Politics & Policy

The Saints Among Us

Buying portraits of Pope John Paul II in Vatican City.
The recent canonization of two popes reminds us not that they were perfect but that they were witnesses.

This weekend thousands traveled to Rome to be present at the canonization of two of the 20th century’s most popular popes. Both John the XXIII and John Paul II have had fervent admirers in many secular corners, not just in Catholic circles. Not everyone is so enthusiastic about this event, however.

The Week’s senior correspondent Brendan Michael Dougherty, for one, isn’t celebrating these canonizations, the papacy of John Paul II, or, for that matter, all the canonizations that happened while John Paul II was pontiff. In an article published a few days before the canonizations, Dougherty expressed his concerns about Sunday’s events, and, perhaps surprisingly since he describes himself as a “Traditionalist” Catholic, his criticism is almost entirely focused on John Paul II — about whom he has “extremely mixed feelings” — and not the “liberal hero” John the XXIII.

#ad#Oddly enough, much of his article echoed Maureen Dowd’s column about John Paul II’s canonization, titled, subtly, “A Saint, He Ain’t.” Dowd and Dougherty have almost opposite opinions on the history of the Catholic Church in the last 40 years. She thinks the promise of a more open — read, progressive — Church was thwarted by arch-conservative elements, and he believes that the fruit of the Second Vatican Council has been only, and can only ever be, rotten and a departure from the Church’s true and timeless mission. But the arguments they give against the Church’s recognizing John Paul II as a saint are remarkably similar. Both are principally concerned by his leadership, or lack thereof, during the sexual-abuse scandal (though Dougherty actually admits that “there may be some room to doubt his personal culpability”) — and both have the same fundamental misunderstanding about why the Church declares individuals to be saints.

Dowd thinks John Paul II can’t be a saint “given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up.” Though she goes on to make more specific claims of his negligence or dereliction of duty, this first statement is telling. The mere fact that he was pontiff during a time when a scandal broke taints him in her eyes. One wonders what she thinks it means to call someone a saint. Does she believe that this is an award given to someone who was basically a CEO for a management job well done?

In some ways it’s not fair to compare Maureen Dowd and Brendan Michael Dougherty, since Dowd’s almost gleeful hatred of the Catholic Church is evident in everything she writes about it, while Dougherty makes his complaints because he is “unsettled” by the canonizations. (He is right to worry, though, that his comparing John Paul II unfavorably with Sinéad O’Connor will make him look “silly,” and “silly” is also the best word to describe his outrage that the pope “made additions to the Rosary.”) But the case against John Paul II that Dougherty makes, though more serious than Dowd’s, rests on the same basic assumption: that it is wrong for the Church to honor as a saint someone whose leadership wasn’t a perfect model of success.

Elsewhere, Dougherty has made the air-tight argument that the popes of the modern era can’t all be holy because much in the Church has gone amuck since Vatican II. He makes that same criticism in a slightly more reasonable fashion in his piece in The Week.

The post Vatican II era . . . has been one of shocking decline in Catholic practice, weakness of faith, and demoralizing immorality. Why the rush to canonize those who initiated it and oversaw it?

This is the heart of Dougherty’s complaint. He sees a Church that has gone through much turmoil in the past 40 years and is angry at its leaders. He either doesn’t think the “shepherds who oversaw the Church in her agony” could possibly be worthy of being called saints, or he just can’t understand how any good can come out of publicly recognizing their personal sanctity.

While this scandalized attitude is understandable, I think it’s also pretty profoundly un-Catholic. The Church has always understood its clergy and, in fact, all its members, to be unworthy vessels. This is no less true of popes. We believe that the pope is the vicar of Christ on Earth, but he is a fallible, fallen man. And the holiest of men can fail to be successful leaders. Mother Teresa said, “We are not called to be successful; we are called to be faithful.”

I think it’s pretty obvious that John Paul II was an immensely charismatic and devoted leader, but that’s far from the main reason for the Church to recognize his virtues by canonizing him. A saint is a witness, by the way he lives his daily life, of the Gospel, the good news. John Paul II showed his real belief in that good news in the way he lived.

What Dougherty calls the “saint factory,” the canonizations of several hundred that occurred under John Paul’s reign, is evidence of how much he wanted the world to see that the joy of the saints is not something of ages past, but something that can belong to any of us. I think it’s beautiful that he sometimes “rushed” the process (though it still involved painstakingly careful investigation) in his eagerness to show the world the stories of these witnesses, and I think it’s beautiful and fitting that the Church “rushed” to number him among them.

— Lucy Zepeda is a former NRO associate and works in development for Catholic Guardian Services.

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