Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Case of John Paul II: "Playing Devil's Advocate"

Some of you may remember the article we posted by Fr. Raymond T. Gawronski, "John Paul II: A Character Study" (Musings, May 4, 2010, rpt. by permission of NOR). Two months after Gawronski's article in the April issue of the New Oxford Review, the current June issue carries a letter to the editor by author and Contributing Editor, Tom Bethell, with the header, "Playing Devil's Advocate," reproduced here by permission of the editor.
Fr. Raymond T. Gawronski, in his article "John Paul II: A Character Study" (Apr.), rightly notes that "there was a palpable sense of holiness" around John Paul. Still, "only the Church can declare someone a saint." That note of caution is in order, especially as Pope Benedict XVI put his predecessor on the fast track to canonization. Normally, a cause must wait until the candidate has been dead for five years. The devil's advocate was also eliminated from the process (by Pope John Paul, in 1983).

John Paul's papacy was long and controversial, and a cooling-off period would seem to be the prudent course. If his role in helping bring the Cold War to a peaceful conclusion was a significant one — as it may well have been — then that alone might merit the accolade "the Great." But that is another issue. The question, it seems to me, is what weight should be given to John Paul's hands-off attitude toward the governance of the Church in assessing his cause for beatification and canonization.

This is underscored by the many and continuing reports of predatory assaults on young people by Catholic priests and bishops. The sanctity of the man who was pope when many of these things happened cannot be entirely separated from the bad news on his watch. Was John Paul derelict in his duty in fostering a culture of secrecy and even cover-up, in order to protect the hierarchy from shame and embarrassment? If so, was he a saint?

Detailed dossiers of sexual abuse by members of the Church hierarchy were brought to the Pope's direct attention, more than once. In one report, he pushed back the thick folder of documents placed in front of him, took a quick glance, and said, "It is not good for me to read these things."

The governance of the Church was John Paul's principal obligation, yet such accounts seem to show that he routinely delegated that duty to others. It was as though he could not quite bring himself to accept the possibility that manifest evil could dwell within the Church hierarchy.

Recently published investigations of the Legion of Christ have disclosed that John Paul's secretary of state, Angelo Cardinal Sodano, received cash in exchange for friendly treatment of the founder of the Legion, Fr. Marcial Maciel. It seems more than likely that John Paul never knew what Sodano was doing. But if so, that must have been because he really didn't want to know.

Recent developments have raised further questions. Dario Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy from 1996 to 2006, sent a letter of commendation in 2001 to a French bishop who refused to report a criminally abusive priest to the police. The priest had sexually abused 11 minor boys. Castrillón wrote: "I rejoice to have a colleague in the episcopate who, in the eyes of history and all the other bishops of the world, prefers prison to denouncing one of his sons and priests."

Then, speaking at a conference in Spain on the legacy of John Paul II, Castrillón said that he had shown this letter to John Paul, who had authorized him to send it. It was then posted on the website of the Congregation for the Clergy, where it has been a public record for nine years.

(The current enthusiasm by the news media for exposing all these problems in the Church has clearly been directed at trying to link them to the present Pope. Yet the more these details emerge, the clearer it becomes that Benedict has made heroic efforts to straighten out the disarray he found when he came to the Chair of St. Peter. In fact, he began to do so in 2001.)

Castrillón's letter and John Paul's willingness to turn a blind eye toward improper clerical behavior will no doubt be the subject of much further analysis. But it does seem that for John Paul the exercise of discipline within the Church had a low priority. Administrative discipline was "seldom effectively utilized during his pontificate," as the president of Trinity Communications, Jeff Mirus, wrote recently. He added, on the Catholic World News website: "For the past fifty years, the curial culture in Rome has not been a culture that sent strong administrative disciplinary signals. Clear administrative directives were seldom issued and even more rarely enforced, whether by pontifical wrath, careful control of ecclesiastical honors, timely promotion or timely demotion."

It was also disturbing to many Catholics (including, by report, Cardinal Ratzinger) that John Paul apol­ogized so frequently for the errors of churchmen past. An Italian journalist kept a tally and there were over 90 such apologies. John Paul then delivered a ritual summation of these apol­ogies in March 2000 at St. Peter's in Rome. The catalogue of sins, which might have been drawn up by a progressive politician, included religious intolerance and injustice toward many groups, including women, indigenous peoples, immigrants, the poor, and the unborn.

Many years earlier, C.S. Lewis wrote that when someone apologizes for the sins of others, the sin of detraction masquerades as the virtue of contrition. In an essay on these papal apologies, Avery Cardinal Dulles quoted the English Catholic historian Paul Johnson as saying something similar. In such circumstances, the expression of repentance is a "disguised manifestation of pride."

But I hasten to add that the Church belongs to eternity, and even though her present standing in terms of worldly prestige seems to have declined, one cannot pretend to know how to weigh these things.

Furthermore, the test of canonization is personal sanctity, not administrative competence. Obviously, John Paul was a man of personal holiness. But it is precisely because his papacy was so far-reaching that the Church should proceed without haste in formally discerning his sanctity.

Tom Bethell
Washington, D.C.

NOR Editor, Pieter Vree adds the at the end of Bethell's letter:
Ed. Note: For more on the investigation into the Legion of Christ and Benedict's "heroic efforts to straight­en out the disarray he found when he came to the Chair of St. Peter," see our New Oxford Note "The Double Life of Marcial Maciel" in this issue.
[Tom Bethell, born and raised in England, was educated at Downside School and Trinity College, Oxford. He is a senior editor of the The American Spectator and member of the Hoover Institution. He was formerly Washington editor of Harper's, and an editor of the Washington Monthly. His foregoing letter to the editor was originally published in New Oxford Review (June 2010), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]


I am not Spartacus said...

I've always loved almost anything Mr. Bethell writes and this is no exception.

This attempt at rapid Canonisation makes no sense to me and I confess that I think part of the motivation for the rapidity of the,um, reformed process, is to try and concretise many of the dubious reforms of Vatican Two.

I mean, how could anyone criticise Vatican Two after its Pope has been Canonised?

In any event, I long for the day when we have a Traditional radical restorationist Pope who was neither a Peritus or Prelate at Vatican Two.

Anonymous said...

I have been told by people who know these things that if a person is declared a saint by the Pope, that he is using his infallible gift. Does anyone know where I can read that the declaration of saints is part of the faith and morals of the Church?

Thank you,

Ralph Roister-Doister said...

It took considerable courage for a Catholic to write this article. It ought to be required reading in this ballyhooed "year of the priest."

I await with great anticipation the appearance of Tom Bethell on EWTN's "The World Over."