A humble response to the objections.
Bl. John Paul II! Hooray! But wait, a few huddle in the corner and in hushed tones question if our late Pope was a saint. These whisperers, who are generally orthodox Catholics (liberals, heretics or quacks wouldn’t care for beatifications in the first place), raise some seemingly legitimate arguments regarding his beatification. If you want all the Pope’s heroic virtue, read the official decree; here I want to address the reasonable but false arguments against it. 3 categories of arguments predominate: he seemed to promote other religions, he did not punish the deviant sufficiently, and the Church does not look ideal after his reign.
Beatification requires two things: a miracle, which here is a matter for doctors, and a life of heroic virtue, which some claim was not universal in John Paul’s life as saints require. Heroic virtue implies all the virtues, not just some, unto death, so no part of John Paul II’s life can be against virtue.
October 27, 1986, Pope John Paul II convoked a meeting in Assisi for religious leaders to pray for world peace. It has been called the interfaith prayer meeting, as the Pope encouraged the other religious leaders to pray for peace. It seems impossible to pray together unless you pray to the same God but many pray in a manner opposed to the Gospel. Additionally, while visiting a mosque, John Paul kissed the Koran.
The meeting in Assisi, however, had no common prayer. It was a meeting to encourage all religious people to pray for peace. Since we Catholics are the biggest religion in the world, it only seems appropriate that we organized it – which was done through the Pontifical Commission Iustitia et Pax (Justice and Peace), not the Pontifical Council for Inter-religious Dialogue to clarify it was a peace meeting. Is it better that a Hindu doesn’t pray, prays to Vishnu to destroy his enemies, or prays to Vishnu for peace? It is obvious that the third is best and closest to the Gospel, and hence the Pope’s initiative was correct. Card. Ratzinger skipped the original meeting, over concerns regarding the very misinterpretations that followed it, but as Pope, he just announced a similar event on the 25th anniversary this fall.
The Pope once kissed the Koran, but he also kissed the ground dozens of times, and kissed hundreds of babies. The latter two obviously don’t imply he worshiped Gaia or a fertility goddess, so why insist that the former means he worshiped Allah. A kiss is a sign of respect, not necessarily a sign of worship. The fact that Koran contains many good moral teachings, despite errors, that have guided a billion souls live well makes it a document worthy of respect – just like the American Constitution.
In Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul II explained the Catholic understanding of other religions: “Whatever the Spirit brings about in … religions, serves as a preparation for the Gospel and can only be understood in reference to Christ, the Word who took flesh by the power of the Spirit.” (#5) His basic teaching is that these religions prepare for and are fully explained in Jesus Christ. It is clear that these religions in themselves do not save as was further clarified in Dominus Iesus, which he personally approved: “There is only one salvific economy of the One and Triune God, realized in the mystery of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, actualized with the cooperation of the Holy Spirit, and extended in its salvific value to all humanity and to the entire universe.” (#12)
Inaction on mental and moral deviance
Everyone in Catholic Church admits that there have been some heretical theologians and some unfaithful priests, but what did the Pope do about it? Basically nothing, some answer: look there were only a handful of theologians condemned; the Vatican knew about Fr X’s sins and he remained in the priesthood for 10 more years. St. Louis IX lead two unsuccessful crusades – in the 7th he lost his army and was captured, and in the 8th he died of a stomach ailment and the crusade ended at Tunis – so making decisions which seem imprudent in hindsight doesn’t disprove sanctity. We have to view these decisions from the moment they were made with the information on hand.
Even though the Pope has universal authority in the Church it may not always be prudent to use it. Unorthodox theologians who strayed enough to be condemned by John Paul II wear it as a badge of honor, plus get plenty of interviews with the press – twisted but true. Limiting their publicity seems like a good reason to limit the number condemned, only condemning the grossest heretics.
Most of us, I think, were shocked when we heard the extent of moral crimes committed by priests. I, for one, assumed that every priest choose the priesthood for positive reasons and could not imagine someone doing it with the intent to harm God’s children. It is unreasonable to expect the Pope to be able to remove every morally inept priest from the priesthood, as the Church is not absolutely centralized as some wish – the Pope has final judgment but he relies on others to initiate and process these actions. One other aspect hidden from the general view is that many psychologists told Church leaders they could cure these offenders with a little therapy, which, of course, failed. However, you can’t blame someone for deferring to an expert on the subject. Now remember the majority of these cases were of a homosexual nature and Pope John Paul worked to clean up seminaries to keep such people out of the priesthood – he issued two apostolic visitations of American seminaries (on this point some will argue that the first one was totally ineffective as many seminaries just put on a show for the visitors but the visitors themselves, not the Pope, need to answer for that). In hindsight, I am sure that he would admit some errors, but at the moment, the decisions seemed prudential.
An imperfect Church
I think we could all admit that the Church is not in a perfect situation now, only a few years after John Paul’s pontificate. This is used as an argument against his beatification in two ways, a stronger form which makes him responsible, and a weaker form that says we should wait to see the effects of his pontificate. They follow from the simple Gospel truth that you will know a tree by its fruits. No matter what official power the Pope has, he can’t make every Catholic show up at Sunday Mass, sorry. The role of each of us, and the Pope all the more, is to propose the Gospel as a way of life with love, not to impose it. There are a million factors that could cause declining Mass attendance in certain places and among certain population segments, most of which are beyond the Pope’s control. It is clear he tried to encourage Mass attendance and vocations but you can’t blame him for every foible at a parish-level. It is interesting to note that during his pontificate, the number of seminarians worldwide almost doubled from 63,882 in 1978 to 112,643 in 2002 (Ignatius Insight).
Now a brief word on waiting, even if the usual 5-year period was not waived, I suspect we would have seen this beatification before 2015, the effects of his life are clearly visible, and beatification means the person lived as a saint, not that every act have a positive long-term impact. Given the cries, “Santo Subito!” (Saint Now!) at his funeral vs. the realistic issues that I have tried to briefly address here, skipping the waiting period but requiring full rigor, a middle road, seems prudential.
John Paul II was an example of holiness for us all. Despite some misunderstandings, some decisions that in hindsight seem inopportune, and despite an imperfect Church, he deserves to be beatified. I conclude with the Card. Ratzinger’s words at the Holy Father’s funeral, “We can be sure that our beloved Pope is standing today at the window of the Father’s house, that he sees us and blesses us.” Bl. John Paul II, pray for us.
About the Author:
Matthew Schneider, LC studies for the priesthood in Rome. He can be reached at [email protected].