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.

3 Responses to “A Summary Defense of John Paul II”


  1. 1 Kenneth DeWeese January 11, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    I’m quite confused as to why you think we should separate a man’s personal sanctity from his state in life. If a man is Pope, that is his primary responsibility and the main thing that he ought to be judged by should be his papacy. It doesn’t matter how nice he was or how good his intentions were but what the character of his life was of which the fact that he was the Pope is essential. During his time, he allowed the liturgical crisis to continue, his ecumenism was often entirely misguided (Assisi meetings, kissing the Koran), altar girls were allowed,among a host of other things.


  1. 1 Why JPII should be canonised « Joyful Papist Trackback on January 16, 2011 at 5:39 pm

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