A Tale of Two Saints
The Church recognizes “heroic virtue” in two of its former popes.

John Paul II (left) and Pope John XXIII


John Paul II was convinced that God is profligate in “making saints,” and that the divine delight in doing so had not slackened over the centuries. Thus his many beatifications and canonizations were an effort to get the Church of the third millennium to recognize the many saints who surround us, that “great cloud of witnesses” of which the Letter to the Hebrews speaks so eloquently.

As for Hell, the Catholic Church has never declared that X, Y, or Z is certainly in Hell, although the Church continues to believe that Hell exists. The question of Hell’s population is for God to determine. The greatest of poets, Dante, was, of course, less restrained in his census of Hell than the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

LOPEZ: “Vatican Under John Paul II Knew About Sex Abuse In Legion Of Christ For Decades, Documents Reveal,” one headline this week reads. Did Pope John Paul not want to know the truth about Marcial Maciel? Did he know and not care?

WEIGEL: I discussed the Maciel case in The End and the Beginning, the second volume of my biography of John Paul II, and my conclusion today remains the same as it was when that book was published in 2010: John Paul II was deceived by Marcial Maciel, a master-deceiver who deceived many, many people. That, I think, is clear. But that John Paul II knew about Maciel’s perfidies and “didn’t care” is inconceivable.

LOPEZ: An AP story Monday was headlined “John Paul’s legacy stained by sex abuse scandal.” As his biographer, would you agree? What is his legacy on this front?

WEIGEL: This is another matter I discussed at length in both The End and the Beginning and in my 2002 book on the abuse scandal, The Courage To Be Catholic. There are a number of things to be said, things that don’t fit neatly into wire-service sound bites.

First, John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood. The Catholic priesthood in 1978 was in arguably its worst shape since the Reformation: thousands of men had abandoned the ministry, and we now know that others — a small minority, but one was one too many — were behaving horribly in betraying the trust of the young. The crisis of the priesthood was addressed by John Paul II comprehensively, by his teaching, his example, his reform of seminaries, and his reform of the world episcopate. The first thing to be said in fairness about John Paul II and the priesthood is that he is one of the great papal reformers of the priesthood.

Second, it’s clear that the Holy See and the pope were not living the abuse crisis in “real time” with the Church in the United States in 2002, an information lag that led to a misimpression of inattention or refusal to face facts.

Third, when John Paul II was fully informed of what had been revealed in the first four months of 2002, he acted decisively, summoning the American cardinals to the Vatican and initiating a process that led to a major and further reform of U.S. seminaries.

Fourth, the rigorous way the Catholic Church has dealt with what is a societal plague — the sexual abuse of the young — should be taken as a model for other institutions. The plague is real, but a one-eyed obsession with the plague’s impact on the Catholic Church makes it more difficult to address the far more widespread crisis of sexual abuse: within families (where the majority of the abuse of the young takes place) or in government-run schools. One does no good service to the young, and to the protection of the young, by using this horrible problem and these wicked acts to attack the credibility of the Church’s moral teaching on matters that cut against the grain of contemporary lifestyle libertinism.

LOPEZ: Shouldn’t both John Paul II and John XXIII be held responsible for what happened on their watch? Which certainly doesn’t scream “heroic virtue”?

WEIGEL: Local bishops and religious superiors are the ones to be held “primarily responsible” for failures to address, rigorously and decisively, the sin and crime of the sexual abuse of the young.

LOPEZ: Some have accused Pope Francis of being all talk on the topic of sex abuse. Would you agree? Or is there a story being missed?

WEIGEL: I really don’t understand what this accusation means. Is someone seriously proposing that Pope Francis does not care about the victims of abuse? That he is giving a wink-and-nod to these issues, where they remain? He’s just established a commission to oversee the Church’s response to the societal abuse crisis, and it includes both laity and an abuse victim.

The pope’s brief criticism of a U.N. report on the Church and the sexual abuse of the young rightly reminded the world that this is a global crisis, not some uniquely Catholic crisis. If Pope Francis were a less charitable man, he would also have remarked on the U.N.’s dismal record in addressing the rampant sexual abuse committed by U.N. “peacekeeping forces.”