John Paul II: tainted saint?

The late Polish pope and another former pontiff, John XXIII, will be canonised in Rome in a fortnight’s time. Many people, uncomfortable with John Paul’s ideologies and allegiances, are unhappy about the speed of his sainthood


He was a holy man, but was he a saint? As Pope Francis prepares to canonise two of his predecessors, two weeks from now, that question mark hangs over the head of John Paul II, if not of John XXIII.

It is not that John Paul, like John XXIII, was not a patently good man. More than that, in his 27-year pontificate he proved to be one of most influential figures of the 20th century, not least because of his fundamental role in the downfall of Eastern bloc totalitarianism.

On top of that, until his latter, illness-ridden years he was an unfailingly engaging, witty and often inspirational preacher. He was a mystic and a man of profound faith, yet he had tremendous political savvy, honed in years of struggle first with Nazi-German forces and then with Poland’s communist rulers.

In short his faith, wit and intellect were the perfect combination for a man who justifiably earned the nickname of God’s Politician as he travelled the globe, spreading the message long after he was physically well enough to do so.

His travels, his personal witness to suffering and illness, his ability to forgive Mehmet Ali Agca, who tried to assassinate him in 1981, and many other qualities explain why the crowds began that “ Santo s ubito! ” (“Make him a saint now”) chant in St Peter’s Square at his funeral, in 2005. That chant was arguably the biggest spur to setting him on the fast track to sainthood.

Yet many continue to have reservations about his impending sainthood. Secular, non-Catholic world opinion continues to point a finger at his handling of the sex-abuse crisis, which broke on his watch. Catholics also wonder whether the fastest canonisation process of modern times is not just a little too fast.

Latin Americans and others wonder about his lack of sympathy or support for the liberation-theology movement of the 1970s and 1980s. Liberal Catholics question his conservative teaching on sexual mores, as well as his conservative appointments.

Others ask if he was not too enthusiastic about lay movements such as Opus Dei, Comunione e Liberazione and, above all, the Legionaries of Christ of the late, disgraced Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado.

Claims on sainthood
Curiously, one of those to express some of those doubts was the late cardinal of Milan Carlo Maria Martini. This week Corriere Della Sera , the city’s daily newpaper, revealed some of the deposition that the Jesuit cardinal made to the Congregation for the Cause of Saints when it was investigating John Paul’s claims on sainthood.

Martini expressed doubts about the late pope’s choice of collaborators, “especially in his later years”, and about his closeness to the “movements”. He also said that perhaps it was “imprudent” to have put himself so much “at the centre of attention”, in this way sometimes overlooking local churches.

He also recalls him as a “zealous and faithful” man of God whose “best moments” were “his meetings with the masses and with young people”, but then he says, “I would not want to stress too much the need to canonise him, because it seems to me that history will bear witness to his total dedication to the Church . . . Myself, I would say that he should have retired before” the illness became so bad.

By the time the sex-abuse crisis finally made its way both on to mainstream Vatican radar and to worldwide public attention, John Paul was a very sick man, not fully able to run the show.

That may or may not explain the mishandling of the sex-abuse issue, but it certainly doesn’t explain another controversial question that broke early in the pontificate: the Latin American liberation-theology movement, with its emphasis on the church’s preferential option for the poor.

Both John Paul and his trusty guardian of orthodoxy, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger – head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the man who became Pope Benedict XVI – treated the movement with suspicion. They regarded it as a falsified Christianity that put more emphasis on Marx than on Christ.

John Paul, for example, was distinctly cool with Óscar Romero, the archbishop who was gunned down by the El Salvador military in a hospital chapel as he said Mass in March 1980. For many Romero was a true Christian martyr, killed both because of his solidarity with the poor and because of his denunciation of human-rights abuses by the Salvadorean government.

That coolness continued throughout the pontificates of both John Paul and Benedict. Even though John Paul produced more beatifications (1,338) and canonisations (482) than all 2,000 years of previous popes, he could never find room for Romero.

Pope Francis had been elected little more than a month when he approved Romero’s beatification process, last April. Is Francis telling us that John Paul’s battle with communism in his native Poland tainted his vision?

In an interview in a recent book by the Polish writer Wlodzimierz Redzioch, Alongside John Paul II , no less an authority than Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI provides a candid insight. Asked about liberation theology, Benedict says that public opinion in Europe and North America regarded it as a good thing, “but that was a mistake”.

Benedict goes on to explain how it was a “falsification” of the Christian faith, adding: “On the basis of his experiences in his native Poland, Pope John Paul II was able to provide us with the necessary explanations.”

A curious aspect of at least two recent “canonisation” seminars at the Vatican, attended by this correspondent as well as by two former prime ministers of the Vatican, Cardinals Angelo Sodano and Tarcisio Bertone, has been the repeated affirmation that on liberation theology John Paul got it right. Perhaps the pre-Francis old guard wants to sound a quiet last hurrah.

John Paul II tended to see liberation theology as “priests taking politics into the church”. Yet he was the politically savvy pope who worked incessantly to bring down the Eastern bloc, even to the extent of allowing the Vatican bank to use Roberto Calvi, the Banco Ambrosiano and laundered Mafia money to secretly fund the Solidarnosc trade-union movement, in Poland.

That anti-communist mindset explains how John Paul II could stand on the balcony with Gen Pinochet in Chile, despite the Pinochet government’s bloody abuse of human rights. He might be bad, but at least he is not communist is the inference.

Under Pope Francis the once-discredited liberation-theology movement seems to have been partially rehabilitated. Francis received the theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian founding father of liberation theology, at Santa Marta last September.

It is also tempting to conclude that Francis has chosen to make this a dual canonisation in order to keep a very political balance between conservative and liberal elements of the church. Faced with an already beatified John Paul II, he was never going to slow that down. What he did, though, was twin it with “il Papa Buono”, John XXIII, who died 40 years before John Paul II.

Although the canonisation of John Paul II meets the usual “miracle” requirements, Francis opted to use the canonizzazio ne equipollente , or equivalent, clause for John XXIII. This means that even if we have no miracles to hand we know he was not only a holy man but also a saint.

As for John XXIII’s miracles, some say that his second miracle is right in front of us: the election of Pope Francis.

Sign In

Forgot Password?

Sign Up

The name that will appear beside your comments.

Have an account? Sign In

Forgot Password?

Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In or Sign Up

Thank you

You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.

Hello, .

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

Thank you for registering. Please check your email to verify your account.

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.