Special Report

Prudential Judgments

Two “church rat” takes on new saints John XXIII and John Paul II.

By 5.14.14

UPI
Send to Kindle

Late in the morning of Sunday, April 27, a movie theater in Morrisville, NC rebroadcast the Canonization Mass for pope saints John XXIII and John Paul II. Anyone who missed the live telecast from the Vatican had a chance to watch a free screening of the event at a more convenient time. When afterward I waxed enthusiastic to an old friend about the experience (Four popes in the news on the same day! Standing room only between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Tiber River!), it sparked a conversation about the church that I suspect is more common than reporters on the religion beat usually admit.

Conventional wisdom says that popes who died 42 years apart were canonized simultaneously because Pope Francis hoped to appease both liberal and conservative wings of the church. As at least one irreverent wit suggested, it seemed as though Pope Francis had hosted a “buy one, get one” sale, with “good pope John” playing a genial second banana to the Polish prelate who revitalized the modern papacy.

The “BOGO” theory grew legs when Pope Francis waived the “second miracle” requirement that had previously delayed official recognition of Pope John’s saintliness. That and the relative speed with which John Paul II was canonized because Pope Benedict XVI hastened the process along both rankled my friend Bill, who is not alone in feeling that way. Liturgical pageantry that I found reassuring was for others misplaced at best. “I suppose [the canonization] can be construed as exciting,” Bill wrote, “but I regret having to confess that the entire episode leaves me exasperated and deeply saddened.”

Our common faith being a boat of considerable size, it’s not surprising that a couple of “church rats” like Bill and me had different reactions to the same event.Trying to decide whether I shared my friend’s reaction and then why I could not echo parts of it brought A Canticle for Leibowitz to mind, and I borrow below from that post-apocalyptic novel because its Catholic chapter headings can also help organize thoughts about the recent canonizations.

Fiat Homo
(Let there be Man)

Bill is a “revert” — one of those who fell away from faith before returning to it wholeheartedly. He is also a thoughtful man who loves the Mass in Latin, and understands why calling it the “Latin Mass” is a misnomer. Playing Eeyore to my Tigger, Bill reviewed a gloomy bill of particulars that started with changes to the liturgy, paused to lament the depressing number of bishops who ignored or abetted the problem of clerical sexual abuse as long as they could, and wrapped up by noting the criticism that JP II weathered in 1999 for publicly kissing a copy of the Koran presented to him by Iraqi Muslims at an interreligious gathering in Assisi. Bill also knows that there are fewer seminary graduates per capita now than there were before Vatican II. “By every measure, the Catholic Church throughout the world is in steep decline,” he suggested. “The only states that seem to increase are measures of moral laxity and ignorance.” The capstone of his argument was not surprising: “It can no longer be ignored that the Second Vatican Council was either the inflection point or the cause of this tragedy,” he wrote.

Aye, there’s the rub: Was Pope Francis trying to burnish the legacy of a problematic council by canonizing the pope who convened it and the pope who did so much to explain and safeguard its work? Astute observers suggest that this was at least part of the motivation for the double ceremony.

Bill understands that sainthood is not synonymous with perfection, but asks “Why the rush?” It’s a reasonable question. Without actually accusing Pope Francis of malign intent, more than a few of my co-religionists fear that this one-two punch of double canonization was directed at some of the faithful, rather than at the secularism that infects so much of the modern world.

A thought experiment: If as a senior churchman, you’re tired of fielding questions about post-conciliar changes to rites that had stood the test of time, then praising men who were instrumental parts of Vatican II might seem an attractive way to marginalize anyone nostalgic for the muscular Catholicism that the council perhaps undercut. That dark speculation, and the hurt behind it, are both real.

Yet conventional wisdom is wrong in portraying the recent canonizations as a sop to rival factions. Although from a theological point of view the papacy is an inherently traditionalist office (because the pope’s job is to safeguard the deposit of faith, not twist it into balloon-animal shapes), neither John XXIII nor John Paul II is reckoned “conservative” by people who know more about Catholicism than opinion columnists at the Huffington Post and the New York Times. Moreover, short of the Second Coming of Jesus, there is no appeasing either camp in this family squabble.

Trying to live “in the world, but not of it” means learning to accept certain tensions, just as Christians before us have done. Words like “cross” and “mystery” (not to mention “filioque”) bear witness to their struggles.

Adding more oregano to the same sauce, Vatican Radio announced May 10 that Pope Paul VI was one step closer to canonization. In a pontificate held between 1963 and 1978, Paul VI oversaw the implementation of key reforms, which makes him a subject of pity for some traditionalists. Interestingly, Paul VI is also the pope known for taking an arguably prophetic stance against artificial birth control in 1968, so liberal Catholics are none too fond of him, either. And it was he who in a famous sermon from 1972 warned that “the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.” In other words, Mark Twain’s quip that you should always do right “because this will gratify some people and astonish the rest” applies every bit as much to Paul VI as to the other saints whose ranks he will eventually join.

Fiat Lux
(Let there be Light)

What then to make of continuing reservations about Vatican II among some of the faithful? At first, I wasn’t sure. When Bill presented “inflection point” and “problem source” as possible interpretations of the council, I clicked over to an online dictionary. An inflection point, it turns out, is mathematical shorthand for the place where a curve changes direction. It might be fair to apply that metaphor to the council. The proposed alternative (blaming Vatican II for everything wrong with the church since it ended) is unreasonable, simply because correlation is not causation. Moreover, the Catholic bishops from 116 different countries — most of whom brought with them a secretary, a theologian, or both -- did not meet in a cultural vacuum: In four separate sessions between 1962 and 1965, council fathers had to contend not just with each other, but also with the oncoming “Age of Aquarius” and the first wave of hippies.

TV and radio had hit their respective strides by then, so as John W. O’Malley and others have noted, “The debates and disagreements in the council entered the public forum” where “They shocked some, delighted others, and made clear to all that Catholicism was not the monolith they thought they knew.” Despite those challenges and the give-and-take of any large endeavor attempted by committee, the bishops of Vatican II eventually approved publication of sixteen separate documents. Where documents published by previous councils had borrowed from the language of Scholastic philosophy as exemplified by people like Thomas Aquinas, those of Vatican II “moved from the dialectic of winning an argument to the dialogue of finding common ground.”

It’s true to say — as O’Malley has — that “Vatican II took greater note of the world around it than had any previous council,” and also true to say that “When believers entered their church for Mass on November 29, 1964, the first Sunday of Advent, they encountered something very different from what they had experienced all their lives up to the previous Sunday. With Vatican II still in session, the council managed to begin implementing unmistakable changes in the Mass, such as use of the vernacular in many of its parts.”

Angst about Vatican II might be passed from one generation to the next. Bill asks some of the same questions that his parents also did, which is not to say that they’re any less genuine. Nevertheless, even the fiercest critics of that council know better than to suggest that it yielded irredeemably rotten fruit. Dei Verbum, for example, one of four “dogmatic constitutions” issued by the council, reinforced the importance of Scripture study by lay Catholics. Lumen Gentium, another document of the same rank, looked at the church, and although its 27,000 words make for tough sledding, they also include occasionally pearly paragraphs. Pastoral and dogmatic impulses dance without stepping on each other in passages like this one: “This Sacred Council wishes to turn its attention firstly to the Catholic faithful. Basing itself on Sacred Scripture and Tradition, it teaches that the Church, now sojourning on earth as an exile, is necessary for salvation. Christ, present to us in His Body, which is the Church, is the one Mediator and the unique way of salvation. In explicit terms He Himself affirmed the necessity of faith and baptism and thereby affirmed also the necessity of the Church, for through baptism as through a door, men enter the Church.”

Even if Vatican II represents what some traditionalist Catholics persist in calling “Freemasonry’s largest attack on the Church” or (upping the ante) an instance of “diabolical disorientation” that did more to confuse the faithful than to energize us, anyone making such anguished arguments must ignore significant parts of the council documents themselves, not to mention later sermons by popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI, all of whom were in a position to know what they were talking about even before becoming successors to Saint Peter.

Friend Bill (for example) is right to lament how clumsy language in some of the council documents has been easy for dissidents to exploit for their own agendas, but wrong to think that woolly-headed appeals to the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” have gone unchallenged (Dissident nuns in the “Leadership Conference of Women Religious” are a current case in point; they’re being told to straighten up and fly right). I’m personally heartened by the fact that Pope Benedict XVI (now pope emeritus) was a double whammy in his own right. On the positive side, he issued Summorum Pontificum to remind the rest of us that Mass in the Extraordinary (Latin) Form would never be torpedoed or retired, and on the negative side, he took no theological prisoners, dispatching relativists zestfully, as though he had taken a leaf from William Goldman’s screenplay for The Princess Bride and decided to duel them left-handed.

Fiat Voluntas Tua
(Thy Will Be Done)

It would be easier to relieve my friend of the burden of betrayal and suspicion that he thinks was bequeathed to us by Vatican II if the most recent canonizations had not focused Catholic attention on men whose mistakes were as public as their virtues. Neither shepherd invested in the kind of error that would redound to Jesus Himself and force a rethinking of church teaching about limited papal infallibility or the scriptural warrant for that guarantee, but both sometimes acted in ways that puzzled the sheep. One can make too much of any pope.

Saint John XXIII was before my time, and I don’t know enough to say anything intelligent in his defense, though I’ve always liked the way he answered one journalist’s question about how many people work at the Vatican by saying “about half of them.”

Saint John Paul II, on the other hand, is the pope whom I grew up with, and because friend Bill lays a pair of serious disappointments at his feet, a word about each of them seems the right way to wrap up this essay. Anyone interested in learning more about either item is urged to spend time with the biographies of JPII written by George Weigel, who needs a tougher editor but still writes brilliantly.

“Why the rush to canonize the pope who installed the bishops who were most guilty of protecting the worst sex offenders in the church?” Bill asked. It’s a tough question to answer, although analogy might help: I’ve yet to meet any serious Christian who thinks less of Jesus for having chosen Judas as an apostle.

That John Paul II mishandled the early stages of the abuse crisis that rocked the church in his pontificate is probably beyond dispute, but some of the people who wish he’d acted differently are themselves reading minds in hindsight. As a priest who began his ministry under totalitarian regimes, John Paul II had seen false allegations of sexual abuse and impropriety routinely used in Nazi and Communist propaganda against the church. That experience made him slow off the mark. Nevertheless, when he realized that the reports he was getting were not of a piece with the lies he’d grown up seeing, he summoned bishops to Rome and read them the riot act. While Parkinson’s Disease robbed him of strength in his later years, his actions paved the way for unprecedented housecleaning by his friend and successor Pope Benedict XVI.

Scandal of a different sort was caused by the Koran-kissing incident at a meeting in Assisi that I mentioned earlier. Almost 30 years after the fact, it still looks like an embarrassing public relations failure. Some people made the photo of that event part of anti-Catholic arguments. Others defended John Paul II by calling his gesture an instance of Middle Eastern hospitality gone awry. The best response I’ve seen is from a commentator on a Catholic blog who sagely observed that when the pope kissed the ground in various countries after disembarking from the aircraft on which he’d arrived, “he wasn’t worshipping the earth.” That sounds about right.

The Koran-kissing mistake had little bearing on whether he was judged worthy of canonization because John Paul II also inspired a generation of joyfully orthodox priests, sparked the New Evangelization, created wildly successful World Youth Days, articulated a “theology of the body” that is still paying dividends, instigated the publication of a profoundly accessible catechism, added Luminous mysteries to the Rosary, and gave Communism a shove it hadn’t seen coming.

Anyone patient enough to have read this far will now understand (I hope) why this essay is called “Prudential Judgment” rather than “Code Blue” or “There She Blows!” In the end, I am sanguine about John Paul II, John XXIII, and the Second Vatican Council because, as the saying runs, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Pope Benedict XVI spent a significant portion of his papacy providing interpretive keys for Vatican II. While changes to the liturgy and shifts in what the church emphasizes shocked many of the faithful, they also created opportunities for the likes of Matthew “Dynamic Catholic” Kelly and Fr. Robert “Word on Fire” Barron to assist in the Lord’s work, as we are all called to do. Christians of other denominations continue to be welcomed into full communion with the Church. In other words, while wheat and weeds grow next to each other as far as the eye can see, the work of Jesus in the world continues.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.