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Worse Without Them? The Tumultuous Papacies of John XXIII & John Paul II

Popes to be Canonized as Saints: John XXIII and John Paul II

CC Rob Sheridan

Richard H. Bulzacchelli - published on 07/22/13

The Church in the second half of the 20th century was rife with scandal, heresy, and corruption. Are soon-to-be-saints John XXIII and John Paul II to blame?

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John XXIII and John Paul II both reigned during a period in which the Church was undergoing a paradigm shift in the language and form of argumentation on issues of faith and morals.  This was a cause of a good deal of the animosity toward both popes by some of the more traditionalist elements in the Church; for many, it was a matter of Church-dividing significance.  The shift toward a personalist paradigm, though, was an important one in the aftermath of the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century.  Indeed, the basic problem that led to those horrors had not been resolved with the end of the Second World War, but continued to threaten the world in the ongoing problems of secular totalitarian communist regimes, as well as nihilistic relativism in the culture at large.  John Paul II described this problem in a letter to Henri de Lubac, S.J., in February of 1968.  He wrote:

It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level.  The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.  This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order.  To this disintegration, planned at times by atheistic ideologies, we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of “recapitulation” of the inviolable mystery of the person.

John XXIII may not have been able to name the issue, but I think he perceived it just the same.  The whole question of the human person was at stake, because that was the question of the contemporary world, and unsatisfactory responses to that question would lead to terrible crimes against humanity – and more importantly, against concrete human beings. This problem is still with us today, and I remain convinced that the personalist approach is still the way forward.

It’s also true that both figures reigned in a time of tremendous public dissent in the ChurchJohn Paul II far more so than John XXIII.  The reasons for this are complex: John Paul II recognized that we were in the midst of a “culture war,” and his remarks about the assault on the inviolable mystery of the person have to do with this point.  But there’s also a lot that he didn’t see – or didn’t see clearly enough or early enough to do anything about it.  Neither pope really understood just how powerful mass media – and in particular, television and later the internet – were for the propagation of secularist, materialist philosophy and values.  They also failed to realize how much more effective these media were for that end than they are for the propagation of the views and values of the Church.  These forms of media are, on the whole, a force for evil, not because they must be, but because they are better suited as a tool for the promotion of evil than for the promotion of good.  Catholics have never really been very media savvy, and that has cost the Church dearly.  We need to be in the game, though, because otherwise, evil will be the only voice in mass media, and that would be a worse situation still.

But it’s also the case that the dissent that took root during the period of John Paul II came partly from within.  On one side were those who wanted the Church to return to what it had been prior to the Second Vatican Council.  This side included the Society of St. Pius X and also a few sedevecantist groups who claim that we haven’t even had a legitimate pope since Pius XII.  The Society of St. Pius X doesn’t go that far, and neither do many of the disgruntled traditionalists who still attend Mass at their parishes and cringe at the sight of communion in the hand and female alter servers, felt banners, and guitars.  All of this happened under John Paul II’s watch, and it led to a good deal of animosity from the traditionalists in the Church.

On the other side of it, though, were the secularizers who promoted a form of liberation theology that was eventually condemned by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  John Paul II once publicly scolded a priest for lending his support to such movements, which reduced the Gospel to Marxist, secularist, and worldly eschatological concerns.  What’s more, the Church had attempted to correct what it saw, in the time between Pius IX and Pius XII, as an overly constrictive and protectionistic approach to theological inquiry.  The twentieth century was a golden age of theology, and the best contributions were at risk of suppression because they didn’t fit the tightly formulated contours of the Church’s Neo-Thomistic presuppositions.  People like Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, and Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) all faced difficulties from overly zealous defenders of the theological status quo.  Of course, part of this was motivated by the perceived threat posed by secularism–a motivation clearly based in reality.  But that doesn’t mean that their answer was the right one.  So when John Paul II became Pope and Joseph Ratzinger became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Magisterium became much more reticent to silence theologians than it had been in the past.  It tended to avoid composing syllabi of errors and just let theologians do theology.  Perhaps, though, it wielded too light a touch.

It was at this time that theologians began publicly to dissent from the Church from university posts.  And it was only the most high profile among those dissenters (like Hans Küng, who had been a colleague of Ratzinger and a former peritus at the Second Vatican Council along with him) who faced censure.  The rest essentially got away with it, even as documents came forth from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and from the pope himself, condemning the ideas they were promoting.  With no mechanism for enforcement, rather than reforming their teaching, these dissenters would hold public colloquia critiquing the Magisterium’s interventions, and the divide became deeper all the time.  In the end, Ex corde ecclesiae was too little, too late, and had little effect but to provide a brand for the few institutions left that wanted to remain really firmly Catholic in their approach to higher education.

I don’t think at all that John XXIII or John Paul II intended these problems, nor that they are culpably at fault for them.  I think, instead, that the twentieth century was just a really difficult time – and we’re still in that really difficult time today.  It’s impossible to imagine that they would have known just what to do to prevent the avalanche of modern culture from wiping out great swaths of Christendom.  But without these great men, it’s my contention that things would have been a good deal worse today than they are.

PopePope John Paul II
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