The Better Pope?

Ross Douthat’s column in this Sunday’s New York Times is definitely a thought-provoking one. He notes that, whereas Pope Benedict is repeatedly pummeled by the press, John Paul II was generally well-liked, or at least respected — but that doesn’t mean that he was necessarily the better pope:

The last pope was a great man, but he was also a weak administrator, a poor delegator, and sometimes a dreadful judge of character.

The church’s dilatory response to the sex abuse scandals was a testament to these weaknesses. So was John Paul’s friendship with the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The last pope loved him and defended him. But we know now that Father Maciel was a sexually voracious sociopath. And thanks to a recent exposé by The National Catholic Reporter’s Jason Berry, we know the secret of Maciel’s Vatican success: He was an extraordinary fund-raiser, and those funds often flowed to members of John Paul’s inner circle.

Only one churchman comes out of Berry’s story looking good: Joseph Ratzinger. . . .

In the 1990s, it was Ratzinger who pushed for a full investigation of Hans Hermann Groer, the Vienna cardinal accused of pedophilia, only to have his efforts blocked in the Vatican. It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the church’s haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Maciel’s conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.

So the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up.

In many ways, I think John Paul was probably the right pope at the right time. He is quite literally the spiritual father to a generation of young Catholics, and it could be said that his papacy made it possible for us to have a Pope Benedict now — bringing the Church from the confusion of the post-Vatican II days into a new steadiness and vibrancy in the new millenium.

I don’t think it detracts from any of that to simultaneously acknowledge the ways in which his papacy may have fallen short, though. While we could speculate as to why he didn’t deal more decisively with Father Maciel or the abuse scandal — his ill health, perhaps, or maybe even his own personal holiness making it difficult to recognize evil in others — Benedict clearly deserves the credit for finally taking those issues seriously (credit which, unfortunately, he seems destined not to get).

What do people think: Is Douthat too hard on JPII? Not hard enough? Should history remember Benedict as “the better pope”?


Margaret Cabaniss


Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

  • Angela Lessard

    So it seems a bit premature to speak of how history will view him. Unfortunately for him, and fortunately for the Church, as far as I can tell, he may still have lots of “history” ahead of him.

  • Adam

    JP II was my hero growing up. I guess I was somewhat starstruck by him to be honest. He just seemed to emanate holiness. I find it rather comforting to see him taken down a few pegs. I know that will sound somewhat strange, but it makes him more accessible and understandable. He isn’t some storybook cutout, but a man of flesh and bone who lived well on the main, but occasionally stumbled like the rest of us.

    As for BXVI, I had the good fortune to meet him during the Jubilee Year in Rome. My first impression of him was very positive; he seemed a kind and gentle soul, a grandfatherly professorial sort of person, nothing like the MSM made him out to be after his elevation to the papacy. I think both popes had/have their merits and drawbacks. They were/are good servants of the servants. I’m sure they will both be present at the wedding feast in Heaven.

  • Chris B

    I think Douthat makes a valid point. Our popes (while infallible on faith and morals ) aren’t perfect, or bigger then the Church they serve. John Paul was a epochal figure- but he had his faults and blind spots. In that, both he and Benedict are truly successors to the apostles.

  • BakerStreetRider

    I think Douthat’s observations are right on the money. Just to be clear: I love Pope John Paul II, and I think he did some amazing things and was a very holy man. However, it is also clear that he made some very poor decisions, probably because he was too trusting of those around him. From what I have seen of Pope Benedict, he is a much better judge of character. Consider, for example, Pope John Paul II’s episcopal appointments, vs. Pope Benedict’s. Pope Benedict does have a lot of cleaning up to do after the previous papacy.
    I wonder if the sex abuses unknowingly allowed by Pope John Paul II will hinder his canonization? Thoughts?

  • MRA

    All Douthat says here seems true, but there’s at least one more BIG thing to add to what Margaret says about JPII’s achievements. What about his role in bringing down communism, in Poland and beyond?

    Not to mention that when he took office, many Catholics expected the teaching on contraception to be changed or dropped. I think he pretty much put paid to that one, too.

  • Ken

    But there is more.

    The media hates Benedict XVI because he is a traditionally-minded pope. (This is why they hate Pius XII.)

    John Paul II, we need to just admit, was one of the most liberal popes in the history of the Church. Yes, he spoke on the pro-life issue, but on liturgy, music, the definition of ecumenism and everything visible concerning the Roman Catholic Church, JPII pushed things far to the left. Benedict is now restoring as much as humanly possible.

    Ross Douthat is the best thing that has happened to the New York Times in a LONG time.

  • Austin

    Comparing Popes is difficult and possibly unfair. JP II had huge accomplishments [fall of communism, etc], huge popularity, but was not perfect and his handling of Maciel and some similar incidents are somewhat disappointing. Benedict, while not having JP II’s personality abd aura, is a solid administrator and sound on doctrine and liturgy. All of that Pope’s Rotweiller buiness was so much nonsense. As head of CDF he had to be the “chief law enforcement officer” of the Vatican. As Pope, he has a bigger, more comprehensive job, and while there are times when he needs to be “tough” he is more than just the sheriff.

    It should be noted that most of the needed reforms coming out of the sexual abuse crises are from Benedict, and that it was Benedict who dealt with Maciel.

    Benedict is a conservative, but he is not a right wing ideologue
    he likes tradition, but understands that it is a means to an end, not always an end in and of itself.

    I think history will be kinder to Benedict than the current media.

  • Deacon Ed

    our pontiffs to political types. I would recommend that the Vatican retain the Rasmussen group to do a poll so we can all then know where we should stand on ‘the issue of the Pope.’

    Pardon my exasperation, but this conversation about the Pope is getting…well foolish.

    Oh, has anyone heard about the mad British physicist who is planning to have the Pope arrested? We’ve all gone daffy!

  • Pammie

    The present Holy Father has been a hero of mine since I first heard of him back in the day. Always someone who defended traditional practices and combining them with a true Pastor’s love for his flock, he gave me hope. He never seemed to mince words, something that in this day of obfuscation, smoke and mirrors, I appreciate. Our Lord once said, “if they hate me they will hate you as well.” Very true. Viva Papa BXVI!

  • bonald

    I like Ms. Cabaniss’ comment that JPII made BVI possible. One might also say that Paul VI made John Paul II possible. We used to hear a lot of the same things comparing JPII to PVI: that with John Paul, we were finally starting to get some orthodox bishops, that he was finally starting to establish discipline among the clergy and stamp out abuses of the liturgy. Then again, when judging Pope Paul, we should also remember what a horrific mess he lived through, since the 1970s were a time of near open rebellion among the lower clergy (and completely open rebellion among theologians and religious). Just holding to the orthodox faith was an incredible accomplishment, one that few thought could be managed. No, the blame for the Church’s collapse must go to John XXIII, who took a flourishing Church and brought it to utter ruin with his reckless, unnecessary council. I don’t like this tendency to defend whoever the current pope is by trashing his predecessor, but if blame must be laid on a successor of Peter, that’s where it belongs. Paul, John Paul, and Benedict are heroes who inherited impossible situations, but each built a little ground for his successor.

  • EMK

    I don’t know that you can say Benedict was a “better” pope, but at the same time, Douthat has echo’d my thoughts of the last week or so, when I have wondered, “was John Paul just not paying attention?”

    From a personal perspective, I like Benedict better than John Paul. Both holy men, but I find Benedict to be more comfortable a fit. I guess I like theologians over philosophers.

  • Michael Brendan Dougherty

    I don’t think there was any lack of decisiveness in the way John Paul II handled Maciel. It was just the absolute wrong decision to trust him.

    The Maciel case is actually pretty damning to the curia – not only does it demonstrate their corruption, but also their utter faithlessness. It is one thing to take a few extra bucks handed out “for your charitable use” it is quite another to let a monster fast-track himself to sainthood.

    Perhaps someone can say that there were no rumors about Maciel among the curia. But, c’mon!

  • Austin

    Apparently, several members of the Curia, including Cardinal Sodano accepted money from Maciel [the Cardinal Ratzinger refused to his enormous credit]. This stinks. The whole personality cult thing with LC and Maciel is creepy. All this reverence for a living man, who turns out to be a pervert and a fraud shows how we should be wary about professing such reverence for men, no matter who they are. Only God is sacred, certainly not the self serving head of a personality cult.

  • Aaron

    My impression has been that John Paul II was personally a very holy man, but that Benedict XVI — primarily through his efforts to restore the liturgy — may do more to make other Catholics holy. The average Joe Catholic isn’t affected much by encyclicals (he doesn’t read them) or by how much time the Pope spends in devotion to Mary. He is far more affected by the quality of the Sunday Mass in his own parish, and to a lesser extent other devotions that take place there.

    Liturgy is where the focus has to be if the Church is to re-catechize Catholics into knowing and loving their faith, and Benedict seems to understand that.

  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Thanks for all the thoughtful comments. I just want to reemphasize that I have great respect and affection for both men, and I don’t mean to diminish them by insisting on some arbitrary ranking — I’m simply interested in the ways that John Paul’s papacy was sometimes oversold and Benedict’s is often undersold, at least in the media.

    I don’t think there was any lack of decisiveness in the way John Paul II handled Maciel. It was just the absolute wrong decision to trust him.

    Right — that was poorly phrased on my part. I meant his indecisiveness handling the abuse case and, as you said, the wrong decision to trust Maciel (though how he could have been so thoroughly deceived about the latter and slow to react to the former could have stemmed from the same place, whatever it might have been).

  • dymphna

    I loved JPII too, but he was a terrible judge of character (Marciel, anyone?) and he was a permissive parent to his bishops and poor Benedict is left to deal with the mess.

  • Doug Sirman

    The public record and personal testimonies of others have made it very, very clear that JPII was fully informed of what was going on. For whatever reason, he chose to do nothing, and other people’s children paid the price for this. His vaunted notion of “the dignity of the human person” obviously did NOT apply to them.

  • Anonymous Seminarian

    I agree with some others here that we shouldn’t rush to judgment on either pope for various reasons. I would like to add that JPII pointed out in one of his books that it is simply impossible to be even an adequate pope in all areas. It just can’t be done.

    In Fr. Z’s post on this issue, he included a column by one Dreher which added a very important dimension to this debate–the Cult of Personality that arose around JPII. We will see in the next few years–particularly in how well the ‘JPII’ priests do–how much the late pope’s cultus inspires people to greater sanctity and devotion and humble obedience to the Church–especially in her liturgy.

    We have all met with the Cult of Personality, some more violently than others. The deforms of the liturgy following the Council fed this cult like none other–the priest replaced the tabernacle with his face and infected the entire liturgy with his own personal changes and style. This has almost destroyed an entire generation of Catholics, if not causing them to lose their faith, severely crippling it. JPII seemed to have had little problem with these deforms, however, and we have his administration to thank for ‘altar girls’ (hey, someone had to say it). He even (again, I forget where) went so far as to openly praise versus populum and speak of it as if it were desireable and ‘here to stay’–but it is this ‘orientation’ that has contributed so much to the Cult of Personality afflicting us today, and, one might add…which tends to attract the more flamboyant men and tends to feed into the temptation within every priest to think that the power that comes through him comes from him. At its ugliest, this gives us the sexual abuse crisis (see Lawler for details).

    Again, I think time will tell, and the first test will be the ‘JPII priests’. These men, of whom I have known a few, tend to be very orthodox and devout…but at the same time, willing to sell the liturgy short. They will stand up and defend the Church’s teaching against contraception, but they will often shrug off liturgical abuse and become a willing cooperator in it, if not because it ‘seems ok’ or ‘feels ok’, then in order to grease the wheels of the machine, which then comes at those few of us who won’t abuse our liturgy or theology. But they are young, and we can hope and pray that B16’s teaching and reforms will fill in that liturgical gap, and bring them into full alignment.

  • georgie-ann

    sexual “abuse” ALWAYS involves some kind of seduction process,…most often “covert,”…being two-faced and deceptive–a con artist–is usually part and parcel of the whole procedure,…

    under-handed undercurrents of manipulation and fraud are to be expected, especially clear in “hind-sight,”…but on the “face of things”–unless one is pretty well “seasoned” in these matters–it can be very difficult to tell what is true or false, or to what extent,…

    the “open season” on hidden sexual matters, that is emerging in this day and age, was unheard of even just a few decades ago,…cultural “denial” with regard to these things was very strong,…many societal things across the board (i.e., not just in the Catholic Church), were unconsciously conspiring together on all fronts to “avoid scandal” and keep up certain “illusions” of “all is well,”…

    taboos were very scary things to be feared and avoided,…

    in this way, we protected our collective illusions of “innocence,”…at the expense of honesty,…

    now, the exposes of “honesty and truth,” no matter how vile, are shattering our “innocence” early in life,…

    which is better?,…

    the Bible presents some pretty nasty, long lists of things that “mankind without God” is capable of,…they are not the least bit “prettified,”….

    with so much rampant societal evil erupting THROUGHOUT THE WHOLE WORLD, i guess it is time to “take off the masks,” and prepare ourselves, including our young, to face just about anything that may come,…evil appears to be “coming of age” once again–a “sign of the times,”…

    it is always good to know your enemy,…

    & God is Greater,…

  • Justin Wong

    John Paul the Great. Benedict the Greater.