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John Paul the Great ?

April 12th, 2005

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.[1] 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.

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  1. Econowit
    April 12th, 2005 at 18:30 | #1

    Those who have not sinned cast the first stone.

  2. wpc
    April 12th, 2005 at 18:38 | #2

    This rushing to claim the late pope a saint and Great, I think is more an indication of the sensationalism of our times.

    A lot of descriptions today are over the top. People who kick a ball around a field are “heroes”, drugged out singers are “role models”, and everything is always the “greatest” or “biggest”.

    But you might have hit on a good title for him: JP the Defender (against communism and against change to the church).

  3. April 12th, 2005 at 19:28 | #3

    John XXIII was a good man but he turned a blind eye to the Soviet gulags, pursuant to his stated policy of Ostpolitick. That was a wrongheaded and morally shameful policy – worse, in fact, than the myth about the Silence of Pius XII.

    If anything, John favoured the retention of Latin and certain other customs in the 1960s more so than (the then) Bishop Karol Wojtyla. (Pope John wrote an encyclical on how Latin should not be superseded or replaced). The Italian had far more backward views than John Paul II on women, other races and sexuality. In the 1970s, the then Archbishop of Krakow wrote a book, Love and Responsibility, in which he discussed, inter alia, the importance of the female orgasm. Roncalli would scarcely have known there was such a thing.

    His own spirituality, as evidenced in his Journal of a Soul, was exceedingly anti-physical. (Though it was cute how he made excuses for indulging in the odd little pastry or cake every now and then).

    John’s Archilles Heal in my view was the slightest hint of pride about his own place in history – which, thanks mostly to Vatican II, he was able to author himself. Of control or understanding of that Council, John had very little. At times, this bordered on presumption, insofar as his ‘leave it to God’ devotion resembled fatalism.

    John’s personal and family lives were a lot softer than Wojtyla’s – and in many respects he never intellectually inhabited the 20th century. He wanted to bring a conclusion to the campaign against Modernism of the late nineteenth century – of which he strongly disapproved. (He was suspected of being a Modernist himself in his youth. When he became pope he scrawled a note saying he had never been one in the margins of a Vatican file).

    I love and feel drawn to both figures. The two have been my greatest heroes as a Catholic. The either/or which is the basis of your post is false on many levels. I also respectfully suggest that were John Paul to become the first historical figure to be called ‘the Great’ entirely because of his spiritual authority, that would itself have to be numbered amongst his remarkable accomplishments.

  4. John Quiggin
    April 12th, 2005 at 19:48 | #4

    CL, can you point me to a good defence of Pius XII? It’s not a topic about which I know much, but what I’ve seen hasn’t been favorable to him, at least relative to the standard I’d (perhaps unreasonably) expect of a spiritual leader.

  5. Dave Ricardo
    April 12th, 2005 at 20:01 | #5

    Hey C.L., since the next Pope can be any Catholic male, I reckon it should be you.

    If not you, then Eddie Maguire.

    Why the hell not, I ask you?

    As for JPII’s spiritual authority, I think you are being a trifle Euro -centric. He didn’t seem to have much authority in Brazil (population: 160 million, so it’s a big deal) where the locals appear to have taken up with some Protestant sect that has them speaking in tongues.

  6. April 12th, 2005 at 21:16 | #6

    I think I like wine, women and song too much David. I might have had a shot in the Borgia era I suppose.


    John: The official examination based on an independent examination: Pius XII and the Second World War: According to the Archives of the Vatican. This is an abridgement of what I think was an original 12 volume study.

    Very balanced is Sanchez’ Pius XII and the Holocaust: Understanding the Controversy. He seeks to disentangle the now copious historiography in an even-handed manner.

    There can never be proof-positive rebuttal of the charges against Pius. It’s like children saying “I’m better than you x100”; “Oh yeah, well I’m better than you x100 – +1 to whatever you say…” In other words, someone can always say “he should have done more”, regardless of all he did do.

    Many anti-Pius historians make much of the Pope knowing a good deal about the Holocaust. How this translates to him being culpable is never clearly stated but usually there is a ritual lamentation that he didn’t denounce what was happening. The same thing is being said of Franklin Roosevelt, as I noted yesterday.

    It’s quite clear from the literature on the Final Solution – death camps, death marches etc – that the Nazis did indeed conduct mass killings as vengeance. It might make people feel morally superior to say he should have stood on the balcony at St Peter’s and condemned Hitler but that would almost certainly have caused dedicated pogroms.

    Albrecht von Kessel, an official at the German Embassy to the Holy See during the war, wrote in 1963:

    We were convinced that a fiery protest by Pius XII against the persecution of the Jews … would certainly not have saved the life of a single Jew. Hitler, like a trapped beast, would react to any menace that he felt directed at him, with cruel violence.

    This from the The Jewish Virtual Library:

    The vindication of Pius XII has been established principally by Jewish writers and from Israeli archives. It is now established that the Pope supervised a rescue network which saved 860,000 Jewish lives – more than all the international agencies put together.

    After the war the Chief Rabbi of Israel thanked Pius XII for what he had done. The Chief Rabbi of Rome went one step further. He became a Catholic. He took the name Eugenio.

    See also Robert A. Graham S.J., How to Manufacture a Legend:
    The Controversy over the Alleged Silence
    of Pope Pius XII in World War II

  7. John Quiggin
    April 12th, 2005 at 21:52 | #7

    CL, although the article you cite appears in the Jewish Virtual Library, it is noted as a reprint from a Catholic source. The article also gives a link to this contrary view.

    I don’t claim a detailed knowledge, but I’d say he did what he could, subject to the constraint that he didn’t want to antagonise the Nazis and thereby put the church at risk. Considering him as the leader of a small neutral state, like Sweden or Switzerland, it was a reasonable choice to make, I guess.

  8. April 12th, 2005 at 23:11 | #8

    Well, on the subject of any catholic male being papabilis, I can point people to the odd novel Hadrian VII, by Fr. Rolfe (Baron Corvo). And if you’re not a catholic, maybe Rome is worth a mass?

  9. April 13th, 2005 at 01:34 | #9

    I think that’s about right John. But no-one – including me – woud claim Pacelli was as simpatico with Judaism as later popes. He wasn’t.

  10. MB
    April 13th, 2005 at 09:51 | #10

    John is spot on. The church has gone backwards during John Paul II’s papacy, particularly in Third World regions like Latin America, where evangelicals have made significant inroads into what was a bastion of Catholicism. John Paul II is remembered most fondly by traditional Catholics (whom we sometimes refer to incorrectly as ‘conservative’ Catholics), who welcomed his firm stance on moral questions after the years of the Second Vatican Council, and by non-Catholic anti-commmunists, who approved of his open opposition to communism. He has also alienated sections of the church with the way he has centralised power in his position. He and his traditionalist supporters have therefore alienated both liberals (due to his moral stance) and the conservatives who personified the church in John XXIII and Paul VI (due to his autocratic tendencies).

  11. gordon
    April 13th, 2005 at 10:36 | #11

    Dave Ricardo’s comment is eerily similar to a line that I was defending over dinner a few nights ago – that we need to democratise Papal elections as much or more than we need to democratise Iraq. After all, there are many more Catholics than there are Iraqis, however you count them. So why not broaden the electoral base to all Catholics, and do away with this crazy, outdated and oppressive “Cardinals only” method?

    A democratized Papal election would allow the creation of platforms, parties and campaigns. The pro-women-priests faction could battle it out with the “antis”; the anti-abortionists could do deals with the pro-married-priests party to head off the women priests – or vice versa. Commentary on Papal affairs would be lifted out of the morass of unctious inoffensiveness and take on a real edge – interviews and leaks from faction leaders and “well-placed Vatican sources” would give 60 Minutes a whole new realm to trivialise, and provide welcome relief from repetitive “fat kids” and “law and order” stories. Polls of Catholic opinion could be commentated to death by Political Science PhDs, and make the fortune of any pollster prepared to brave the jungles of the Amazon and the Phillipines. The possibilities are endless!

  12. Katz
    April 13th, 2005 at 11:52 | #12

    What’s this “we” Gordon?

    Despite JPII’s vaunted purportedly “great” championing of Catholic traditionalism, the Catholic Church is further away from its traditionalist ambitions at the end of JPII’s pontificate than he was at the start of it.

    Primary among those traditionalist ambitions is a rescission of one of the primary “errors” in Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors, the separation of Church and State. According to traditionalist views, the world must return to conformity with Catholic moral, ethical and theological views. and the State is to be the guardian of that orthodoxy.

    Instead, the Catholic Church today is closer than ever to the model of a voluntary society run for and by its adherents.

    As such, it conforms very closely to the Ancient Order of Water Buffaloes of which Fred Flintsone and Barney Rubble were rank-and-file members. It would have been churlish for prehistoric non-members of the Water Buffaloes to stick their neanderthal noses into the private affairs of blokes who enjoyed playing dress-ups. So it would be needlessly intrusive of contemporary society to meddle in the geriatric fun and games of the Conclave of Cardinals.

  13. Dave Ricardo
    April 13th, 2005 at 12:33 | #13

    Katz is right. The test case is the Republic of Ireland. At the beginning of JPII’s pontificate, Ireland was a theocracy, effectively run by and for the Catholic Church. In 1981, the Irish Attorney General injuncted a 14 year old pregnant rape victim to stop her going to England to get an abortion. There was of couse no divorce there either at that time.

    In 2005, Ireland has the all the trappings of a modern secular European state, well, at least a lot more so than it was when JPII started calling the Vatican home.

    True, there has been some attempted backsliding by the Catholic chauvinists in Poland, but successfully resisted by the liberal secularists.

    But we should be ever vigilant. Since they don’t accept the legitimacy of any system of beliefs other than their own, some Catholics do have a tendency to stick their noses in to the affairs of non-Catholics, for example Tony Abbott’s recent foray into abortion matters. But to be fair, they are not Robinson Crusoe there either. Christians of all stripes seem to have this urge to meddle.

  14. Paul Norton
    April 13th, 2005 at 12:36 | #14

    Will the recently announced pregnancy of Britney Spears be claimed as an Immaculate Conception wrought by miraculous means by the late pontiff?

  15. April 13th, 2005 at 12:36 | #15

    It’s internal Vatican politicking – a pre-emptive strike to constrain the next Pope from departing from JP2’s policy – as is the suggestion that he is already a Saint.

  16. April 13th, 2005 at 12:37 | #16

    The evangelical surge in Latin America is fundamentalist in nature and was really a consequence of the years of neglect and drift in earlier papacies. It also represents an Americanisation of religiosity – God wants you to be wealthy etc. To say the phenomenon arose in response to the pontificate of John Paul II is historical rubbish.

  17. April 13th, 2005 at 12:39 | #17

    You’re drifting towards conspiracy theory there Mark. Unless you can prove the “santo subito” and “santo santo” cries of thousands in St Peter’s Square were orchestrated – a bizarre theory.

  18. April 13th, 2005 at 12:43 | #18

    I think you’re being unfair to Gregory – he made few claims to primacy and was the first Pope to describe himself as “servant of the servants of God”. You’re right about Leo.

    C.L. isn’t the only Catholic blogger around with commentary on this stuff, actually.

  19. April 13th, 2005 at 12:46 | #19

    I don’t need to prove a conspiracy theory, C.L. Clearly, the media’s eulogisation, statements by prominent Cardinals about JP “The Great”, and even Ratzinger’s implication that JP2 had not passed through purgatory but had gone straight to heaven (traditionally what happens to Saints) all create a climate of opinion. Of course, that doesn’t derogate from the good faith of those saying “Santo Subito”. But it’s a different issue from what the Curial and other conservative Cardinals are up to.

  20. roberto
    April 13th, 2005 at 13:25 | #20

    Dave Ricarde in pt 13 states: “… Ireland was a theocracy, effectively run by and for the Catholic Church.” Strange, given that Ireland has had Protestant Presidents! Maybe that was a scam too! Perhaps not, given that unfortunately in Australia I can only truly become head of state, if I marry into the Britsh royal family, and renounce being a catholic, as at the same time becoming a member of the the CoE.

  21. April 13th, 2005 at 13:54 | #21

    You can drop the “-o” while you’re about it, too.

  22. Ros
    April 13th, 2005 at 20:15 | #22

    Evangelical penetration of South America being advantaged by Pope John Paul II may be historical rubbish but it is not without it’s supporters as a notion
    · Bernardo Barranco, vice president of the Center of Religious Studies in Mexico.
    The biggest challenge [for the church] is the enormous religious competition that exists, but . . . John Paul II had a big dose of the blame,”
    · The suppression of the left-wing priests “created a very big vacuum on the popular level, and that was the vacuum filled by the new religious movementsâ€?
    · The priest shortage struck here earlier and much deeper than the shortages nibbling the United States, Canada and Europe. By some accounts, Mexico has only one priest for every 7,300 Catholics, while some Protestant denominations can offer one minister for every 233 worshipers
    Other reasons put forward
    · Another critical decision is whether to allow married clergy. This is especially important among the indigenous, who sometimes can’t relate to someone who chooses not to marry or have children.
    · Rome broke the spirit of the church in Latin America by imposing many conservative bishops,” Suggested that Opus Dei were pretty well represented in this lot?

    Another critic and his views, Elio Masferrer, Mexican anthropologist, chairman of the Latin American Religious Studies Association
    · Criticizism of John Paul II for concentrating on great media displays instead of being down in the trenches helping people as do the evangelicals, who he said are more modern even if just as conservative.
    · “The issue isn’t whether the new pope is Latin American or Australian. It’s if the church is disposed to be innovative or not,” he said, warning of “a catastrophe” in 10 years if it is not.

    “Right now the ones on the offensive are the evangelicals,” he said. “They are aggressively marketing and have people going house to house. They are out there, while the Catholics haven’t abandoned their style as `the official church.
    Also Evangelicals reckon aiming for a good life in this world as reasonable approach, rather than wait until the other world. Suppose that it may be treated as nothing more than God wants you to be wealthy. They also think that birth control is a matter for each couple to decide, and those in the minority have no authoritarian head they can appeal to who can threaten them with committing a sin if they don’t obey HIM. Thus one would not have to invest in ovulation software or $200 mucus testing kits. Can see the attraction myself.

    When this last Pope attacked materialism was he referring to the ordinary thinking about it, bodily pleasures material goods etc. or was he opposed to the “Materialism which is a philosophical system which regards matter as the only reality in the world, which undertakes to explain every event in the universe as resulting from the conditions and activity of matter, and which thus denies the existence of God and the soul.� He may have objected to the first he certainly was at war with the second.

  23. James Farrell
    April 13th, 2005 at 22:34 | #23

    I didn’t realise the extent of evangelical protestant inroads in Latin American until a recent SBS documentary. Fifty percent of Guatemalans now identify as protestants, it said. Prior to that I would have guessed fifteen, maximum.

    What the Santo Subito stuff is supposed to prove, I have no idea. Except that a winning smile, a bit of acting experience and good stage management can make a Pope into a pop star.

  24. Ros
    April 14th, 2005 at 08:04 | #24

    A comment from Lee Siegel, TNR “this powerful, charismatic man, trained as an actor, had often used his awesome office to make the bread of words seem to have the effect of intoxicating action, when in fact no action was taken”
    Drives me nuts the constant great because of what he has done for the poor etc. Catholics are out there working with those in need, but what has that got to do with PJ2. If anybody can identify exactly what he has done rather than said I will stand corrected. I can certainly identify a number of his actions that have done harm to human beings.

  25. Econowit
    April 14th, 2005 at 10:35 | #25

    Everybody will be judged by their deeds- but not by us.

  26. Katz
    April 14th, 2005 at 10:56 | #26

    “Everybody will be judged by their deeds- but not by us”

    I guess that means that the creeping barrage of RWDB denunciation of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and the rest of the usual suspects can be ignored.

    I guess I should add for the sake of heading off the rush to riposte by the literal-minded and for those who only half-read the words of others that I’m no apologist for the above-mentioned gentlemen. On the other hand, I don’t expect them to get any different treatment than the Pope in the Afterlife.

    I’ll allow my readers to deduce my rationale for that assertion.

    In the meantime, the court of public opinion, in which this blog plays a modest role, is as good a forum of judgment as any.

  27. gordon
    April 14th, 2005 at 14:19 | #27

    As Dave Ricardo at #13 says, WE need to be vigilant. I would have thought that Pell’s cheerful willingness to take on the responsibilities of the Family Court a year or so ago highlighted the risks that WE run, not just Catholics.

  28. Katz
    April 14th, 2005 at 14:35 | #28

    Gordon, no doubt the Catholic Church has a powerful presence in Australia and in other countries. In fact, as we all know, in this country its schools are recipients of huge grants which subsidise propagation of its peculiar views. I’m sure I’m not alone in believing that my taxes could be put to more benign use.

    So I agree that vigilance is essential. My precise point is that the eccentricities and oddities of its administration and the amusing scope of its claims to universalism and infallibility fly so directly in the face of common sense that it is better for all that the Catholic Church persists with its funny little ways.

    The dwindling coterie of folks who still adhere are happy and those who don’t enjoy the occasional bracing spectacle such as that held recently in St Peter’s Square and the coming Conclave of wrinkled celibates.

    Why change anything?

  29. Monique
    April 21st, 2005 at 04:44 | #29

    It is not the Church that canonizes people– not yesterday, not today– but the faithful who recognize and attest to a person’s sanctity …..
    The canonization of saints by “popular acclaim” is the primary means that many of the saints we revere from the 1st millenium were canonized. It has always been a legitimate practice in the church and still is today. Perhaps no one in the Church’s history have had so many people around the world cry out with one voice, “Santo Subito! Santo Subito, John Paul II, the Great!!” The “popular acclaim” for the late Pontiff, which was so evident at his death and particularly at his funeral, was a clear indication of the widespread belief that John Paul II was a model of Christian virtue.

    This is the real testimony of “a reputation for holiness.” ….

    ….As far as the “miracles”; all of them have to happen after the person had died. (I always felt that being a Saint was being a bodhisatva(sp?)- someone who carved a spiritual path that can guide mine. Pope JPII did that for a lot of people. Getting people to go back to their faith, to go back to helping people just to do it, to fight their governments for the sake of human rights, that’s a major miracle in itself.

  30. April 21st, 2005 at 09:13 | #30

    In lieu of a trackback (since the other thread is closed) – I’ve posted some more thoughts on Benedict XVI.

  31. Paul Norton
    April 22nd, 2005 at 08:29 | #31

    In this morning’s SMH Letters page, Natasha Perrottet states that Pope Benedict XVI “understands young men and women better than they understand themselves”. In other words, a 78 year old man who’s been celibate virtually all his adult life “understand young. . . women better than they understand themselves”. Has any ever encountered a clearer or simpler expression of everything that’s wrong with religious conservatism, whether of a Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu or any other confessional variety?

  32. Pope Benedict XV (Benno)
    April 22nd, 2005 at 17:02 | #32

    It is evident that this is a cry for help Paul

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