John Paul the Great ?
There’s been a lot of discussion of the late Pope, including whether he should be given the appellation “Great”. Historically, the honorific ‘Great’, when applied to monarchs, including Popes has not meant “Good”. Rather it’s been applied to those who’ve been successful in extending their monarchical power. This is certainly true of Leo and Gregory, the popes currently regarded as Great. Although they’re both saints, neither of seems particularly saintly to me: rather they were hardheaded and successful statesmen.
In this interpretation of the term, it’s very hard to claim greatness for John Paul II. The church has lost ground throughout the developed world to secularism, and in Latin America to evangelical protestantism. Although there have been some modest gains in Africa and Asia, they’ve largely been in countries where the church had a strong presence dating back to colonial times.
Claims that the number of Catholics has risen greatly under JPII look dubious to me. This BBC file gives the basis of claims that there are more than 1 billion Catholics, and includes claims for more than 90 per cent of the population of Italy, Poland and Spain, based primarily on baptism. I suspect many of these are either nominal or lapsed.
If there has been growth, it’s largely due to natural increase in Catholic countries. To the extent that anti-contraception teaching has kept birth rates high, I suppose the Pope was partly responsible for this, but the same teaching contributed greatly to the collapse of the church in former strongholds like Ireland.
If you wanted to make a case for greatness for JPII it would be one of a fairly successful defensive action in unfavorable times.
In any case, judging by those who’ve been awarded the title by common consent, beginning with Alexander, Greatness is not a quality I admire much. And if we’re going for Goodness, I think John XXIII would be a more appealing candidate.
fn1. Fielding has great fun with this in Jonathan Wild, the story of the infamous ‘Thieftaker-General’, who became the Godfather of early 18th-century London.