The Agenda in Making John Paul an Insta-Saint

Is it my imagination, or has the process of canonizing saints in the Catholic Church largely become a circular process by which popes justify the political agendas of their predecessors?

When I was a kid growing up in the Catholic Church, sainthood was a long and mysterious process. I remember the excitement surrounding the canonization of Elizabeth Ann Seton not only because she was the first American-born saint, but because the order of nuns who taught at the Catholic elementary and high schools that I attended was founded in her honor and had waited a long time for her elevation to sainthood.

Seton founded the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph’s, the first religious order in the United States, which gave birth to numerous orders under the Sisters of Charity umbrella. She pioneered the Catholic parochial school system, with its emphasis on serving poor children, before dying of TB in 1821 at the age of 46. She was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1963 and canonized twelve years later in 1975 by Pope Paul VI.

It took 154 years for Seton to become a saint. By contrast, Pope John Paul II, who will be canonized Sunday, died in 2005, making his nine-year march to sainthood the fastest in the church’s history. His successor Pope Benedict waived the normal five-year waiting period so that his sainthood could be considered immediately and it was fast-tracked from there on in.

The benefit of the church’s traditional slow march to sainthood was that it removed the canonization of any individual from the politics of any particular papacy. You really had to stand the test of time to be made a saint in the Catholic Church. But now we see Benedict, who as head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith created the rightward-leaning theology that fueled John Paul’s papacy and served as its chief enforcer, nominating his old boss for sainthood practically the moment he shuffled off his moral coil.

It’s hard not to read this as a heavy-handed attempt to permanently codify the more controversial decrees of John Paul’s papacy, with its pronouncements that women could never be priests and that homosexuality was intrinsically disordered—which, conveniently, Benedict helped create and then promulgated in his own papacy, which John Paul teed him up for. As Vatican expert Luigi Accattoli told Reuters, “By canonizing a pope, the papacy confirms itself. It’s as if they are saying that the policies of previous popes are untouchable.” 

The trend to canonize popes is disturbing for another reason. After all, what’s the purpose of sainthood other than to suggest that ordinary humans can be raised to extraordinary heights by faith? Do popes, with the power and prestige that comes with the job, not to mention the mantle of infallibility, really need additional veneration? Canonizing popes, especially recent ones, isn’t standard practice for the church. Of the 265 Catholic popes, only 78 have been declared saints, and most of them are from the earliest years of the church.

It’s a phenomenon that may take some of the shine off of sainthood. The rush to John Paul’s canonization, with its clear political undertones, will happen in conjunction with the canonization of Pope John XXIII, which Pope Francis also fast-tracked by suspending the requirement for a second miracle, supposedly to balance the canonization of the authoritarian John Paul with that of the “Good Pope” John, who tried to modernize the church with the Second Vatican Council.

The dual canonization, with all its attendant pomp and circumstance, is already being viewed as somewhat of a PR stunt. It’s also reopened the issue of just what John Paul knew and when he knew it about the pedophilia scandal, especially the handling of Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, who serially abused boys in his care.

PBS’ Frontline recently spoke with Father Juan Vaca, who was sexually abused by Maciel at his seminary for over a decade. He was later ordained and given a senior position with the Legionaries but Vaca would eventually document all the abuse he’d suffered and all he’d witnessed. 

NARRATOR: In 1976, Father Juan Vaca made a decision. He would send his damning report [detailing Maciel’s drug use, the misappropriation of funds and numerous accounts of the sexual abuse of boys, including his own story] to the Vatican.

JUAN VACA: I named 21 colleagues of mine that have been also abused. I witnessed the abuse myself.

NARRATOR: Father Vaca also described Maciel’s misappropriation of funds to maintain his extravagant lifestyle and the bribes he’d paid to doctors and the police.

JUAN VACA: We knew that the letter was received because we send them through the diplomatic pouch because we got “Protocol number such-and-such received,” but no answer, no reply to the content of my information. Nothing at all.

NARRATOR: Not only did the Vatican not respond to the letter, but Pope John Paul led massive celebrations to mark both the 50th and the 60th anniversaries of Father Maciel’s priestly ordination.

JASON BERRY: The Vatican did nothing. John Paul continued to praise Maciel despite the pending allegations.

NARRATOR: He described the founder of the Legionaries of Christ as, quote, “an efficacious guide to youth.” That quote incensed Maciel’s victims. They would go public with the testimony they now had on Maciel.

The continued controversy over John Paul’s culpability led to the rather extraordinary scene at the Vatican on Tuesday of the priest who’s in charge of the sainthood process having to justify to the press whether a man who’s going to be canonized in less than a week had been sufficiently exonerated for his role in the scandal—which in addition to sex abuse and the fathering of several children involved widespread financial misconduct.

And according to Joshua McElwee of the National Catholic Reporter, his response “indicate[s] that Vatican officials do not have a clear response for questions about John Paul II’s relationship with Maciel”:

When Msgr. Sławomir Oder was asked whether those investigating the saintliness of John Paul II considered if the late pope had sufficiently handled Maciel, who by the late 1990s was the subject of substantial investigative reporting, Oder said the investigations were carried out “with the real desire to clear things up and confront all the problems.”

“Even concerning the specific question that you mention, an investigation was carried out, documents were studied, [documents] which are available, and the response was very clear,” Oder said. “There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in this matter.”

Supporters of John Paul’s fast-track canonization, like The Vatican Diaries author John Thavis, argue that the sex abuse scandal shouldn’t define the pope’s legacy. “One of the questions here is whether a pope can be a saint and also make managerial mistakes, and I think Vatican officials would say yes,” he told Religion News Service

Some supporters of the canonization argue that John Paul’s “management mistakes” illustrate his humanity and therefore amplify his greatness. Apparently John Paul is more or less infallible, and apparently irreversible, when he declares that women can never be priests or that homosexuality is intrinsically disordered, but just a guy who did a bad job when it comes to the widespread pedophilia and abuse that festered during the quarter century of his papacy.

Patricia Miller is the author of Good Catholics: The Battle over Abortion in the Catholic Church. Her work on the intersection of sex, religion, and politics has appeared in The Nation, Ms., and Huffington Post. She was the editor of Conscience magazine and the editor-in-chief of the National Journal’s health care briefings.

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