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William Oddie FAITH Magazine March – April 2011

A Popular Acclamation of Sanctity

The speed of Pope John Paul's beatification (as well as other, I suppose predictable, criticisms) led, when it was announced in January, to a wave of opposition to it which I have to admit I found deeply depressing, predictable or not. This is not a subject on which I can speak dispassionately, since the late pope's pontificate had a great deal to do with my own conversion and that of many others: 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 very 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 Kung, Schillebeeckx and their ilk: and as a result he made it possible for hundreds of thousands of non-Catholics like myself, tired of the uncertaintiesof secularised versions of Christianity, to come into full communion with the Holy See.

We have short memories; we take our recent history too easily for granted. If you doubt me when I say that he made it possible for many to become Catholics, despite their own perception of the deep attractions of the Catholic tradition, consider the case of Malcolm Muggeridge. In Something Beautiful for God, in explanation of why he resisted becoming a Catholic, despite even the urging of Mother Teresa, he pointed to the circumstance

...that the Church, for inscrutable reasons of its own, has decided to have a reformation just when the previous one - Luther's - is finally running into the sand.

I make no judgement about something which, as a non-member, is no concern of mine; but if I were a member, then I should be forced to say that, in my opinion, if men were to be stationed at the doors of churches with whips to drive worshippers away, or inside the religious orders specifically to discourage vocations, or among the clergy to spread alarm and despondency, they could not hope to be as effective in achieving these ends as are trends and policies seemingly now dominant within the Church.

Feeling so, it would be preposterous to seek admission, more particularly as, if the ecumenical course is fully run, luminaries of the Church to which I nominally belong, like the former Bishop of Woolwich, for whom -putting it mildly -1 have little regard, will in due course take their place in the Roman Catholic hierarchy among the heirs of St. Peter.

But then, Karol Wojtyla became pope: and within a very few years, Muggeridge became a Catholic at last. So did many others, including myself. That is why I was elated at the news of his beatification: because of this great pope, I had been enabled at last to come home; it is also why I was at first so depressed by the widespread hostility to the announcement, even within the Church. I thought, in the pope's final years, that we had moved beyond all that. Now, it seemed almost as though we were back to the days of Peter Hebblethwaite.

Opposition to the beatification of Pope John Paul came from three main sources: from secular anti-Catholics; from "liberal" Catholics; and from those who generally follow the line of members of the SSPX, who persistently dismiss the late pope as a "liberal" or a "modernist".

To take them in order. Secular anti-Catholic opposition may be exemplified by USA Today [ 2011/01/saint-pope-john-paul-sex-abuse-crisis/1], which contemptuously characterised the process of canonisation itself 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".

During the five years since his death, she insisted, a lot more had been happening than the Vatican's due process and the approval of the necessary miracle:

... what else happened in those five years? The deep and ugly reaches of clergy sexual abuse, once treated by the Vatican as a uniquely American trouble, were revealed to be a global scourge. And the failures of various Vatican leaders, appointees of John Paul, to address and resolve the crisis were examined in headline after headline.

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 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?"

Let's look at the objections of We Are Church [] at greater length (and since they are virtually identical to the secular objections, this will do as an elaboration of the anti-Catholic view as well). The group 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, said 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 followers of Archbishop Lefebvre (who strenuously object, I'm not sure why, to being called Lefebvrists) think he was. As George Weigel noted, the SSPX sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, unprompted, "a thick dossier charging John Paul with jettisoning the idea of personal sin for 'social sin', preaching a worldly rather than eschatological hope, and promoting inter-religious dialogue". This hostility to the late Pope was virulently reflected at the SSPX grass roots: I quote just one of them briefly (this is from the copious comments of one correspondent after

I had written about the announcement of Pope John Paul's beatification in my Catholic Herald 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 world-wide 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).

This is how George Weigel, amazingly in the pages of The Tablet [], summed up his achievement:

In 1978, no one expected that the defining figure of the last quarter of the twentieth century would be a Polish priest and bishop. Christianity was finished as a world-shaping force, according to the opinion-leaders of the time; it might endure as a vehicle of personal piety, but Christian conviction would play no role in shaping the twenty-first-century world. Yet within six months of his election, John Paul II had demonstrated the dramatic capacity of Christian conviction to create a revolution of conscience that, in turn, created a new and powerful form of politics - the politics that eventually led to the revolutions of 1989 and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe.

Then there was his evangelism. John Paul II made Catholicism compelling and interesting in a world that imagined that humanity had "outgrown" its need for God, Christ and the Church. In virtually every part of the world, the late Pope's unapologetic preaching of Jesus Christ as the answer to the question that is every human life drew a positive response, and millions of lives were changed as a result. This was not supposed to happen, in late modernity. But it did, through the "miraculous" preaching of a gospel of compassion, but a gospel without compromise, that engaged the world while challenging it to live its aspiration to freedom more nobly.

And then there was John Paul's social doctrine, which, again against all expectations, put the Catholic Church at the centre of the world's conversation about the politics, economics and public culture of the post-Communist future. In 1978, did anyone really expect that papal social encyclicals would be debated in the pages of The Wall Street Journal, or that a pope would rivet the world's attention in two dramatic defences of the universality of human rights before the General Assembly of the United Nations? No one expected that, including the cardinals who elected Karol Wojtya as Pope. But it happened.

A man's achievements, of course, aren't what his beatification is about. And a beatification 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, including his support for Fr Maciel and his appointment - on the advice of nuncios appointed by Sodano - of a whole raft of weak and liberal bishops most of whom are still in place and still weakening the Church). It is still surely the case, nevertheless, that on any reasonable view his mistakes were massively less significant than his 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 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. Everyone can surely agree about that: and perhaps we should all focus on it a little more.

Faith Magazine

March - April 2011