The debate over canonizing two popes
Updated: Apr 16
The double canonization Sunday of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, is a first in church history, and it’s prompted a debate among commentators: Has the church rushed too fast to declare John Paul a saint, especially in view of his record on clerical sex abuse cases? Is the addition of John XXIII to the canonization roster merely a political balancing act by Pope Francis? And should popes be canonized at all – is it really possible for the church to make a dispassionate judgment on the holiness of men who sat on the throne of Peter and were called “Your Holiness” in life?
The record-setting speed of John Paul II’s canonization does, indeed, raise some questions. The “Santo subito!” (Sainthood now!) banners in St. Peter’s Square at the funeral of the Polish pope reflected the sentiments of many faithful who thought his deep spirituality, evangelizing energy and strong defense of human rights made him a saint for our times.
Yet what pushed his cause through so quickly was support at the highest levels of the hierarchy. At that same funeral, the man who would be elected as John Paul’s successor, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, told the faithful: “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.” In effect, that’s like declaring someone a saint – all that was left was to make it official. And to speed things up, Pope Benedict waived the normal five-year waiting period to begin the sainthood process.
As time has passed, however, and the contours of the sex abuse scandal have become more defined, John Paul’s record has come in for criticism. In particular, critics have focused on the Polish pope’s long support for the late Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legion of Christ, who was later unmasked as a sexual abuser of his own seminarians, a man who led a double or triple life, kept mistresses and fathered children. For decades, the Vatican turned a blind eye to accusations against Maciel; John Paul’s defenders have always said the pope was not aware of the evidence against Maciel. That was the line taken last week by Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the priest who guided John Paul’s sainthood process. Oder told reporters the Vatican saintmakers had investigated the Maciel case and concluded: “There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter.”
It should not be forgotten that John Paul II was the pope who established harsh penalties for priests who sexually abused minors, approved changes that made it easier to defrock abusive priests and denounced such abuse as an “appalling sin” and a crime.
The debate over John Paul’s record on sex abuse revolves on issues of governance and management, and here is where the Vatican and critics seem to be on different pages.
Most people view canonization of a pope as a canonization of his pontificate. But in recent years, the Vatican has repeatedly suggested that sainthood for a pope is more about personal holiness than papal job performance. In that sense, declaring Pope John Paul a saint is not the same as endorsing every decision he ever made, or his management style. He is being held up to the faithful as someone who lived the Christian virtues in an extraordinary way, not necessarily as “Pope John Paul the Great.” As Pope Benedict once put it, “Holiness does not consist in never having erred or sinned.”
The decision to canonize John XXIII at the same time reflects several factors. First, Pope Francis is clearly inspired by John XXIII’s pastoral style of governance, his direct style of communication and his emphasis on mercy over doctrine. As Massimo Faggioli points out in his excellent new book, John XXIII: The Medicine of Mercy, both John and Francis came from poor families and brought with them to the Vatican an emphasis on the church’s attention to the poor and suffering.
A primary factor in Pope Francis’ decision is the Second Vatican Council, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary. By adding John XXIII, who convened the council, Pope Francis moved the focus of this canonization away from John Paul II and toward Vatican II.
Some have portrayed the move as a political one, aimed at balancing the “liberal” John XXIII, who opened the church to the world, and the “conservative” John Paul II, who pulled the church back to more traditional practices and identity. I think that’s a partial reading. While it’s true that John Paul set some limits to the innovations that followed Vatican II, he also embodied those changes in ways that upset Catholic traditionalists: he celebrated liturgies that often adopted non-Roman elements; he wrote hard-hitting encyclicals on social and economic justice, critiquing capitalism; he built bridges to science, endorsing the theory of evolution and saying the church had erred in condemning Galileo; he was the first modern pope to visit a synagogue and pray in a mosque; he presided over mea culpa ceremonies apologizing for past wrongs, including the excesses of the Inquisition and the crusades, and the moral failings of Christians during the Holocaust. In short, there’s plenty of evidence that, in many ways, John Paul II embraced the spirit of Vatican II.
In canonizing two diverse protagonists of the Second Vatican Council, I think Francis is trying to move past the interpretive battles over Vatican II, and is saying that sainthood is bigger than differences in papal policies.
One of the arguments against canonizing popes is that process turns into the hierarchy canonizing itself. Certainly, a papal sainthood cause brings with it a lot of political baggage, and there’s a risk that Vatican factions might use canonization to silence criticism of a previous pope.
Ironically, it was John Paul II who wanted more “ordinary” saints, and for years he tried to get the Vatican’s saintmakers to find lay people and married couples to canonize. This weekend, however, the sainthood spotlight is shifting back to the top of the hierarchy.