The Vatican announced last week that, with the confirmation of his having performed a miracle, Pope John Paul II would be beatified on May 1 by his immediate successor Benedict XVI. Many among the Catholic faithful will no doubt rejoice at this posthumous honor for a beloved long serving Pontiff. John Paul II was a remarkable and charismatic figure. Unlike Benedict, his rise to the Papacy was largely unexpected and his demeanor, in contrast with other Popes, unusual. In part that reflected his activist past in Communist Poland, but also his personal history, which included athletic accomplishment and some acting. Then there was his relative youth. Karol Wojtyla, the first non-Italian Pope in 400 years was only 58 (the second youngest) when he began his reign in 1979. Making use of it all, John Paul became the undisputed religious super star of his time.
Beatification and the declaration of sainthood that can follow is an internal religious matter for the Catholic community. Nonetheless, the Church commands — indeed demands for itself — attention and deference from all of us. The Vatican is a State whose sovereign Popes see themselves world leaders. So much of what the Church does, even with regard to its own ritual, has broader religious and even political implications. It also invites scrutiny by Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
At no time has that been truer than in the decades since California’s Father Donald Roemer pled guilty to sex abuse in 1981. Revelations of abuse (a civil criminal act) and well-documented hierarchical cover-up across many national borders pervade most of John Paul’s 27-year reign. As Laurie Goodstein reported in yesterday’s NY Times, a just revealed 1997 letter documents his envoy Archbishop Luciano Storero ordering Irish Church officials to stop reporting abuse allegations to civil authorities. Doing so, the cleric claimed, ran contrary to cannon law.
So this seemingly rush to beatification by John Paul’s assumed handpicked successor has provoked wide attention. It raises substantive questions, not the least whether there has been sufficient time and distance to assess his worthiness for the endpoint, sainthood, as the Church defines it. That’s ultimately for Catholics to determine. While neither cynical nor a conspiracy theorist, looking from the outside I can’t help but think about Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon. It’s not a far-fetched déjà vu. The pardon inoculated Nixon from prosecution and beatification might well serve to inoculate John Paul II from accusations of complicity in Roman Catholicism’s worst scandal in modern times (the subject of previous posts). The beatified and most certainly saints don’t easily suffer the questions of mere mortals.
But beyond the analogy with Ford and Nixon, what really comes to mind is something closer to home in our own time. Over the past several years millions of people have been badly hurt by the combined misconduct of both private and public institutions. Whatever the specifics, all share one thing in common. People at the bottom — the rank and file — take a big hit; those at the most senior management levels are given a pass and more. Most corporate leaders keep their jobs and the relatively few who don’t fly away smiling, their parachutes heavily laden with gold. Failed government leaders pass easily into that revolving door toward interest conflict and wealth.
Watching in disbelief, we wonder why those setting policy and giving the orders are not held accountable for what happens on their watch. So observing the goings on in Rome, it’s fair to ask much the same question. This is not to suggest that John Paul II was himself guilty of any crime, religious or secular, but whether he doesn’t bear responsibility for those under is absolute rule. Again, maybe not our Church, but we are all asked to pay it special deference. That gives us more than enough right to comment. Moreover, recognized as such or not, laws we share in common have been broken. The Church, by everything it has said and done (including that recently revealed letter) seems to see itself above our common law —subject only to a higher power. Perhaps, but in laying such a claim, it has diminished its moral authority, not to mention that of religion as a whole.
The Roman Church is losing many of its followers. They have become disconnected from its ways and mores — actions do not necessarily match words and prayers. Other religions are experiencing similar disenchantment and often for the same reason. Facebook tracks the everyday activities of millions around the world, often down to absurd detail. It would be revealing to see how many report church attendance — for sure a large number, but probably far fewer than is generally assumed. But what is the real disconnect? Turns out churches and religious leaders are in fact far too connected. They behave like everyone else, bad practices and all. And they expect us to revere and reward them. No questions asked, no credible answers given. That makes no sense.