Unsteady Halo: The Canonization of Pope John Paul II
Santo subito! -- "Sainthood now!" That was the urgent plea of the crowds gathered in St. Peter's Square in April, 2005, as Pope John Paul II lay dying. If the crowd had had its way, he would have been proclaimed a saint the very moment he died. And in truth, the canonization process has been extremely brisk. John Paul II has been dead only nine years and the Church stands ready to canonize him on April 27.
The passage of years, however, has allowed for a more sober assessment of his pontificate. For sure, John Paul II did things that make him worthy of canonization. There is no question that he was a deeply prayerful man who authored profound reflections on the meaning of Jesus and his mission. He provided a great witness to courage, first when he was shot in May, 1981, and then, two decades later, as an elderly victim of Parkinson's. He rallied Poland and Eastern Europe in the Cold War. Where others might have been intemperate, his messages always encouraged resolute, peaceful, non-violent resistance.
Still, the perspective of time allows us to realize that his pontificate had the effect not of strengthening but rather of weakening the Church in a number of crucial respects. And we would be a friend to history -- and to the Church -- if we acknowledged these flaws, for they are not insignificant.
First, there was the priestly pedophilia crisis. It was in the middle 1980s when the public first began to get a sense of its enormity. In 1983, the national media highlighted the serial abuse committed by a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, Fr. Gilbert Gauthe. And two years later, in a report to the American Bishops' Conference, Fr. Thomas Doyle detailed the depth of the problem and predicted that the pedophilia crisis might be the largest disaster to confront the Church "in centuries."
Fr. Doyle was right of course. And a healthy Church would have responded with shock, yes, but then with a thorough house cleaning. Regrettably, it has been three decades and the house cleaning is still less than adequate. Why? There are many reasons, but one contributing factor was the culture of clericalism that came to dominate the Catholic hierarchy in the 1980s and 1990s.
Priests and bishops were said to be special, set apart for leadership in the Church. Bishops, in particular, came to see themselves not as men dedicated to service and compassion but as defenders of the Church against her enemies, including, to the Church's great shame, the victims of abuse. John Paul II set the tone for his bishops.
And the crisis worsened as he aged. Pontificating excuse-makers duly explained that he lacked the capacity to grasp its scale. In the Poland of his youth, his apologists recited, many priests faced trumped-up charges of child abuse and now the aged Pope could not accept that these charges were genuine. Both for the clericalism he promoted and the cognitive dissonance he could not overcome, John Paul II bears at least some of the responsibility for the crisis.
And among the worst cases of child abuse was that of Fr. Marcial Maciel. The Founder of the religious order, The Legion of Christ, Fr. Maciel enjoyed extraordinary favor all the while he preyed on his seminarians, victimizing dozens over his long reign of terror. He fathered children with various women on at least two continents, and even plagiarized his spiritual autobiography. A group of former seminarians attempted to inform the Vatican of their mistreatment in the 1990s, but were never given a hearing. All the while, John Paul II feted Fr. Maciel in Rome and praised him for his devotion to orthodoxy. The cleansing of this sordid mess fell to his successor, Pope Benedict XVI.
On a very different note, John Paul II was celebrated in his day for the ways in which he defined doctrine. The post-Vatican-II Church of the 1970s, it was said, had been too experimental. Scholars wrote about liberation theology. Church historians examined tradition in path-breaking ways. Priests explored a variety of ways of doing liturgy. Yes, there were excesses. Yes, there was naiveté, enough to go around, but there was also genuine excitement and real life to the Church.
John Paul II sought to curb this enthusiasm, mistaking exuberance for heterodoxy. He craved certainty even while despising intellectual diversity. The Catholic Church was one and should speak with a single voice. A generation of Catholic scholars, the best and brightest minds the Church had, were investigated and silenced by John Paul II's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A trained theologian, he attempted to write into Catholic dogma many of his own propositions, thinking them to be universal truths.
Going forward, these efforts to create a comprehensive uniformity of doctrine may prove to be among the most unfortunate aspects of John Paul II's pontificate. Take, for example, his theology of the body, which he developed in a series of sermons in the early 1980s and which forms the basis of the sexual teachings found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, published in 1992.
Assuming what he wished to prove, John Paul II used the creation account -- "male and female he created them" -- as justification for a sexual ethic that now urgently requires rethinking. In the Catechism, he described same-sex attraction as "objectively disordered" (para. 2358). Same-sex relationships, he said were incapable of "proceed[ing] from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity" and so "[u]nder no circumstances can they be approved" (para. 2357).
We know, of course, that same-sex attraction is part of the natural variability of human sexuality. We recognize from simply observing love-in-action that genuinely self-giving, life-promoting relationships are not only possible but common among gay people. Gay people love and live, hurt and heal in exactly the same ways as heterosexuals.
Catholic moral theology must come to understand these elementary human facts. I am confident that it will, since the Church's teaching is always finally dependent upon a proper anthropology of the human person. Doctrine does develop. But John Paul II's work has made that development a far more arduous task.
Beginning in the middle 1990s, John Paul enlisted as a full-fledged combatant in the culture war. And this long twilight struggle of his papacy led to a generation of Catholics coming of age who can only conceive of the Church as the guardian of orthodoxy in a hostile world. Their websites are prolific. They are hasty to denounce their foes, fast to pronounce anathema, and quick to read people out of the Church. They rush to defend the Church, but in their misguided zeal, they only weaken it.
John Paul II, in brief, inherited a Church that was intellectually supple and mentally vigorous. It was a Church that was open to new questions and new experiences. It understood its mission as the implementation of the Gospel in all its richness -- embracing the poor, welcoming the marginal. John Paul bequeathed a Church that is inward-looking, defensive and brittle -- a Church that is altogether too quick to abandon whole dimensions of the Gospel message in order to wage a losing culture war.
In retrospect, had John Paul II chosen to do what his immediate successor did -- retire at an appropriate time -- he would have stepped down around 1995. Our assessment would be different. But we must assess his legacy in its totality. And when we do, we realize that recovery from it will be a years-long process.
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