Paris dungeon.

 

Josemaria Escriva de Balaguer seems a more honorable man than Marciel Maciel Degollardo but other than his Iberian anti-communism and a certain overt piety, he is less worthy of heavenly intercession and imitation than the mythical Christopher, the studious Theodulph, or the poor Aztec who in fact has generated enthusiastic prayerfulness among millions of unfortunate but happy Mexicans for centuries.

 

Before Vatican II Catholics who participated at Mass recited his/her belief in one, holy, Catholic, apostolic Church and most meant it. Today Mass attendance in many places is at historic lows, fewer believe in the Creed as they exercise their subjective conscience to believe or not belive the teachings of the Church. Catholic politicians boldly approach the altar, receive Holy Communion and vote the next day or so to approve Obamacare a visible approval for abortion and rationed care for premature children and the elderly based on cost effectiveness, suppport gay marriage/lesbian in  State legislatures and are silent on the efforts to overturn the Defense of Marriage Law. What has Vatican Ii wrought? A deeply divided Church, nor longer one.

Mr.Dionne presented "John Paul's vigor in condemning dissenting theologians" as a mark against him but the Pope refused to accept "liberation theology" priests and religious toting AK 47s and leading guerilla fighters and terrorists into battle as Christlike acts. Furthmore as the Pope he was responsible for all matters relating to faith and morals and it was his Papal duty to counsel and even chastise those who strayed in those matters. 

What's unseemly is talking about this process like it's a political maneuver to satisfy contituencies.  The church isn't deciding who gets to be on student council.

There is a reason for the church's action vis-a-vis John Paul, as can be seen by more than a million pilgrims coming to Rome for the beatification.  For people who constantly bemoan the bishops' failure to heed sensus fidelium, Catholic progressives are quick to ignore it themselves when it doesn't suit their views.

Share

About the Author

E. J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist, professor of government at Georgetown University, and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is Our Divided Political Heart: The Battle for the American Idea in an Age of Discontent (Bloomsbury Press).