“For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed John XXIII, John Paul II, be saints, and we enroll them among the saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen”
— Pope Francis
Mass for the Canonization of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II
I can still vividly recall the images of Pope St. John Paul II’s (JP2) funeral in 2005. At the time, an immense crowd had gathered around St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican and many were chanting in italian: “Santo Subito! Santo Subito!“… meaning they demanded an instant canonization for the recently deceased pontiff.
The Church did not immediately yield to the cries of the crowd… a proper and rigorous canonization process was instituted, even if it was swift. JP2 has been canonized in 2014, respecting the mandatory 5 year lag period between the death of a saint and his canonization. Scant years after, however, the crowd seems to have made a complete U-turn. At least in some sectors of the Church, people are demanding an unprecedented thing: the “un-canonization” of St. JP2, in light of his failure to act properly on the Church’s abuse scandals.
Some context is important. This plea doesn’t come in a vacuum. It is undeniable that many people are genuinely disgusted by the idea of a canonized saint of the Catholic Church being complicit with such horrendous crimes. But on the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Church is now more polarized than ever… and this is important.
Catholics, especially in the USA, have been conditioned in the past years to avoid anything that may sound liberal, since liberals were associated with the deconstruction of Family and the legalization of abortion on demand that victimizes millions of unborn babies every year. However, they have started (wrongly) to assume that very fundamental points of Catholic Social Doctrine were… “liberal”. And they started to decry them as such. So, when a new pontiff, like Francis, highlights these orthodox aspects of our doctrine, they associate him with the “enemy” and engange in a self-righteous anti-papal rampage.
JP2, just like Francis, has been caught up in this ideological turmoil. First of all, JP2’s background, hailing from Communist Poland, made him one of the more right-leaning pontiffs in 100 years of Catholic Social Teaching. Also, some documents from JP2 have been wrongfully twisted to rail against Francis, so as to artificially set the two magisteria at odds. In other words, JP2 (just like Benedict XVI, against his express wishes) has been used as ammunition to fight against the current pontiff.
Just like American conservative Catholics before them, those who are faithful to Francis are starting to fall for the same Culture Wars trap. Accepting the erroneous premises from Francis’ critics, they have started to perceive JP2 as “the enemy”, so anything goes to discredit him. It is from these sectors of the Church that the requests for un-canonizing JP2 are heard more loudly.
Let me be clear again… not everyone who wants JP2 un-canonized has a pro-Francis sentiment. For example (and this is not an exhaustive example) sedevacantists probably hate both equally. Some people may want JP2 un-canonized because they are truly scandalized and have the victims’ interest in their minds. However, it is undeniable that this political polarization has turned the soil fertile to some baseless ideas that would never have found general acceptance some years ago… like the idea that a Pope (Francis) might teach heresy in a formal, magisterial document on faith and morals or the idea that a canonized saint might be un-canonized.
However, both of these baseless ideas can be refuted in one fell swoop:
“The pope cannot by solemn definition induce errors concerning faith and morals into the teaching of the universal Church. Should the Church hold up for universal veneration a man’s life and habits that in reality led to [his] damnation, it would lead the faithful into error. It is now theologically certain that the solemn canonization of a saint is an infallible and irrevocable decision of the supreme pontiff. God speaks infallibly through his Church as it demonstrates and exemplifies its universal teaching in a particular person or judges that person’s acts to be in accord with its teaching
May the Church ever “uncanonize” a saint? Once completed, the act of canonization is irrevocable.”
— This Rock Magazine, citing the New Catholic Encyclopedia
What about Pope St. John Paul II’s sins regarding the Church abuse scandal? Shouldn’t it give us pause on whether he was really a saint or not? Does it not discredit the process of canonization to have such a flawed person elevated to the dignity of the altars?
In my opinion, it is only so if we accept one serious error (that I have partly tried to deal with here) in which one sets a false dichotomy between holiness and sinfulness. This is false, since no saint has ever been immaculate and free from sin, except Our Lady (and Jesus Christ, as God incarnate.)
The same source from the New Catholic Encyclopedia continues as such:
“Although the saint is proposed as a model of virtues and Christian living, it is not the specific object of canonization. For example, it is quite possible that a martyr show heroic virtue in the face of death without necessarily having lived all the virtues to an exemplary degree. Nor does canonization make the saints immune from the judgment of history insofar as hindsight might show that some of their external actions proved to be unwise or had negative consequences”
Pope Francis makes a similar case on his excellent essay on holiness:
“Not everything a saint says is completely faithful to the Gospel; not everything he or she does is authentic or perfect. What we need to contemplate is the totality of their life, their entire journey of growth in holiness, the reflection of Jesus Christ that emerges when we grasp their overall meaning as a person”
— Gaudete et Exsultate, #22
In evaluating JP2’s canonization, we should “contemplate the totality of his life, his entire journey of growth in holiness”… “this is a powerful summons to all of us” (so says Francis on the next paragraph.) JP2 was not canonized because he fell short in addressing the abuse scandals, he was canonized on account of the totality of his life. When we start acknowledging that, we start realizing many things that made him a saint which we could never see if we kept too much focus on one particular and wrong aspect of his life.
JP2 was, for example, instrumental in overthrowing the power grip that Communism held in half the world at the time, victimizing 100 million people in the 20th century. And let us not also forget the danger caused by the divide of the world between two superpower blocks, always on the verge of a nuclear war with each other, endangering the whole world. On that time also, there were families being separated, both by the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain, with much suffering for them. This heroic feat was achieved at a time when no one would think the Soviet Union, towering powerfully over the world, could collapse so easily. JP2 was not intimidated by this. He resisted, fighting against overwhelming odds, defending the persecuted Church at the hands of oppressive regimes. All this cannot be so easily forgotten.
JP2 was also the Pope that started a praxis of travelling pontiffs. He was the first pope to visit many countries, and he traveled more than all the previous popes combined (1,167,000 km.) This is also no small feat. For the first time in centuries, the Pope was not a bureaucratic prisioner of the Vatican, but could actually be a “pastor with the smell of the sheep”, as Francis has urged the clergy to be.
JP2 also tried to expound the Church’s sexual teaching in a more humanistic vein by, for the first time, developing with a personalist angle (i.e. his Theology of the Body catecheses.) In fact, JP2 was one of the leading Christian personalist philosophers of the 20th century.
Also, let us not forget JP2’s heroic fight against a neurodegenerative disease, showing us with the example of his life that a person does not lose his dignity by being sick with an irreversible condition. How many people suffering from Parkinsons might find inspiration and comfort by looking to JP2!
These are just four points out of many that should also weigh in our minds when we consider if “un-canonizing” him might be a good idea.
But do those virtues of JP2 balance out his flaws? What about the suffering inflicted on the abuse victims? Yes, we should not downplay this suffering… however, when we ask for drastic measures, like the un-canonization of JP2, we should be mindful of the consequences of our actions (namely, if we set up a precedent.)
There are atheists (I met them) who question St. Thomas More canonization on account of serving his nation as chancellor and by defending (and practicing) the burning of heretics during his tenure (something the Church abhors at present.) St. Paul returned Onesimus, a slave who had fled, back to his owner. St. Clement of Alexandria participated in the political power plays that ended up in the killing of Hypatia. And if we browse many of the Church Father’s writings, we might end up with some anti-Semitic remarks.
Every single one of those acts disgusts our modern sensitivies, but we should bear in mind that these men and women were not only people who strived to attain eternity, they were also a product of their day and age. It is good practice in historiography to not fall into the temptation of judging our forebears according to our own sets of values, because those sets of values evolved through a gradual process… and the intermediary imperfect steps we took in that process are an intrinsic part of this evolution.
If we start un-canonizing saints because we find some aspects of their lives abhorrent, we will end up emptying our altars. However, who prays to St. Thomas More in order to be a better heretic burner? Who prays to St. Paul in order to be a better slaver? No one. Just like no one prays to JP2 to be a better abuse enabler. Has the Church ever un-canonized a person who was canonized through a formal declaration and who has been found, later on, to fall short? No. So we should not start doing that now.
Of course, some may argue that JP2 is not a distant historical figure. Some of the victims of his negligence are still alive today. However, it is also fairly certain that JP2 lived in a day and age when the Church handled these things differently. He was not right in doing so, but it is certainly true that the Church is an institution that accommodates billions of people worldwide and is, therefore, very slow to implement any change in praxis.
Some have defended the Pope by claiming that he might have been influenced by his background, since in atheist Communist Poland it was common practice to libel priests in order to undermine their religious authority. It can also be pointed out that his admiration and friendship with some figures (like Fr. Maciel) might have blinded him. However, charity demands that we do not ascribe wrongful intentions to JP2’s wrong practices, if we do not have proof of such evil intentions.
“The path to Hell is paved with good intentions”, so says the proverb. Perhaps. But this brings up an important aspect of the canonization process. More than a complete validation of every single aspect of one’s life, it is more fundamentally an infallible statement from the Church saying that a particular soul has reached Heaven.
Whether JP2 attained Heaven because God judged his virtues and heroic feats to be remarkable, or because of God’s immense mercy towards a great sinner (or both, since they are not mutually exclusive)… it is not up to us to know or decide. God does not weigh any soul in the way we humans do. Be it as it may, one fact remains clear: the Church has infallibly recognized that JP2 is now in Heaven.
How can someone then “un-do” this? Can someone really prove that JP2 is not in Heaven? What could account for the cures ascribed to his intercession and whose miraculous nature has been ascertained by objective men of science? If we can’t prove that JP2 is not in Heaven, what would the purpose be of stating that JP2 is not a saint?
It can be argued that it would be a way to make justice toward the victims. But that would amount only to a symbolic victory, trying to hide something infallibly evaluated by the Church and which can’t be proven wrong.
Would that symbolic victory be so important in the long run? Should Floribeth Mora (the second miracle attributed to JP2) be deprived of having prayed to JP2 and therefore, be deprived of the healing of her brain aneurysm because of such a symbolic victory, that will not undo the evil that was perpetrated on the abuse victims? Should so many Parkinson patients be deprived of a devotion that may help them to endure their cross (when that is the true point of declaring someone a saint)?
Wouldn’t it be more productive to be more proactive and try to change what’s wrong with the Church right now, so that this tragedy will not take place again? The Church has come a long way since 2002 (the Pennsylvania report says so), but there is still much ground to cover. In my humble opinion, continuing on the path of prevention of abuse in the clergy is the optimal way to honor the victims, rather than overturning something so fundamental to our faith as the canonization process of so many saints that give hope and comfort to so many afflicted worldwide.
In the meantime, JP2 stands as a saint to intercede for so many people who are in desperate need of help and hope. He stands as an example to emulate, not on his behavior on the sex abuse crisis, but on everything else, giving courage to all those who may feel the despair of being in the oppressive clutches of ideologies that seem unbeatable, but in reality are not. He stands as a great thinker, whose writings and teachings may help us strive for a better life and better understanding of our doctrine. He stands as a companion in the difficult journey of the sickly.
And he stands also as a cautionary tale. Yes, because I do believe that we should not learn just from the virtues of saints, but also from their mistakes. We should learn from his history that we should do better in the abuse scandals than what he did, even if he is a canonized saint. “Those who do not learn from History are condemned to repeat it”… so why not take JP2’s example in order not to repeat those errors again? Even here, he may serve God’s purpose, for the point of a saint is not the glory of the saint himself, but the glory of God and the progress of the Church He seeks to save.
And, most importantly, we should see in JP2’s story also a sign of the Divine Mercy of God, who has saved such a flawed man and can, therefore, also extend such a superabundant mercy to our own sins as well.
[Photo credit: Catholic World Report]
Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.