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.
About the Author
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.