Saintly Politics

Francis & His Formula for Harmony

Pope Francis is proving himself to be a genuinely holy man, a brilliant politician, and a leader who knows that reform requires a keen understanding of how creating a better future demands sophisticated invocations of the past.

Nothing demonstrated all three traits better than Francis' announcement that he would make both Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII saints. The obvious political analysis here is correct: On the whole, conservative Catholics will cheer swift sainthood for John Paul while progressive Catholics will welcome the news that an overly long process of elevating John to the same status had reached its culmination. One for one side, one for the other -- it's a good formula for harmony, something Catholicism needs right now.

But much more is going on here. Rapid sainthood for John Paul was inevitable, partly because of widespread devotion to him around the church and not simply in its conservative wing. A campaign to sanctify him took off from the moment of his death. Whatever criticisms might be directed his way -- on his sluggishness in facing up to the clerical abuse scandal, for example -- there should be no denying his standing as a world-historical figure.

His vital role in the collapse of Soviet communism will always be recognized as the product of faith married to shrewd statesmanship. And, speaking personally, getting to cover John Paul's 1986 visit to a synagogue in Rome where he robustly and decisively condemned anti-Semitism will always endure as one of the most moving experiences of my journalistic life.

But that story is a perfect example of why it was essential to sanctify Popes John and John Paul at the same time. Without Pope John, there would not have been the John Paul we came to admire.

I should acknowledge my interest here since I argued two years ago for just this result. Elevating both popes was the only way to make clear that the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council, called by Pope John, opened the way for John Paul's greatest achievements. These were, in large part, liberal triumphs involving a commitment to human rights, religious liberty and democracy as well as a stern opposition to religious prejudice and an emphasis on social justice and workers' rights.

Yet except among the ranks of scholars and older progressive Catholics, Vatican II is so often a dim memory. Moreover, there are conservative voices in the church that have sought to play down just how important the council was in opening Catholicism to the modern world. Pope John embraced modernity and the lessons it had to teach Catholics even as he was critical of modernity's failings.

By lifting up John, Pope Francis is telling Catholics to embrace this legacy again -- beginning by paying attention to it. In so doing, he will reinforce comparisons already being made between himself and Pope John.

My Georgetown University colleague John Borelli noted recently in The Tablet, the British Catholic magazine, that Francis, like Pope John, has placed a heavy emphasis on social justice, has a deep and long-standing commitment to dialogue with other faiths, and has a similar unpretentious personal style. The National Catholic Reporter has repeatedly linked the two popes and noted a few months ago that Francis expressed his affinity with the pope of Vatican II by saying: "I see him with the eyes of my heart."

What might have looked like wishful thinking on the part of progressive Catholics for a re-engagement with Pope John's approach now seems much more like a clear-eyed view of reality.

There will be questions in both cases about Pope Francis' flexibility with the church's requirement that two miracles be attributed to saints. But as retired Newsweek writer Ken Woodward noted in his definitive 1990 book Making Saints, the church's process of honoring holy people has always been, shall we say, complex, and not without considerations that might be seen as political. Saints are made, after all, for the enlightenment of the living, and for those who come later.

Woodward followed the sociologist Robert Bellah in noting that telling the stories of saints creates "communities of memory that tie us to the past" and "also turn us toward the future as communities of hope."

By reminding Catholics of which aspects of the past he wants to celebrate, Francis has pointed the way for a more open, less divided church that examines the present and looks to the future with hope, not fear.

(c) 2013, Washington Post Writers Group

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).



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Romero will de done soon too..


John XXIII should have been declared a saint years ago, in my opinion.  As a practicing Catholic who became an adult at the beginning of Vatican Council II and one who welcomed the renewal that came with Vatican Council II, I think it is not hyperbole to say that he changed the lives—and for the better—of my generation of Catholics, as well as many older faithful Catholics who were open to the Holy Spirit.  He mediated the love of God and the hope brought by the Good News better than any pope I can remember; and I remember them all from Pope Pius XII to Francis (I think Francis may be able to do the same). Also, thanks to John XXIII and Pope Paul VI many pastoral bishops were appointed in the United States. 


All that changed with John Paul II’s appointment of bishops.  I think he did a terrible job in selecting bishops, and he did a terrible job in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis, especially when he gave unreserved support for Marcial Maciel Degollado , the former head of the Legionnaires of Christ.  On the other hand, he did a great job in advancing Catholic Social Teaching; for that, I am very, very grateful.

" ...there should be no denying his standing as a world-historical figure. "


But is that a criterion for sainthood?  If that were the case, they list would be a mile long.  How about John F. Kennedy?

Although no great fan of JP II, I applaud this choice. I think JPII's process is way too quick, but I'm with those who think the "miracle system" is completely bogus, but I've yet to read a good process. A by-product may be that we recognize -since the flaws of JP II are still becoming evident-- that we may realize that saints were not perfect...

I think the Church would not be damaged if we waited another century or two for these canonizations.  John XX111 I doubt would care if he were canonized - a humble man. There are too many stains on JP's record to rush through a canonization.  His treatment of theologians for one.  He learned all the wrong lessons in his dealings with the communists in Poland. Brute force, tyranny and bullying win the day.   More important, his warm and clueless acceptance of Maciel is the worst blot on his record.  Even when warned of the accusations against this deviant charlatan, he embraced him.  All those new priests, all that money flowing in?  What could go wrong? And Maciel's uncle declared a saint and his mother in line for beatification  - a scandal and a cynical manipulation of the saint making tradition.  It is sickening.  And to praise Francis for playing into this charade ostensibly to please "both sides" is to reward that cynicism.  This political play does not fool everyone.

Agree with Holloway. Dionne's article is dripping with the now pervasive catholic infantilism.

Although I think that the Church should abstain from canonizing popes, Pope John XXIII's canonization is long overdue.  Obviously, he was a victim of the Vatican bureaucracy, which hates change. 

There is no justification for the canonization of John Paul II. he devoted a very large portion of his papacy to undoing the advances of Vatican II , weakening the voice of the bishops in church governance and refusing to recognize the impoortance of the voice of the  laity. let's add to that his appointment of so many truly bad bishops.

His failure to deal with the scandal of priestly abuse was a huge failure of his leadership which alone should disqualify him from canonization or beatification. He had multiple opportunities to show he was aware of this scandal and ignored them.  As already pointed out by readers he ignored years of complaints about Marcial Marciel and instead embraced him. In addition he gave Cardinal law safe passage from any criminal action in Boston into a honored sinecure at the Vatican.

In the field of social justice in Latin America he was a total failure. Canonization efforts  on behalf of Archbishop Romero were blocked by the Confraternity of the Doctrine of the Faith until 2005. As to recogniton of the four murdered church women and the jesuits and their housekeeper in El salvador . Nothing!. Is the Pope  rewarding his crack down on Liberation Theologians  and their  advocacy of the poor. How does that  square with Pope Francis' advocacy of the poor. All in all this is a bad decision to advance his canonization at this time or possibly any time.

To those questioning the elevation of JPII, the title of Dionne's editorial was "Saintly Politics." It's about using sainthood to achieve a political goal -- in this case, acceptance of canonization of John 23 by conservatives through the sugar of co-elevation of JP 2, with an additional hoped-for benefit being a partial narrowing of the conservative/liberal schism. In other words, it wasn't simply about who was "deserving" of canonization, it had goals (according to Dionne's speculation) which were part religious and part political.

I found it to be an interesting point of view.

- Larry Weisenthal/Huntington Beach CA

I think EJD is absolutely correct in his assessment of the twinned canonizations, but I also agree with thomas heyman that JP2 should not have been elevated nearly so quickly, if at all. In terms of personality and (in the non-technical sense of) "charisma" he was superb, especially in his connection with the young. Nonetheless, his antagonism toward almost all progressive tendencies in the Church was, I think, such a huge flaw that it will take decades, if not centuries, to evaluate properly. As the kids say, too soon.

I am 81, the same age that Pope John 23 was when he died.  In 1959 my secretary, who was Italian American, had an uncle who worked at the Vatican.  He provided me a magical morning. A chauffeured car picked me up at a hotel in Rome, took me past the Swiss guards and led me into the small Pauline Chapel.  There were about 50 people ready for Mass, when John 23 came down the aisle.  He knelt on a prie dieu.  His confessor, a Franciscan priest, gave the homily in Italian.  I didn't understand a word he said.  It appeared he was giving instruction to John, and even wagged his finger at the Pope. When he walked down the aisle with a broad grin I caught his eyes.  Now, many years later I can "see" my half hour with him in the small chapel.  Vatican II opened the dusty shutters and fresh air rushed in. My spiritual life, and my wife's, radically changed from being told in those long ago days, everything was a sin and we were on the road to hell. Thanks to Pope John we have the peace that Christ promised.  JP2 tried to shut the doors, but we all know you cannot stop an idea whose time has come. Now Pope Francis, like St. Francis and John 23, will hopefully continue to change the Catholic church.

You say: "By lifting up John, Pope Francis is telling Catholics to embrace this legacy again -- beginning by paying attention to it. In so doing, he will reinforce comparisons already being made between himself and Pope John."

But I caution. He is a Jesuit, and quite capable of seeing values as dyads rather than single. In other words, not just liberty but Liberty balanced by Fairness. The Neo-LIberals and radical Capitalists and racists have made Liberty the only value to talk about. The pope is restoring Fairness by properly yoking to Liberty. There can be no Liberty without Fairness for all, and no fairnesss for All without Liberty.

By linking the two popes as simultaneously canonized this pope is not merely throwing a poltical bouquet to the conservatives and liberals within a divided a church, but he is announcing that his appacy will be about uniting the church, uniting doctrinal conservatism with active and not pretend advocacy and action for the poor. The Acton Institute will not like this, but they'll manage to find a way to claim that the pope is condemning any government aid to the poor and saying that Social Security is evil. They have had great success with this supposedly Catholic doctrine among Evangelical pastors but less success wth Catholics, even conservative bishops.

I read Gary Wills comment in the New York Review of Books on the double canonization of the two Johns, and then E.J's. Wills sees the canonization of John XXlll as a way to sneak in John Paul ll, and is unhappy about it. E.J. sees it as a way to give John XXlll his rightful place and is delighted-- a classic case of glass half-empty or half-full. I'm an optimist like E.J, which is why I never miss his columns.  

A rare case where I disagree with this good journalist.  Convention sees me as a progressive Catholic -- long active in the ministries of my Church.  Also of like mind with many fellow Catholics (active) as none- pleased with the dictum that John Paul II is, on balance, saintly.  Fully recognizing his popularity, sense of holiness, rich journey and good works, I find breathtaking a singular characterization of "sluggish" to describe his willingness to recognize and act to clean up sexual abuse within his Church.  By any measure these crimes were widespread and severe-- pain exponentially reaching the hearts of many and rocking an entire church to the point where so many have simply stopped going to mass.  And considering the intimate proximity of this issue to the Curia and the fact that Pope John Paul II was privy to much more than was in the public domain, it is impossible for many of us to square sainthood with a person who, armed with the authority to act to invoke meaningful reforms to protect the most vulnerable among us, chose not to.  The Church will honor as they see fit, but that act does not reconcile the Pope's  "commitment to human rights" and "social justice" to the goliath he turned his back to.         

I so much agree with Ms. Feidman. We have John xxiii, who in eternity, could care less about sainthood because he already has his place. We look to the Church to give us models and certainly he is one of the best. John Paul ii, on the other hand, is not  a model for me but a good example of playing politics to the nth degree. He performed good deeds to be sure but closing the windows and returning to Vatican I will far overshadow his idea of social justice. Telling us that the Vatican could punish the priests, most of whom were sick and were not helped by being put into the role of pastor of the people with the autonomy that went with the position. At the same time, telling us that bishops were princes of the Church, decendants of the apostles, and they coulld not be judged by their Roman equals was a slap at our intelligence. Cardinal Law, celebrating the televised first Mass after  John Paul's death made me throw up. If his canonization happens, it will make me feel like I have to go somewhere else to pray and to listen to someone else reflect on the words of Jesus and their meaning in our lives today.

I generally agree with E.J. Dionne, Jr, but I do not share his optimism reflected in this piece.  JPII began to clamp down on Vatican II's initiatives, ignored repeated complaints about his (and his curia's) pervert cleric and benefactor Maciel, and made life hell for theologians with whom the pope disagreed. 

I was hoping that if --- God forbid --- JPII was going to be declared an official saint of the church, he would be the first former pope to enjoy canonization without the involvement of the devil's advocate function charged with arguing against proposed canonization.  I can only hope that JPII will be declared a saint, first, and John XXIII afterward.  I'd love the juxtaposition: JPII being the first pontiff to be made an official saint without benefit of the office he abolished!

It'll be the proverbial cold day in hell before I step onto ground or into a building dedicated to "Saint" JPII.  Some things are worth avoiding.



Reading the range of comments it is difficult not to notice the informed voices who question the worthiness of one candidate on the very mixed-bag character of his papal record alone.

As one who found the hypocrisy of looking the other way on the sexual abuse scandal unacceptable (two consecutive pastors who had been disocesean senior staff during the period of shame) I find the notion of canonizing the Patron Saint of feckless denial one more example of how the Church kowtows to people who are about as worldly as you can get.

The idea the in Canonizing JPII the spiritual lift of the Catholic Church would increase is unfathomable. It may be that in the day and age of the internet that the mystery of veneration of character abstracted from the attendant untidiness of real lives has outlived its utility.

We Americans would do well to recall that between JPII and his successor (both before and after his elevation) it was acceptable to practice a "my way or the highway" papacy. Looking toward shameless autocrats like Bishop Finn and the utter lies from fellow bishops regarding fraternal correction this is not a time, in my view, to be looking away from the face of evil for "a little relief."

My hopes for Francis remain alive; I don't envy him the mess he faces, but were he to let the seeming enthusiasm for JPII canonization fade from his agenda for a good long time I'd not be heartbroken.

EJ, I don't think a simultaneous double-canonization has been determined. I'm following Vatican Insid in Italian and today I read that many of us ate hoping for that, but it is not established yet. Your fine article seems to imply this.

Excuse me, but popes canonizing popes is always a political move reinforcing papacy as the be-all and end-all of Catholic authority, something which inevitably downgrades the work of the Holy Spirit in all the rest of the Church. Those who accuse us of popolatry have reason. 

Ken Smits, Capuchin

Excuse me, but popes canonizing popes is always a political move reinforcing papacy as the be-all and end-all of Catholic authority, something which inevitably downgrades the work of the Holy Spirit in all the rest of the Church. Those who accuse us of popolatry have reason. 

Ken Smits, Capuchin

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