Pope John Paul was a great pope – but that doesn’t mean he never made mistakes

John Paul II during a visit to Paris in 1980 (Photo: CNS)

The speed of Pope John Paul II’s beatification (as well as other, I suppose predictable, criticisms) have led to a wave of opposition to it which I have to admit I find deeply depressing, predictable or not. The late pope’s pontificate had a great deal to do with my own conversion: I didn’t cross the Tiber because I was all that impressed by the English Catholic bishops; I came for papal authority, out of a church which had no means of coming to a mind about what it believed about anything.
The late pope did more than any pope of the last century to defend and reassert beyond any doubt the stable and objective character of Catholic teaching – more even than Pius X with his great encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis, since modernist incursions had become much more powerfully established during the pontificate of the unhappy Pope Paul than they had been in the early years of the century. Pope John Paul firmly re-established the fact that the Magisterium was given by God and not invented by theologians, after a period of utter doctrinal chaos. He saw off once and for all the so-called “alternative magisterium” of Küng, Schillebeekx and their ilk: and as a result he made it possible for hundreds of thousands of non-Catholics like myself, tired of the uncertainties of secularised versions of Christianity, to come into full communion with the Holy See. So I greeted news of his beatification with great joy: because of this great pope, I had been enabled at last to come home.
Opposition to the beatification of Pope John Paul comes from three main sources: from secular anti-Catholics; from “liberal” Catholics; and from Lefebvrist nutters (rude, I know: but even members of SSPX who are relatively sane have nevertheless to be seen as committed opponents of the late pope).
To take them in order. Secular anti-Catholic opposition may be exemplified by USA Today, which contemptuously characterised the process of canonisation as being a recognition, in the words of one Cathy Lynn Grossman, “that someone who has lived a life of exemplary holiness is now in heaven, whispering on humans’ behalf in the ear of a miracle-working God”: she drew her readers attention to We Are Church, summarising their objections approvingly: “Their case,” wrote Ms Grossman, “is that he failed to confront the abuse scandal, that he squashed the Liberation Theology movement, that he shut off discussion on gender equality and that he did not recognise… that use of condoms can be a moral choice for preventing the transmission of of HIV/Aids.” Her final sentence was set in bold, making clear enough her own personal view of all this religious mumbo-jumbo: “Do you pray to saints to take your cause to God? Or do you see miracles as great human accomplishments of science, strength or personal will?”
We Are Church, to look at their objections at greater length (since they are virtually identical with the secular objections, this will do as an elaboration of the anti-Catholic view as well), said this:

“It was John Paul II’s … need for hierarchical control that … lead [sic] to the constriction of theology with scarring impact on people’s lives. His attempt to discredit liberation theology left thousands working for liberation without the full theological and ecclesial support they deserved while suffering under brutal political regimes.
“Spiritual authoritarianism was also seen in John Paul II’s attempt to suppress discourse on gender equality which, in turn, deprived the Catholic world of the gifts women would bring to church leadership. His stance against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people places him in complicity with local churches and governments who continue to deny the civil and moral equality of LGBT persons. Additionally, his repeated denouncements of condom use complicated the moral choice of millions around the world attempting to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS and promote sexual health.”

On top of that, says John L Allen, “…some Catholic liberals who saw John Paul II as overly conservative have suggested that his cause is being fast-tracked in order to score political points in internal Catholic debates”.
“Overly conservative,” however, is not what the Lefebvrists think he was. I quote just one of them briefly (this is from the copious vitriolic comments of one correspondent after my Monday blog): “Pope Benedict is bringing the Church into disrepute by beatifying a Pope who presided over the almost total collapse of the Church on his watch. Far from being a great pope, history will show him to have been one of the worst popes in the entire history of the Church.”
History, I believe, will show on the contrary that he was one of the greatest (incidentally, “on his watch”, membership of the Church worldwide grew from around 700 million to 1.2 billion: there was no collapse, despite the doctrinal chaos in Europe and America that he did so much to overcome). But achievements aren’t what a beatification is about. It doesn’t mean that someone never made mistakes. Pope John Paul clearly did (think of his trust in Cardinal Sodano and all that led to); though on any reasonable view his mistakes were surely greatly less significant than his massive achievements.
But Pope John Paul is being beatified because of his heroic sanctity, a sanctity so evident (especially to those close to him) that it led to a popular eruption of demands that he be canonised, not after a five- or ten-year waiting period, but immediately: “santo subito”, the banners demanded. The five-year waiting period to begin the Cause was waived on account of what the Congregation for the Causes of Saints described as the “imposing fame for holiness” enjoyed by John Paul II during his lifetime: in all other respects, the usual procedures ran their course.
I believe that he was a great as well as a holy man: but holiness is always more important. We can surely agree about that: and perhaps we should focus on it a little more.