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A Summary Defense of John Paul II

… and why he should be canonized a saint.

JPII In PrayerIt is practically a foregone conclusion that John Paul II will be canonized a saint in the coming years. This makes some quite uncomfortable, and others downright angry. In fact, the whole idea of sanctity is rather antiquated in our culture. We don’t like to single others out. It’s not polite. And anyway, who’s to say you’re holier than I? Because of the  very public nature of the papacy, not all will be happy with the canonization of Pope John Paul II; and this is perhaps the reason that less than a quarter of all Popes have been canonized. No public office holder, secular or religious, holds a 100% approval rating; but this should not be an impediment to canonization, nor will it be.

The arguments against John Paul II’s canonization come down to one thing: He was a bad Pope. The arguments may not state that explicitly (some do), but it is certainly the conclusion to be drawn. Just take a look what happened to the Church on John Paul II’s watch. The number of priests and religious have dwindled. Known sexual deviants among the clergy were “protected”. Catechesis among the faithful was almost non-existent. Catholic politicians at odds with Church teaching (usually regarding abortion and contraception) were allowed to receive communion without retribution. In a similar fashion, “liberal” theologians, with few exceptions, were allowed to continue teaching at Catholic universities and receive communion without penalty. And so it goes. Basically, everything that is wrong with the Church happened, and indeed flourished, under John Paul II’s watch. But this cannot be a serious argument against his canonization.

It is rather unfair to blame all the ills of the Church on a Pope that was elected in 1978. As most would agree, it is empirically evident that all of the aforementioned ills were present, at least in seed form, in the period between the closing of Vatican II and John Paul II’s election as Pope. Besides that, the entire line of argumentation is premised on a false perception of papal power. It is said that John Paul II “didn’t do enough”, as if the role of the papacy is to force, from on high, orthodoxy on the rest of the Church. This is not how John Paul II saw his role as Pope, and, I might add, that is not how Benedict XVI envisions his role either. What many see as the job of the Pope to “fix” whatever problems are existent in the Church is primarily the job of local Bishops. It is the local Bishop who is to foster vacations within his diocese. It is the local Bishop who is to ensure his faithful are catechized; and it is the local Bishop who is to discipline sexually deviant priests, and heterodox politicians and professors. Sure, the Pope can and, arguably, should step in when a Bishop is not doing his job; but now the argument against John Paul II has been narrowed from “he was a bad pope” to “he was a bad disciplinarian”. Fine. John Paul II even admitted as much in his book Gift and Mystery (his reflections on the 50th anniversary of his ordination). But is this reason to doubt his personal sanctity? I think not.

Being non-confrontational and a bad disciplinarian no more speaks against one’s personal sanctity than does being confrontational or a good disciplinarian. These are character traits, not marks of virtue (or non-virtue). It can be argued that, as Pope, it was John Paul II’s job to discipline those who erred. Besides the fact that this is primarily the role of the local Bishop, let us remember that the papacy was not something for which John Paul II volunteered. In fact, he wanted more than anything to go back to his beloved Poland upon completion of the 2nd conclave of 1978. However, the Holy Spirit had other plans, and he accepted his new role as an obedient son of the Church. Is it reasonable to expect that someone as non-confrontational as Pope John Paul II would spontaneously exhibit disciplinary vigor after his election as Pope? Of course not. After all, he was human and putting on the papal mitre in no way changes this fact.

Was John Paul II a good Pope? Maybe not, depending on your view of the role of the papacy or your political leanings. But the real question is, throughout his life did those who knew him see John Paul II as one exhibiting exceptional virtue, personal holiness, and singular devotion to God and man? By all accounts, the answer is a resounding yes! And is this not the reason for canonization, to provide the (Catholic) faithful a model of virtue and holiness to be imitated? If John Paul II were not to be canonized, it would simply be because he is a public figure, and thus controversial. I’d hate to think that on such grounds the Church could be robbed of such a model of sanctity. No matter how you slice it, the arguments against the canonization of John Paul II come down to what this or that person dislikes about his papacy. He was too lenient. He was too liberal. He was too conservative. Blah, blah, blah. It’s a shame that someone who is otherwise a saint can be denied canonization for being a crummy administrator or not amiable to your political or theological agenda.

In closing I will state the very obvious fact that every canonized saint had flaws of character, no matter what the hagiographers may tell us. And every saint was a sinner, like the rest of us; but, unlike most of us, they exhibited in an exceptional way personal holiness and devotion to God and his people. It is for this reason, and this reason alone, that John Paul II should be canonized. I am of the opinion that St. Francis of Assisi is perhaps the greatest saint (regarding personal holiness) in the history of the western Church, but I am quite sure that he would have made an awful Pope. Thank God he was never put in such a position, or we may have been deprived of one of the Church’s great saints.

(More) Chesterton on Birth Control

… If [the Birth-Controller] can prevent his servants from having families, he need not support those families. Why the devil should he?

If anybody doubts that this is the very simple motive, let him test it by the very simple statements made by various Birth-Controllers like the Dean of St. Paul’s. They never do say that we suffer from a too bountiful supply of bankers or that cosmopolitan financiers must not have such large families. They do not say that the fashionable throng at Ascot wants thinning, or that it is desirable to decimate the people dining at the Ritz or the Savoy…

But the Birth-Controllers have not the smallest desire to control that jungle. It is much too dangerous a jungle to touch. It contains tigers. They never do talk about a danger from the comfortable classes. The Gloomy Dean is not gloomy about there being too many Dukes; and naturally not about there being too many Deans. He is not primarily annoyed with a politician for having a whole population of poor relations, though places and public salaries have to found for all relations. Political Economy means that everybody except politicians must be economical.

The Birth-Controller does not bother about all these things, for the perfectly simple reason that it is not such people that he wants to control. What he wants to control is the populace, and he practically says so. He always insists that a workman has no right to have so many children, or that a slum is perilous because it produces so many children. The question he dreads is “Why has not the workman a better wage? Why has not the slum family a better house?” His way of escaping from it is to suggest, not a larger house, but a smaller family. The landlord or the employer says in his hearty and handsome fashion: “You really cannot expect me to deprive myself of my money. But I will make a sacrifice. I will deprive myself of your children.”

– G. K. Chesterton, quoted from Gilbert Magazine, Volume 12 Number 8 (July/August 2009)

Defining the Canon

A list of the works to be considered authoritative began to take form in the Christian community earlier than I had supposed. We always hear that the “definitive” list was not compiled in the 4th century, but less attention is paid to the fact that many of these works were considered authoritative well before then.

In about 180 CE (at almost the same time Irenaeus was defending the four Gospels against Marcion, who wanted to acknowledge Luke alone) there appeared the first listing of the books of the New Testament that bears a similarity with the present Christian canon. The Muratorian canon (as the list came to be known) listed the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, the Pauline letters, and the rest of the present New Testament with the omission of Hebrews, James, and the two letters attributed to Peter. The list included, however, the Shepard of Hermas, a popular work of the late first century. No definitive canon was established until the fourth century, and even then there would be disagreement over the Epistle to the Hebrews, but the attempt to form a distinctive Christian canon had begun.

– Robert Bruce Mullin, A Short World History of Christianity (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008)

Understanding Sex

Alice von Hildebrand has recently taken issue with the way Christopher West explains John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. Alice von Hildebrand is someone I greatly admire and respect, so when she speaks I listen. I know many others feel the same. Her main concern with West seems to be his lack of reverence when discussing something as “intimate” and “extremely serious” as sex. Von Hildebrand is also concerned that West does not respect the tremendous danger posed to us by concupiscence. Read the CNA article

Recently, West, in an interview with ABC, made remarks suggesting that Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body takes what was good in the sexual revolution a step further. West sees an explicit and “profound” conncection between Hugh Hefner and Pope John Paul II. Both saw that sex was good and natural, but only one (JPII) saw how sex can be sanctified. There is a good point to be made here, but it does lack reverence. But I think this is exactly what West is trying to do. He is trying to use “the language of the world” in order to show the world a “better way”, like a Trojan horse of Holy Love Making in the temple of the Aphrodite. This is fine as far as it goes, but I do share von Hildebrand’s concerns. If sex is sacred, it should be talked about with reverence. If sex is beautiful then it should be talked about in the language of beauty. This was something her husband, Dietrich von Hildebrand, was very concerned with. He wrote that one of the greatest sins that go unnoticed in our world is irreverence. Giving a proper response to value is what makes us human and a proper mark of reverence. An improper response to value belies irreverence. It seems this understanding of irreverence in response to value is what underlies Alice von Hildebrand’s concerns with West’s approach to sex. I tend to agree with her. Let us not be prudish Puritans, but lets us not be Holy Playboys either.

Aristotelian Influences – Part 3

Or The Triumph of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, in 1231 Pope Gregory IX, while maintaing the prohibition, appointed a commission of theologians, William of Auxerre, Stephen of Provins and Simon of Authie, to correct the prohibited books of Aristotle, and as this measure obviously implied that the books were not fundamentally unsound, the prohibition tended to be neglected. It was extended to Toulouse in 1245 by Innocent IV, but by that date it was no longer possible to check the spread of Aristotelianism and from 1255 all the known works of Aristotle were officially lectured on in the University of Paris. The Holy See made no move against the university though in 1263 Pope Urban IV renewed the prohibition of 1210, probably out of fear of Averroism, the renewed prohibition remaining a dead letter. The Pope must have known perfectly well that William of Moerbeke was translating the prohibited works of Aristotle at his own court, and the prohibition of 1263 must have been a check to Averroism, not as a seriously meant attempt to put an end to all study of the Aristotelian philosophy. In any case the prohibition was of no effect, and finally in 1366 the Legates of Pope Urban V required from all candidates for the Licentiate of Arts at Paris a knowledge of all the known works of Aristotle. It had by then long been clear to the mediaevals that a work like the Liber de Causis was not Aristotelian and that the philosophy of Aristotle was not, except of course, in the eyes of the Latin Averroists, bound up with the interpretation given it by Averroes but could be harmonised with the Christian faith. Indeed the dogmas of faith themselves had by then been expressed by theologians in terms taken from the Aristotelian system.

This brief summary of the official attitude to Aristotle on the part of ecclesiastical and academic authority shows that Aristotelianism triumphed in the end. This does not mean, however, that all mediaeval philosophers of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries extended an equal welcome to Aristotle or that they all understood him in the same way: the vigour and variety of mediaeval thought will be made clear in succeeding chapters. There is truth in the statement that that shadow of Aristotle hung over and dominated the philosophic thought of the Middle Ages, but it is not the whole truth, and we would have a very inadequate idea of mediaeval philosophy in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries if we imagined that it was inspired and characterized by a slavish acceptance of every word of the great Greek philosopher.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)

Aristotelian Influences – Part 2

Or The Prohibition of Aristotle in Medieval Theology

However, the system of Aristotle did not meet with universal welcome and approbation, though it could not be ignored. Largely because the Liber de Causis (until St. Thomas discovered the truth), the so-called Theologia Aristotelis (extracts from the Enneads of Plotinus) and the De secretis secretorum (composed by an Arab philosopher in the eleventh or beginning of the twelfth century) were wrongly attributed to Aristotle, the latter’s philosophy tended to appear in a false light. Moreover, the attribution of these books to Aristotle naturally made it appear that the Arab comentators were justified in their neo-Platonic interpretation. Hence it came about that in 1210 the Provincial Council of Paris, meeting under the presidency of Peter of Corbeil, Archbishop of Sens, forbad the public or private teaching of Aristotle’s ‘natural philosophy’ or of the commentaries on them. This prohibition was imposed under pain of excommunication and applied to the University of Paris. In all probability ‘natural philosophy’ included the metaphysics of Aristotle, since when the statutes of the university were sanctioned by Robert de Courcon, Papal Legate, in 1215 Aristotle’s works on metaphysics and natural philosophy, as well as compendia of these works and the doctrines of David of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Maurice of Spain (probably Averroes, the Moor or Maurus) were prohibited, though the study of Aristotle’s logic was ordered. The study of the Ethics was not forbidden.

The reason for the prohibition was, as already indicated, largely due to the ascription to Aristotle of works which were not by him. Amalric of Bene, whose writings were included in the prohibition of 1215, maintained doctrines which were at variance with Christian teaching and which would naturally appear to find some support in the philosophy of Aristotle, if the latter were interpreted in the light of all the books attributed to him, while David of Dinant, the other heretical philosopher whose writings were prohibited, had actually appealed to the Metaphysics, which had been translated into Latin from the Greek version brought from Byzantium before 1210. To these considerations must be added the undoubted fact that Aristotle maintained the eternity of the world. It was, therefore, not unnatural that the Aristotelian system, especially when coupled with the philosophies of Daivd of Dinant, Amalric of Bene and Averroes, should appear as a danger to orthodoxy in the eyes of the traditionalists. The logic of Aristotle had long been in use, even if the full Organon had come into circulation only comparatively recently, but the complete metaphysical and cosmological teaching of Aristotle was a novelty, a novelty rendered all the more dangerous through association with heretical philosophies.

Frederick Coplestone, S.J. – A History of Philosophy, Volume 2 (Doubleday, 1993)


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