We Need to Derail the ‘Canonization Express’
June 17, 2011
By Mark R. Day
Pope John Paul II is not a saint, and putting him on the fast track to canonization places the Vatican’s narrow political agenda ahead of the aspirations and spiritual needs of the vast majority of Catholics. To make Karol Wojtyla a saint is to “make holy” the disastrous policies and the programs he imposed on the church for 25 years.
The American Heritage Dictionary describes saints as persons who are “charitable, unselfish, and patient,” while other dictionaries portray them as holy individuals possessed of “heroic virtue.”
Yes, John Paul was a pious man, almost ostentatiously so. But most experts agree that personal piety is itself not enough to qualify a man for sainthood. A saint’s life should be a model that others can imitate. John Paul needs to be judged instead by the effects of his policies and decisions.
As a major political figure, John Paul was instrumental in breaking down the Soviet block. He opposed the war in Iraq. He forgave the man who tried to murder him, and he charmed the faithful as the most media-genic pope in history in his frequent visits to all parts of the world.
But John Paul was also arrogant, unforgiving and punitive to dissenting theologians. He marginalized advocates of liberation theology in Latin America. He excommunicated women seeking an expanded role in the church as ordained pastors, and he turned a deaf ear to rising complaints about priest sex abuse. He also appointed as bishops only those who would parrot his narrow party line. Local churches will suffer under these men for decades to come.
Two incidents of this behavior are seared into the memory of many Latin American Catholics. One is the image of John Paul publically scolding liberation theologian Father Ernesto Cardenal on the tarmac of the Managua, Nicaragua airport while the latter knelt in fealty, asking for the pope’s blessing.
The other is John Paul’s reaction to Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero when the latter visited the Vatican in 1979. Romero attempted to show the pope seven dossiers documenting government repression against the Catholic Church. They included gory pictures of priests and catechists tortured and gunned down by paramilitary death squads.
John Paul brushed aside the evidence, complaining that he didn’t have time to look at it. Then he summarily dismissed the archbishop, telling him that his schedule was full, that his time was up.
A few months later, on March 24, 1980, a death squad assassinated Romero as he celebrated Mass. The archbishop’s associates believe that orders to kill the archbishop would have been short circuited had Pope John Paul II fully supported him. Without Rome’s blessing, the people of El Salvador now refer to the archbishop as “San Oscar Romero.”
In John Paul’s mind, Romero and other Salvadoran martyrs were suspected leftist sympathizers. This was a far cry from the enthusiastic support the pope gave to men like Father Jerzy Popielusko, murdered by the Polish Communist government and beatified a year ago in Warsaw.
Both Popes John Paul and Benedict XVI went on record condemning liberation theology and disciplining its theologians, a policy that cast a chill on the emerging church of the poor throughout Latin America. This enabled repressive dictatorships to persecute, torture and murder progressive bishops, priests, nuns and lay catechists with impunity throughout the region.
Most disturbing, though, is growing evidence that both John Paul II and Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, the current Pope Benedict XVI, systematically turned a blind eye to thousands of cases of priest sex abuse brought to the Vatican’s attention during the past 20 years.
One name that keeps popping up in the debate over John Paul II’s canonization is the late Mexican priest Marcial Maciel, founder of the ultra-conservative religious congregation, the Legionnaires of Christ. Father Maciel, a close friend of John Paul II , donated millions of dollars to the Vatican that he raised from wealthy Mexican benefactors.
But Maciel was also a well-documented serial rapist whose victims were mostly Legionnaire seminarians, and he also fathered three children by three different women. Nine former seminarians, charging that Maciel sexually abused them, filed a canonical grievance with the Vatican in 1998, seeking Maciel’s excommunication.
According to Jason Berry, a reporter who first broke this story in the Hartford, Courant in 1997, Maciel heard the confessions of the boys after he abused them, assuring them that God had forgiven them both. Under canon law, this offense confers automatic excommunication.
The Maciel investigation was tabled at the insistence of Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican’s secretary of state and a close friend of the Mexican priest.
Berry also reported in the National Catholic Reporter that Sodano was accustomed to receiving thousands of dollars from Maciel, delivered in satchels full of cash at the cardinal’s office in the Vatican. Other Vatican cardinals accepted similar donations for saying Masses at Legionnaire events and offering access to the pope’s private masses, according to Berry.
Spokespersons for the Legionnaires of Christ vehemently denied the sex abuse charges against Maciel until the bitter end, when well documented evidence surfaced that he had fathered three illegitimate children. They then removed the LegionaryFacts website and took down Maciel’s portraits at their headquarters.
Was the pope aware of the sex abuse charges against Maciel? For more than three decades, Pope John Paul and his chief enforcer, Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, micromanaged the lives of bishops, priests and religious women through the latter’s vast espionage apparatus, rivaling the infamous East German Stasi (secret police).
It strains belief that both men could have been ignorant of Maciel’s wrongdoing. At the very least, Ratzinger (now Benedict XVI) would certainly have warned John Paul about the brewing Maciel scandal.
In 2006, when 30 more ex-seminarians came forward with further evidence against Maciel, Pope Benedict conducted an investigation against him. But instead of defrocking the priest, the pope ordered him to retire from active ministry “to a life of penance and prayer.” Maciel died in 2008.
Vatican Saint making in the past thirty years cannot be separated from John Paul II’s overall project: to dismantle the spirit and reforms of Vatican II and to restore an authoritarian, clerically dominated church where secrecy trumps openness and dissenters are silenced.
Benedict XVI’s rush to canonize John Paul II is an effort to enshrine these policies, to tell the world that the Catholic Church is the one, true Church, that the West must return to Christendom, and that the role of the Catholic laity is once again to pray, pay, and obey.
There is no doubt that that this project has flopped and that millions of Catholics are heading for the exits. This is not, as the recent study of the Pew Charitable Trust has indicated, because of secular humanism, the priest abuse crisis, or the strictness of Catholic teachings—but because average Catholics are not receiving the spiritual nourishment they need from their liturgies and from their local parishes.
And how can they, when fear has replaced trust, loyalty has replaced collegiality, and law of love has given way to the rule book? A saint is not a person who pushes this project, but more likely one who resists it.
Pope John Paul II is not a saint.
Mark R. Day is a former staff member of the National Catholic Reporter, a filmmaker, and a labor activist. He lives in Vista, Calif.