The Empty Labeling of Popes, Canonization Derangement Syndrome, and Other Silliness

A lightning round of Carl’s Cuts is here, and for a special low, low price: free! But only until the end of time.

• Let’s begin with a cutting quote from Scripture: “He who sends a message by the hand of a fool cuts off his own feet and drinks violence” (Prov. 26:6). Apply to current events as you wish.

• More than once, in the past few days, I’ve read pieces that either state openly or imply the following: John XXIII was a liberal and John Paul II was a conservative. I’m going to quickly analyze that basic premise, so please try to keep up. Here goes: That’s not only stupid, it’s meaningless. It’s lazy and dull. The only thing it accomplishes is the politicization of Catholicism, which is only helpful for those whose true faith is in politics, not Jesus Christ.

• CWR has posted several pieces about both of the new Saints, and I won’t add much here. However, if you simply cannot get enough about the thought of St. John Paul II, see my 2002 essay, “The Dignity of the Human Person: Pope John Paul II’s Teaching on Divinization in the Trinitarian Encyclicals.” Here’s the opening:

A witness to the horrors of Nazism and Communism, Pope John Paul II saw first-hand the physical and spiritual destruction wrought by the disordered desire to remove God and make man the center and meaning of history. He has also observed destuctive impulses in the West, falsehoods evidenced by the steady growth of abortion, contraception, amorality, and hedonism during the past several decades. In addressing all of these conditions, the Holy Father has consistently pointed out that man, in his confused search for identity and meaning, unwittingly proves he does indeed have a purpose and reason for living. The yearning of man, so often realized in distorted and ugly ways, is to be God and to be deified.

John Paul II denounces the many perverted forms this yearning takes, but acknowledges its authentic core. Man has a God-made hole in his being, a deep recess which can only be fulfilled in one Way and by one Person, Jesus Christ. In the Incarnation, God united himself to man, making possible the unthinkable: intimate communion between the creature and the Creator. “This union of Christ with man is in itself a mystery,” the Holy Father states in his first encyclical, Redemptor Hominis, “From the mystery is born ‘the new man,’ called to become a partaker of God’s life, and newly created in Christ for the fullness of grace and truth.” (RH 18.2).

This “partaking” of God’s very life (see 2 Peter 1:4) is the reality of divinization, or deification. In the Eastern Churches it is often called theosis; it is a central focus of Eastern Christian theology and worship. It is also one of the consistent and unifying themes of John Paul II’s thought, appearing often in his important trilogy of Trinitarian encyclicals – Redemptor Hominis, Dives in Misericordia and Dominum et Vivificantem – respectively on the Son, the Father, and the Holy Spirit.

Continue reading on the Ignatius Insight site. This theme of theosis/divization in the writings of John Paul II is examined further in the book, Called To Be Children of God, to be published early next year by Ignatius Press, which Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ, and I edited together, and which features contributions from fourteen different authors.

• One of those contributors is the wonderful Tracey Rowland, who is Dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Melbourne. She is also the author of a very good essay, “Saint John Paul II: Doctor of Incarnate Love”, for the “Religion and Ethics” section of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation website. An excerpt:

While contending with one kind of revolution in Poland, Wojtyla was also a key player in another intellectual battlefield. Between the years 1962 and 1965, he attended the Second Vatican Council as a Council Father and was one of those who made significant contributions to the renewal of the Church’s theological vision. His “input,” one might argue, was the kind of input John XXIII had envisaged when he remarked that he would like to open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air. In particular, Karol Wojtyla made significant contributions to the document Gaudium et spes, known as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.

It is often said that this is the most difficult to interpret of all the documents of the Council since it oscillates between sociological observations and theological statements, and between comments made for the world at large and comments addressed directly to the faithful. Sometimes the document was very loosely interpreted as a call to Catholics to embrace the spirit of the times. Since the times were the 1960s – the era of The Beatles, flower-power, mini-skirts and hot-pants – this sometimes led to some odd results. Anyone who went to Catholic schools in the 1970s can tell some interesting stories of being a guinea-pig in the pastoral experiments of that era. With reference to some of these results, one Scottish blogger recently remarked, “Is it any surprise, given the surrounding culture [of the 1960s], that Vatican II produced some odd results? If the Council of Trent, once completed, had been left to the interpretations of some drug crazed hippies we’d be picking up the pieces of that instead.”

Cardinal Wojtyla was not one of these drug crazed hippies and Poland’s experience of the 1960s was very different from that of western countries on the free side of the Berlin Wall. He did not read Gaudium et spes as a call to accommodate the Church’s teaching or liturgical practices to whatever happened to be the spirit of the times. In his country, that would have meant some form of Marxism. For Wojtyla, Gaudium et spes was not a call to accommodate to anything, but rather a call to re-centre the Church’s teaching and pastoral life on Christ. It was also an attempt to present some of the Church’s perennial teachings in a more personalist, less scholastic, idiom.

• Speaking of Communism—aren’t you impressed with my blogging-by-association approach?—the Population Resarch Institute reports on how the Chinese government constantly pushes its anti-life propoganda and anti-child agenda:

It is hard for persons in democratic societies to grasp how China’s party-state can control the fertility of China’s millions. The effort starts with a barrage of anti-child propaganda in the schools and workplaces, and then moves to open intimidation in banners and slogans posted in public places.

Among those slogans:

• “If it should be aborted and is not aborted, your house will be destroyed and your cow will be taken.”
• “Even if you bleed enough to make a river, you must not give birth to an extra child!”
• “If you should get sterilized and you don’t, you will be detained and prosecuted. If you should abort and do not abort, your house will be torn down and your cattle will be led away.”

Visit the PRI site to see photos of the banners and slogans.

• Speaking of China, the Dignitatis Humane Institute reported:

Thousands of Chinese Christians have united in the city of Wenzhou to form a 24-hour human shield around the Sanjiang Christian Church, amidst threats from the Communist authorities to demolish the building.  The three-story Church is one of ten places of worship to have been listed for demolition in the Zhejiang province, considered China’s most Christian region.  This is the second time in two weeks the Christians of Zhejiang have flocked to protect their Church from the machinations of the local Communist party.

The Telegraph now reports that the Sanjiang Christian Church has been at least partially demolished:

On Monday morning demolition teams began tearing down parts of the church in Wenzhou, a city around 230 miles south of Shanghai that has one of the country’s largest congregations.

“I saw three or four excavators out front, demolishing the church, and three or four out back, demolishing the annex building. I also saw a small excavator going inside the church doing demolition work inside,” said one witness who claimed there were around 100 police around the church, including armed officers. …

“All the roads are blocked, you can’t get close to the church,” said a local Protestant leader, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals from the government. “The two sides of the main hall are being demolished.”

Photographs sent to The Telegraph and posted on social media sites showed at least four excavators that appeared to be ripping down large sections of the church’s exterior.

Other images showed black police vans, military trucks and security agents standing on the main road outside.

It was not immediately possible to verify those pictures. Nor was it clear whether authorities planned to destroy the entire church, which has a large red cross on its spire, or just part of the structure.

Read more and see pictures of the demolition.

• I, for one, am thankful that I live in a country whose government does not encourage abortions and would never think of targeting Christians in any way. Or something like that.

• Is atheist Richard Dawkins actually a brilliant Christian evangelist pretending to hate, er, deny God? A British atheist (and academic) recently recounted how she was led to the Catholic Church by first reading Dawkins:

Reading Dawkins challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone and honestly confront the issues holding me back from a full commitment to faith. My sense of The God Delusion is that it is written as a testimony to Dawkins’ belief system (which I call fundamentalist atheism) and that the author cherry picks convenient quotes to bolster his opinion that esteemed scientists (such as Einstein) couldn’t possibly be ignorant enough to actually believe in a supernatural God, no matter what they may have said to the contrary. In fact, anyone with any intelligence at all couldn’t possible believe in a supernatural God. Dawkins is preaching to his atheist choir and evidently they loved the book based on their many five-star recommendations of it. But in that sense, Dawkins is no different than the many Christian authors who write in a similar manner. There is a pre-judgment that whoever disagrees with the premise of the book is, essentially, an idiot! Well, I don’t like to be called an idiot.

I realized I was no better than Dawkins. … And that was the beginning of the last leg of my journey to conversion to Catholicism. In reading to refute Dawkins as well as educate myself and find answers to questions, I discovered the God-man Jesus Christ. Not only did the Catholic view resonate with me emotionally, but perhaps more importantly for me, it was intellectually honest.

The Telegraph‘s Damian Thompson has a very similar anecdote about a friend who had been an atheist for many years.

• From a Wall Street Journal article, “The Jewish Conductor and the Polish Pope”:

Nearly a decade after the end of his pontificate, Catholics are divided over John Paul’s conservative stances on birth control, priestly celibacy and homosexuality. As a Jew, Mr. [Gilbert] Levine has no stake in most of these intramural Catholic arguments.

Pardon my confusion, but aren’t “John Paul’s conservative stances on birth control, priestly celibacy and homosexuality” also known as “Catholic doctrine”? (Yes, they are.) And since when did Judaism stop being concerned about sexual morality? (Yes, yes, I know: there are many forms of Judaism. But my basic point stands.)

• On Holy Thursday, the San Francisco Gate site reports, Nancy Pelosi helped “Bishop Marc Andrus wash the feet of two children Thursday at Saint John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in San Francisco.” The reason for her action, Pelosi said, was to “honor the dignity and work of immigrants…” Most Scripture scholars will be surprised to learn that the twelve apostles had been immigrants. But, then, the Episcopalian community has long sought to score political points about current issues, with little or no interest in orthodox doctrine—unless partisan talking points are considered doctrine. Which means that Pelosi was right at home; the report states that she “also used the occasion to talk about passing HR15 – bipartisan immigration legislation that her office says would ‘reduce the deficit by nearly $1 trillion, secure our borders, unite our families, protect our workers and provide an earned pathway to citizenship.'”

• In related news, the Associated Press reports that Hillary Clinton is now head of the Department of Scriptural Exegesis:

Clinton said she struggled as a young woman between her father’s insistence on self-reliance and her mother’s concern for compassion. She reconciled those in the Biblical story of Jesus instructing his disciples to feed 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish.

“The disciples come to Jesus and suggest they send away the people to find food to fend for themselves. But Jesus said, `No. You feed them,'” Clinton said. “He was teaching a lesson about the responsibility we all share.”

She also said that Jesus should have probably obtained the proper city, county, state, and federal permits for the Feeding of the Five Thousand Responsibility Lesson Event, but that he had probably been forced to go ahead with it at the urging of “religious conservatives”. Just kidding! No, she didn’t say that, but she did say this about the church she attended while growing up in Illinois:

“I love that church. I love how it made me feel about myself,” Clinton said. “I love the doors that it opened in my understanding of the world, I loved the way it helped to deepen my faith and ground it.”

And, no, it wasn’t Rev. Wright’s church, for those who are wondering.

• The Irish Independent reports that an Irish prelate, Abp. Diarmuid Martin, is “open to dialogue on the ordination of married men after Pope Francis signalled the need for the Catholic Church to discuss the issue.” But, the newpapers adds, Abp. Martin has indicated “that ordaining women into the church to make up for the shortage of priests was ‘not on the table at the moment’.” That’s good to know, I suppose, considering that the Church teaches that only certain men can be priests, period. If the quote is accurate (perhaps it has been tweaked), it’s a ridiculous thing to say, as Dr. Edward Peters explains.

• Who said it? “Abortion compounds the grief of many women who now carry with them deep physical and spiritual wounds after succumbing to the pressures of a secular culture which devalues God’s gift of sexuality and the right to life of the unborn.” That was Pope Francis, in remarks made to African bishops a few days ago. And guess what? Very few people seemed to notice; it was essentially ignored outside of some Catholic media outlets. Go figure.

• Canonization Derangement Disorder seemed to afflict a few folks in the days leading up to Divine Mercy Sunday and the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II. Maureen Dowd led the way with a screed titled, “A saint, John Paul II ain’t”:

The Vatican had a hard time drumming up the requisite two miracles when Pope Benedict XVI, known as John Paul’s Rasputin and enforcer of the orthodoxy, waived the traditional five-year waiting period and rushed to canonize his mentor. But the real miracle is that it will happen at all. John Paul was a charmer, and a great man in many ways. But given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain’t no saint.

Sometimes leaders can be remarkable in certain ways and then make a mistake so spectacular, it overshadows other historical achievements. Lyndon Johnson deserves to be secularly canonized for his work on civil rights but he never will because of the war in Vietnam.

Of course, as any half-catechized Catholic can tell you, personal holiness does not insure, say, intellectual brilliance or governing brilliance (see Saint Francis, for example). Even those of us who believe that John Paul II was a great man and a true saint know that some of his choices—over the course of 26 years, by the way, and not just 4 or 8—were not, in hindsight, all that great. But, Dowd, of course, whose world is so small and mind is so narrow that she can almost be forgiven for thinking she is omniscient, won’t have it:

It is wonderful that John Paul told other societies, communist and capitalist, to repent. But his tragedy is that he never corrected the failings of his own society, over which he ruled absolutely.

His defenders say that the pope was kept in the dark and that he believed that the accusations [against Maciel] were phony ones, like the efforts to slime the church in his homeland, Poland, during the Cold War.

Given the searing damage the scandal has done to so many lives and to the church, that rationalization doesn’t have a prayer. He needed to recognize the scope of the misconduct and do something, not play the globe-trotting ostrich.

Personally, I’m waiting for Dowd to start bearing down on the abuse epidemic going on in public schools, and demanding that every POTUS of the past forty years be either jailed or mocked for failing to address it.

Brett M. Decker takes a similar approach in an April 21st article for USA Today:

The strict hierarchical structure of the Roman church means accountability goes straight to the top. The buck stops at the pope’s desk, for good or for ill.

Canonizing pontiffs from the era of abuse is not only tone deaf but also exposes a continuing, stubborn refusal to acknowledge the institutional coverup that occurred for decades and that those at the highest levels — including popes — didn’t do enough to prevent the crimes, enabling the crisis to continue.

Thomas McDonald responds: “Was the abuse scandal horrible? Of course. Were there things the church could have done differently? In retrospect, that’s obvious. Does it mean that these two holy men are not now with God? Only a fool would argue so.” Exactly. The odd thing is that neither Down or Decker mention how much Benedict did in his relatively short pontificate to address the “filth” (as he famously called it) in the Church. Actually, it’s not odd at all: Benedict was “enforcer of the orthodoxy” and so must be either denounced or ignored at every turn.

• Paul Elie prefers denouncing, even belittling, Benedict. In an April 16th Atlantic essay, “The Pope in the Attic: Benedict in the Time of Francis”, Elie (who is Catholic) tries to conjure up a game of “Bad Pope, Good Pope”:

It’s odd enough that there are two living popes. It’s odder still that they live in such proximity. But what’s most odd is that the two popes are these two popes, and that the one who spent a third of a century erecting a Catholic edifice of firm doctrine and strict prohibition now must look on at close range as the other cheerfully dismantles it in the service of a more open, flexible Church.

Elie manages to use the phrase, “Who am I too judge?” seven times in the piece, which is at turns wildly speculative, snide, small-minded, overreaching, and even simply weird. For instance:

Priests, Church officials, and Vatican insiders told me that the differences between the two men come down to personality, not principle, and that Benedict is delighted with the goodwill the world is showing Francis. He probably is. Yet when he was the arbiter of Church doctrine, he never missed a chance to declare that the Church was founded on revealed truth rather than personality, and that the world’s goodwill isn’t worth having except on the Church’s terms. “Who am I to judge?”—Francis’s remark about gay people—was a sharp turn away from Benedict’s view that the role of the Church is to render judgment in a world in thrall to “a dictatorship of relativism.” Francis’s offhand statements and openness to new approaches make clear that he is a very different pope—and unless Benedict has lost his mind, he cannot be altogether happy about it.

This is an incredibly dunderheaded passage. But It reminds me, helpfully, of a passage from the apostolic exhortation, “Evangelii Lumen”:

All revealed truths derive from the same divine source and are to be believed with the same faith, yet some of them are more important for giving direct expression to the heart of the Gospel. In this basic core, what shines forth is the beauty of the saving love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ who died and rose from the dead. In this sense, the Second Vatican Council explained, “in Catholic doctrine there exists an order or a ‘hierarchy’ of truths, since they vary in their relation to the foundation of the Christian faith”. This holds true as much for the dogmas of faith as for the whole corpus of the Church’s teaching, including her moral teaching.

Of course, that’s a long document, and Elie may have passed on reading it. But way back in March 2013, not long after his election, Pope Francis said the following:

“But there is another form of poverty! It is the spiritual poverty of our time which afflicts the so-called richer countries particularly seriously. It is what my much-loved predecessor, Benedict XVI, called the ‘dictatorship of relativism,’ which makes everyone his own criterion and endangers the coexistence of peoples.

And that brings me to a second reason for my name. Francis of Assisi tells us we should work to build peace. But there is no true peace without truth! There cannot be true peace is everyone is his own criterion, if everyone can always claim exclusively his own rights without at the same time caring for the good of others, of everyone, on the basis of the nature that unites every human being on this earth.”

Elie is a talented writer, but until this recent piece, I was unaware of his great gift for fiction. Next.

• Exhibit #3 lacks nastiness, but makes up for it in cluelessness: The Guardian‘s Sophia Deboick asked, “Must the Catholic church dehumanise John Paul II to make him a saint?” After reading her piece, I wonder, “Must journalists write nonsensical articles about the Catholic Church to impress their editors?” I suppose that John Paul II himself would find it quite funny that the Church’s celebration of his entrance into the divine life of God—which should be the goal and desire of every human—would be somehow viewed as “dehumanizing”!

• Yes, Jesus had a wife. And still does, as Fr. Stephen Grunow reminds folks.

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About Carl E. Olson 1197 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.