By E.J. Dionne, Jr.
WASHINGTON—The Vatican’s decision to speed Pope John Paul II on the road to sainthood aroused great elation—and a backlash among Catholics who see the rush as unseemly.
There is an obvious remedy that could bring contending Catholics together and send exactly the right message about the church’s attitude toward the modern world: It’s time to declare Pope John XXIII a saint.
Here’s a prayer that Pope Benedict XVI uses this Sunday’s beatification ceremonies for John Paul in Rome to announce that the Vatican is eager to complete the saint-making process for the good Pope John, the church’s great modernizer who embraced democracy and religious freedom.
And there is a natural link between the two papacies. When historians look back, John Paul’s greatest achievements will inevitably be seen as liberal, in the broadest sense: his commitment to human rights and religious liberty, his calls for greater social justice, his embrace of workers’ rights (“the priority of labor over capital”), and his strenuous opposition to religious prejudice. Recall that John Paul was the first pope—not counting St. Peter—to visit a synagogue, where he issued a ringing condemnation of anti-Semitism.
None of these achievements would have been possible if John had not ended Catholicism’s war with modernity by calling the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. John called upon Catholics to discern the “signs of the times” and upbraided “distrustful souls” who saw in the modern era “only darkness burdening the face of the earth.”
“I want to throw open the windows of the church so that we can see out and the people can see in,” is an adage widely attributed to John. It’s a lovely idea still. Father Joseph Komonchak, one of the premier historians of the Second Vatican Council, likes to point to John’s view that “the church is not a museum of antiques but a living garden of life.”
John is already beatified, the prelude to sainthood in the Catholic tradition. But his beatification in 2000 was marred when John Paul tied it to the beatification of Pope Pius IX, one of the modern era’s most reactionary popes. Pius famously referred to liberal Catholicism as “pernicious,” “perfidious,” “perverse” and “a virus.” John’s approach was the antithesis of Pius IX’s, and a good thing that was.
When John died in 1963, progressive cardinals tried to expedite his beatification by way of confirming the church’s new direction. Their efforts were rejected. But Pope Benedict embraced comparable efforts on behalf of John Paul immediately after his death, leading to Sunday’s beatification ceremony.
The fact that tradition was enforced to block rapid sainthood for John but ignored to go full speed ahead for John Paul suggests that, yes, a certain amount of politics is involved in these supposedly otherworldly matters.
And the celebration of John Paul has been tarnished by legitimate controversy over his unwavering support for Marcial Maciel Degollado, the Mexican priest who founded the conservative Legionaries of Christ movement and was eventually condemned by Pope Benedict for, among other things, abusing members of his order and fathering children out of wedlock with at least two women. John Paul protected Maciel; it fell to Benedict to discipline him.
On the abuse scandals more generally, Ross Douthat, the staunchly Catholic New York Times columnist, was right to note that “the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet” while the “uncharismatic” Benedict “was left to clean them up.” And John Paul’s vigor in condemning dissenting theologians suggested the paradoxical personality of his papacy: more liberal on many questions involving the outside world, more conservative on internal matters.
The church should have applied the same standard to John Paul as it did to John and taken more time on beatification. Nonetheless, even the most progressive Catholics have felt the draw of John Paul as a dynamic, intrepid and genuinely holy man. Having covered him for two years as a reporter, I can testify to his magnetism. As Father James Martin, the liberal Jesuit writer, noted this week, John Paul “was prayerful, fearless and zealous. ... And, in my eyes, anyone who visits the prison cell of his would-be assassin and forgives the man is a saint.”
Yet John Paul’s most widely admired acts built on John’s legacy. It’s hard to imagine St. Augustine without St. Paul, Washington without Jefferson, John Paul without John. A church that needs to open windows again would do well to honor the pope who freed it to be refreshed by modernity’s bracing breezes.
E.J. Dionne’s email address is ejdionne(at)washpost.com.
(c) 2011, Washington Post Writers Group