How Great was John Paul II?

Pope John Paul II was unquestionably the most dominant figure in Catholicism in the last quarter of the twentieth century. He loomed large over every aspect of Catholic life, directing the Church through one of her most troubling times. And his influence transcended the confines of the Church; at the height of his popularity in the 1990s, he was arguably the most dominant figure on the world stage. He helped bring down the Soviet Union, one of the most terrifying forces of the twentieth century, and he likewise stood up to the Culture of Death that was infecting the West. He was a globetrotting rock star of a pontiff, commanding huge crowds and earning the respect and even adulation of millions of people worldwide.

As John Paul neared the end of his life, the question wasn’t whether he would be canonized but how quickly it would happen. After all, George Weigel had already unofficially canonized him before his death, publishing his international bestselling hagiography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, in 1999. And at the Pontiff’s death in 2005, there were cries of “Santo Subito!” (Sainthood now!) from his many devoted followers. Sainthood was assumed, and many were arguing that he should be called “John Paul the Great.” His canonization in 2014 by Pope Francis was almost anticlimactic, since his followers had already canonized him in their hearts.

For those who are too young to have lived through John Paul’s papacy, this brief recounting of his pontificate doesn’t give justice to his impact on the Church and the adulation he received. I became Catholic in 1993, partly under the influence of John Paul II, and a few months after my conversion, I attended World Youth Day in Denver. It was two parts Catholicism to one part Woodstock. A million young people flocked to the Rocky Mountains, not necessarily because they were devoted to their Faith but because they were devoted to this great man. He radiated a charisma like few men ever have, and it was natural to want to follow him anywhere. In many ways, he transcended even the papacy.

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That’s not to say John Paul didn’t have his critics during his lifetime. Liberal Catholics tried to paint him as an antiquated authoritarian who didn’t embrace the Spirit of Vatican II. Traditionalists didn’t like his full-throated embrace of Vatican II, his forays into interreligious activities (particularly the 1986 interreligious prayer meeting in Assisi), and his choice of bishops. But these criticisms from the extremes only encouraged John Paul II’s defenders; they felt they were following the Pope along the Golden Mean of Catholicism.

It’s said, however, that time reveals all things, and this is true of the legacy of John Paul II as well. The end of his pontificate saw the explosion of the sex-abuse crisis in the Church, and though many attempts were made at the time to excuse the Pope of wrongdoing, the fact remained that it occurred under his watch and was aided and abetted (and sometimes committed) by men he personally chose to be shepherds of the flock. Nowhere is Truman’s saying “The buck stops here” truer than in the Vatican. In a highly centralized organization like today’s Catholic Church, the Pope has the power to appoint, promote, and remove bishops. Any nefarious deeds by bishops ultimately come back to him.

The Theodore McCarrick scandal that broke in 2018 further weakened the John Paul the Great narrative. McCarrick was a man who on three occasions was promoted by John Paul II, the last time to a Cardinalate See against the explicit advice of the most prominent member of the American hierarchy. McCarrick wreaked devastation in the Church, and almost every prelate associated with his reign of depravity was either appointed or promoted by John Paul II. This isn’t a case of a solitary country priest caught sleeping with the farmer’s wife; it was widespread cultural corruption occurring right under the Pontiff’s nose. And we haven’t even mentioned the case of Marcial Maciel, the monstrous predator who founded one of John Paul II’s most beloved religious orders.

These sad truths have led many Catholics to reassess John Paul II’s legacy. It has led them to consider some uncomfortable realties, even beyond the McCarrick and Maciel connections. One reality is that John Paul had an awful record of appointing bishops. Aside from the fact that so many looked the other way at sexual abuse, most looked the other way at spiritual abuse. Contrary to the claims of disgruntled liberals, heresy ran rampant throughout the Church during John Paul’s pontificate, and it was aided and abetted by the bishops he chose. Cardinals Bernardin, Mahoney, Danneels, Schönborn, and Kasper are just a few examples of men elevated to be princes of the Church by John Paul II in spite of their allergic reaction to orthodoxy.

There’s more. Last year, Catholics were justifiably up in arms about the Pachamama nonsense at the Vatican, but John Paul II’s 1986 Assisi interreligious prayer meeting was no less sacrilegious. During the event, each religious tradition was given space to pray, with the Buddhists being assigned to the Church of San Pietro. Once there, as the New York Times reported, they “quickly converted the altar…by placing a small statue of the Buddha atop the tabernacle and setting prayer scrolls and incense burners around it.” If this were to happen today, Catholic Twitter would explode, even among Catholics who consider themselves John Paul II devotees. Although many have argued that the Pope didn’t know that was going to happen, the way in which the event was directed made such a sacrilege inevitable.

So how should Catholics look upon the legacy of John Paul II? One thing we can’t do is put our heads in the sand and pretend he didn’t make some very significant mistakes or that it doesn’t matter if he did. The ramifications of his terrible personnel choices are still being felt today, as many John Paul II “grandchildren” are rising in the ecclesial ranks due to their connection to corrupt and heterodox John Paul II–appointed hierarchs. Further, much of the most egregious interreligious activities of Pope Francis, including his claim that a plurality of religions are “willed by God,” can be traced directly back to the muddled interreligious theology of John Paul II. This doesn’t mean that John Paul II should be “canceled,” but it does mean that we need to give a more sober, balanced, assessment of his pontificate.

Another lesson can be learned from the legacy John Paul II. It is highly imprudent for the Church to fast-track the canonization of anyone, no matter how acclaimed he may be. Waiting, say, fifty years after a person’s death before he can be beautified would allow for a more objective look at his life and impact. Without entering into the debate about the infallibility of canonizations, the recent revelations from the McCarrick Report that John Paul II knew of the allegations against McCarrick but promoted him anyway demonstrates that his hasty canonization was gravely imprudent. For victims of McCarrick, knowing that the Church canonized a man who could perhaps have prevented the rise of this monster is only pouring salt into an already festering wound. We have thousands of canonized saints already; there’s no reason to rush to make more until all the facts have been considered.

One of the consequences of being a great man—and John Paul II was undoubtedly a great man—is that both your successes and your failures are far-reaching in their impact. So even while one acknowledges the great good John Paul II did for the Church, one must also consider the possibility that he did great harm as well. Denying or ignoring these uncomfortable truths won’t help the Church move forward, even if confronting them means diminishing the bright lights of a former rock star.

  • Eric Sammons

    Eric Sammons is the editor-in-chief of Crisis Magazine.

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