Rushing the Sainthood of Pope John Paul II

pope-co03-wide
Pope John Paul II, 1978. Elliott Erwitt / Magnum

When Pope John Paul II is beatified on May 1 before an audience of hundreds of thousands in St. Peter’s Square, the event will mark a new land-speed record for arrival at the final stage before sainthood, beating Mother Teresa’s previous mark by 15 days. Some have objected to the haste, particularly given persistent questions about John Paul’s handling of the sexual-abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. Yet if the child is father to the man, this is a clear case of the pope being father to the saint.

John Paul notoriously presided over what wags called a “saint-making factory” during his almost 27 years atop the Catholic Church. He produced more beatifications (1,338) and canonizations (482) than all previous popes combined—and since Catholic tradition acknowledges 263 previous popes stretching back nearly 2,000 years, that’s no mean feat.

This avalanche of halos was the result of a deliberate policy. In 1983, John Paul overhauled the sainthood process to make it quicker, cheaper, and less adversarial, eliminating the office of “Devil’s advocate” and dropping the required number of miracles. His aim was to lift up contemporary role models of holiness in order to show a jaded secular world that sanctity is alive in the here and now.

A substantial share of John Paul’s picks lived in the 20th century, from Padre Pio to Mother Teresa to Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei. In that sense, John Paul’s fast-track beatification is a natural byproduct of his own policies, which have been largely upheld by his successor and erstwhile right-hand man, Pope Benedict XVI.

Yet John Paul’s cause is also a reminder, at least for some, of why waiting a little while isn’t always such a bad thing.

In theory, sainthood is supposed to be a democratic process, beginning with a popular grassroots sentiment that a given figure was a saint. Six years ago, the evidence of that conviction vis-à-vis Karol Wojtyla, the given name of John Paul II, seemed like a slam-dunk.

This was, after all, the pope who brought down communism, who was seen in the flesh by more people than any other figure in human history, who reinvigorated Catholicism after a period of doubt and confusion, and who gave rise to an entire “John Paul II” generation of young priests and bishops eager to take the church’s message to the street.

Crowds chanted “Santo subito!”—“Sainthood now!”—at his funeral mass. The cardinals who gathered to elect the next pope signed a petition asking whoever it might be to waive the normal five-year waiting period to launch a cause, which Benedict XVI swiftly did. Adulatory coverage in the global media amounted to a sort of secular canonization, making the formal ecclesiastical process seem almost anticlimactic.

Today, however, that enthusiasm has been tempered by revelations about the role of the late pope and his aides in the sexual-abuse crisis—by any reckoning, the most destructive Catholic scandal in centuries, and one that critics say metastasized on John Paul’s watch.

The signature case is that of the late Mexican priest Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the controversial conservative religious order the Legionaries of Christ. John Paul II was a great patron of Maciel, admiring the religious order’s unapologetic fidelity to Catholic teaching, its loyalty to Rome and the papacy, and its success in generating vocations among younger Catholics.

Yet in the mid-1990s, charges began to surface that Maciel’s public face concealed a deeply flawed private life. A complaint was filed in Rome with the office headed by then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, today Pope Benedict, alleging that Maciel had sexually abused a number of former members of the order. That case was tabled until late 2001, and no action was taken until after John Paul’s death.

Even when Ratzinger’s staff began to become convinced there was fire behind the smoke, other senior figures in John Paul’s regime gave Maciel aid and comfort. Maciel accompanied John Paul II on several foreign voyages and was extolled by top church officials as a role model for his work with youth. At one stage, the most powerful department in the Vatican, the Secretariat of State, denied there was any case against Maciel, at the very moment Ratzinger’s office was reaching the conclusion that Maciel was indeed guilty.

Under the new pope, the dam broke. In May 2006 Benedict XVI ordered Maciel to withdraw to a life of “prayer and penance,” and the Legionaries acknowledged his responsibility for a wide range of abuses and acts of misconduct, including that he fathered children out of wedlock with at least two women with whom he maintained relationships.

In the eyes of critics, the Maciel case illustrates a pattern of denial and obstruction of justice on sex abuse during the John Paul years. In cases where local bishops attempted to formally expel abusers from the priesthood, in a process known as “laicization,” Rome often counseled caution. Vatican authorities until very recently turned a blind eye to “mandatory reporter” policies that would have obligated bishops to report these crimes to police and civil prosecutors.

The extent to which that pattern has been reversed under Benedict XVI may be open to debate, but that it largely describes what happened under John Paul is, by now, a matter of record.

Those inclined to give John Paul the benefit of the doubt argue that the church has been on a learning curve and it’s unfair to judge him by today’s standards. Further, they say, by the time the American scandals erupted and Maciel’s guilt became clear, the late pope was already well into his twilight. His primary contribution to combating the scourge of clerical abuse, they argue, was inspiring a new generation of dedicated and holy priests, men who take their duty of standing “in the person of Christ” seriously, and who are therefore less likely to dishonor their vows.

Whatever one makes of those arguments, the Vatican denies that declaring a saint is tantamount to ratifying all the policy choices of his pontificate. When the 19th-century Pope Pius IX was beatified in 2000, for instance, Vatican officials took pains to say it was not an endorsement of his Jewish policy, which famously included forcing the Jews of Rome back into their ghetto and refusing to return a Jewish child to his parents after he had been secretly baptized.

Sainthood, these officials say, means that despite whatever failures of judgment and foresight marred a pope’s reign, he was nevertheless personally a holy man. Certainly few seriously question John Paul II’s rich personal prayer life, his strong mystical streak, or his deep and abiding faith.

Of course, Vatican spin no longer carries the weight it once did, and in many quarters critics will still see the beatification as an attempt to whitewash John Paul’s record on the crisis. One test of how concerned the Vatican is about that reaction may come in whether John Paul II remains on the fast track, moving to the final step of canonization in record time, or whether the case for caution prevails.

The pilgrims and devotees who will throng St. Peter’s Square on May 1 will doubtless be grateful for a chance to recapture some of that old John Paul II magic. Others, however, will wonder if this is a case in which the Vatican’s legendary penchant for thinking in centuries would serve it better.

Allen is senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter and author of  The Future Church: How Ten Trends Are Revolutionizing the Catholic Church.

Join the Discussion