Is John Paul II still great?

I’ve been asking myself that question as I’ve read the discussions about the sex abuse scandal and asked it again while I read Ross Douthat’s editorial at the NYT this morning. The most pertinent part is this:

But there’s another story to be told about John Paul II and his besieged successor. The last pope was a great man, but he was also a weak administrator, a poor delegator, and sometimes a dreadful judge of character.

The church’s dilatory response to the sex abuse scandals was a testament to these weaknesses. So was John Paul’s friendship with the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The last pope loved him and defended him. But we know now that Father Maciel was a sexually voracious sociopath. And thanks to a recent exposé by The National Catholic Reporter’s Jason Berry, we know the secret of Maciel’s Vatican success: He was an extraordinary fund-raiser, and those funds often flowed to members of John Paul’s inner circle.

Only one churchman comes out of Berry’s story looking good: Joseph Ratzinger. Berry recounts how Ratzinger lectured to a group of Legionary priests, and was subsequently handed an envelope of money “for his charitable use.” The cardinal “was tough as nails in a very cordial way,” a witness said, and turned the money down.

This isn’t an isolated case. In the 1990s, it was Ratzinger who pushed for a full investigation of Hans Hermann Groer, the Vienna cardinal accused of pedophilia, only to have his efforts blocked in the Vatican. It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the church’s haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Maciel’s conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.

So the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up. This pattern extends to other fraught issues that the last pope tended to avoid — the debasement of the Catholic liturgy, or the rise of Islam in once-Christian Europe. And it extends to the caliber of the church’s bishops, where Benedict’s appointments are widely viewed as an improvement over the choices John Paul made. It isn’t a coincidence that some of the most forthright ecclesiastical responses to the abuse scandal have come from friends and protégés of the current pope.

Douthat is not alone here; most have pointed out (including Rod Dreher, who left the Church b/c of his disappointment w/ the abuse scandals) that Benedict has gone to great lengths to clean up the mess that his predecessor made. But does a “great” make that kind of mess?

Now I certainly think that JPII is a saint. I don’t think that’s in question. Interestingly enough, I have not gathered from the media’s coverage that they would disagree with that. In fact, I would say that he probably merits very serious consideration as a doctor of the Church for Fides et Ratio and “man and Woman He Created Them: a theology of the body” Heck, I even have a poster of him in my living room (which is useful for showing to Mormon missionaries when they ask if I’m religious).

But having the title of “the great” means something extra than sainthood, doesn’t it?

Of course, this is difficult b/c “the great” title has no requirements, no set guidelines. This can be a big deal, as often the rules determine the result (for example: the importance you attach to Superbowl wins affects whether you think Manning or Brady is superior. of course this question is irrelevant b/c Brees is better than both of them but I digress).

Adding further difficulty is determining how significant this scandal is. While I’m sure this has profoundly affected those who have suffered from child abuse, I’m not sure if this will be a big deal thirty, fifty, a hundred years down the road. Right now of course it seems huge but how many people will be aware of it in the coming generations?

For JPII to not be determined great, it would have to be that the sex abuse scandal made enough of a dent in his legacy. This is not a minor feat, as JPII deserves significant credit for stabilizing the Church following Vatican II (setting the stage for the current traditonalist revival), excellent contributions to theology (including Fides et Ratio and Theology of the Body), an excellent charismatic approach that changed the nature of the papacy, and-oh yeah-helping to peacefully bring down the Soviet Union.

I tend to think that in the end, he will be deemed great though for the moment I hesitate to use the term. In the end, I think this storm will pass and we’ll be left with the memories of a great man with great accomplishments. But I think it’s possible that in reflecting on the failures of JPII’s papacy that perhaps we’ll choose not to use the term, and that’s not a possibility many were entertaining 5 years ago when JPII came into eternal life.

I would really like to know how other people are approaching this problem. Please leave comments.

Of course, one has to think that if Benedict is doing better than JPII, and JPII is “the great”, ought perhaps Benedict be up for the term? Food for thought.

27 Responses to Is John Paul II still great?

  1. Tito Edwards says:

    On one point I agree with Douthat is that JP2 overlooked liturgical abuse. Even to the point of participating in it himself “hoping” that his example would lead others to change, but alas we’ve seen how this has failed miserably.

    Thank goodness for Pope Benedict!

  2. Jay Anderson says:

    The failure to adequately address the sex abuse scandal was the great failing of the JPII papacy.

    Yet I came into the Church in 2004 – just after the height of the scandal in the U.S. in 2002. Not only was the Church’s poor handling of the crisis NOT an impediment to me, but I have my doubts that I would be here but for JPII. I had loved John Paul and considered him “the Great” for well over 20 years before I ever entered the Church.

    I think there can be no doubt to anyone who saw the entirety of JPII’s papacy and witnessed his compelling presence on the world stage – his contribution to the fall of Eastern European communism, alone, in my view, merits the sobriquet “the Great” – that such a title is apt.

  3. Jay:

    You actually touch on a problem I have in evaluating this: when I really came into the faith (although I was a cradle Catholic) Benedict was pope, not JPII. So it’s hard for me to really evaluate his papacy like most others can.

  4. Jay Anderson says:

    I have to say that my love for JPII was the sort of love that one might feel for the “great man” like George Washington or Abe Lincoln. It’s not so much a personal attachment as it is an admiration for someone who is much larger than just himself. I think many people of different faiths and no faiths recognized that in JPII, and this is part of why I believe “the Great” is applicable.

    That said, the love I feel for Benedict is a much more personalized love, like one might have for a kindly old grandfather or a favorite uncle. He might not be a “great” man, but, more importantly, he is a “good” man. And that is why I am so angered by these unfair attacks upon his character.

  5. j. christian says:

    “So the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up.”


    “[Pope Benedict] might not be a “great” man, but, more importantly, he is a “good” man. And that is why I am so angered by these unfair attacks upon his character.”



  6. Anthony says:

    This is why it should take decades, if not centuries to determine canonization… you need the hindsight of history, the unfolding of events and calm nerves to soberly assess these matters…

  7. Anthiny:

    true. Now, I’m ok w/ Mother Teresa & JPII getting accelerated b/c I think that it’s pretty obvious that their spirituality & their following are more than enough. But for most saints, waiting a while is a good thing and it’s done for the reasons you point out.

    That said, I still want to see Sheen canonized soon, preferably yesterday.

  8. jh says:

    I think the problem is it is John Paul the II versus Benedict. It was not till Benedict read all those scope of the problem. At this stage John Paul the II was entering the last stages of his life. Thought the Pope had some judgment lapses after (again lets face it he was again in bad shape) it does appear he backed Ratzinger on taking control. So it is perhaps a tad unfair of making it just Ratzinger versu John Paul the II

    However what about PAUL THE VI. The exahustive John Jay report shows these incidents of abuse peaked in 79 and we start seeing a dramtic fall after 84

    In fact new cases that are not decades old have been old are rare. I think there just 6 reported credible(it could have happened) allegations last year.

    John Paul the II and his reforms and the Bishops he put in(they were not all bad) I think hasto be looked at here. It is apparent that a good bit of this occured even before JOhn Paul the II got on though by reading media reports one would miss that fact.

    So I would say the failure of this mostly applies to Bishops and others that were supervising the Seminaries and their Priest from a much earlier period.

    Not to absolve John Paul the II from bad adminstrative skills in this regard. Yet to be honest it appears this was born under a lot leadership before he came on board in Rome

  9. Pinky says:

    I made a passing comment about a week ago on this site about how I didn’t like the designation “the Great” used for JP2. I’m grateful that someone took up the subject in an article.

    There is a tendency to overdramatize the times that a person lives in. (I suspect we do that more today, but saying that may be an example of overdramatizing things.) The Church has to be careful not to do that, because Her majesty and holiness are more apparent when viewed across history. I think the Church has to be sparing with its praise of our contemporaries.

    There have been seven people, if I remember correctly, that the Church has regularly labelled “the Great”. Among popes, Leo, Gregory, and Nicholas; the remainder are Doctors and/or Fathers of the Church. You could pack a church with stained glass and statues of great but not Great saints: Augustine, Benedict, Joan of Arc, and Ignatius of Loyola are among the Church’s “also-rans”.

    What did John Paul do that made him a “Great”? Was his theology head-and-shoulders better than Theresa of Avila and Francis of Asissi? Did he really influence history more than Athanasius? Pius V, now there was a man who influenced history, defended the liturgy, fought heresy, and honored the rosary. John Paul II may have defeated communism without firing a shot, but he also did it without saving a soul – where is the blossoming of Catholicism in eastern Europe, outside of Poland?

    That’s my argument without mentioning Father Maciel. The fact is that John Paul hasn’t even been canonized yet. It’s impious to list him as great among the saints, and imprudent to do so with any saint without decades of reflection.

  10. Robert says:

    To the thought of the title “The Great” – in which direction would the Church have gone without him? I believe God knows what he is doing. he put the right person in as Pope at the right time. I am glad he has his short-comings – he is human after all. I don’t then Cardinal Ratzinger minded his role in that all too much.

    So yes I believe “The Great” fits in relation to JPII.

  11. John Henry says:

    That said, I still want to see Sheen canonized soon, preferably yesterday.

    I have a friend who studied Sheen extensively for his license thesis; fwiw, as he progressed in his studies, he became less convinced that Sheen should be canonized. It’s not that Sheen wasn’t an excellent catechist or person; just that he had some well known faults and lifestyle choices (vanity and a taste for the finer things in life) that aren’t typically associated with sainthood. I’m not trying to trash Bishop Sheen. I have great affection for G.K. Chesterton, but I’m not sure he is an ideal candidate for canonization either.

    As for Benedict and John Paul II, John Paul II was a great man and a saint from everything I’ve read. I think the same of Benedict. It must be said, however, that John Paul II had many failings as an administrator, most notably a tendency to trust that his suboordinates and people like Fr. Maciel were as virtuous as he was. In some cases that faith was rewarded (the elevation of Joseph Ratzinger comes to mind), but in other cases the results were disastrous. Pathological liars, it seems, can deceive even (and, one fears, especially) the saints.

  12. jonathanjones02 says:

    Both popes are great and good men, and we are extraordinarly fortunate to have had them (and may Benedict have many more years).

    Yet they are men, and Ross Douthat is right that John Paul was, by some measures, a poor administrator. Even so….to be a Polish Catholic leader in the 20th Century was to be overwhelmed by evil, and to have been overwhelmed by the courage of hero-priests. I expect this was his bias in the relationship, for example, to the disgraced Father Marcel.

  13. Karl says:

    Marriage suffered under JPII as he supervised the new Canon Law which was changed to ignore the crime that adultery is. Under his watch annulments have been excouraged to the point of making marriage vows impossible to make that are binding under the scrutity of “inventive” canonists. Crimes against marriage by clergy and laity involved in the “annulment process” are rampant yet go unpunished, even when the documentation sits in the hands of the Catholic Church. He was well aware of abuses but did nothing to address them or to empower those whose marriage were laid to waste to seek justice.

    JPII is not and was not great. His case for canonization should be ended, permanently, and such a declaration should be made public. I was thrilled, as a man of Polish ancestry, when he was elected. But, as time progressed and Catholicism disintigrated I became more and more disenchanted with him.

    If Benedict does not address the abuses of marriage with accountability, he should be forgotten, as I hope JPII will be. It is that important.

    I await his growing into his job. He seems to be an improvement but only marginally so. He still talks a much better case than he acts, at least regarding marriage.

    I do not mean to say that either of these men are not
    “good” men. They just did/do not do enough to hold those men, especially among the clergy, who are not “good” men to account or to allow laity to defend themselves against these abusers. This should be especially true in nullity proceedings.

    What I experienced should cost many priests and some bishops laicization and perhaps worse. It remains disgusting that the current bishops accept and encourage adultery through their priests, even in the face of accusations from a person who defended their marriage and who is watching it. Benedict knows what is going on and leaves these men in their sees. By doing so, he IS part of the corruption regarding the destruction of marriage. He may not know the details of a specific case or accusation, but he knows such are made and he has made NO EFFORT to reach out to those of us who can name names. This is more than porr management. This is a choice he is making and one he is making very, very wrong.

  14. jh says:

    Father Z weighs in !!!

    Is Benedict XVI a “better Pope” than John Paul II? A couple views and then Fr. Z really rants.

  15. Jh:

    Thanks for the Fr. Z link. Fr. Z knows more about Vatican workings than Douthat does. I also agree with his diagnosis of that “update” on Dreher’s column ( I think there’s something personal; the guy’s columns are soaked with a desire to return to the Church).

  16. John Henry says:

    I’ve corresponded with Dreher before via e-mail about some of this before. My take is that he is a good man who investigated the 2002 abuse cases to the point that he couldn’t look at the Church anymore without seeing the scandals; at that point he had to leave in orer to save his spiritual life. There are many victims of the abuse scandals – those abused and those scandalized – they all deserve our prayers.

  17. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Well, anyone who played as large a role in the fall of the Soviet Empire as John Paul II did is I think fully deserving of the title of Great.

    His constant stress of the Culture of Life as opposed to the Culuture of Death is a message truly made for our time.

    He helped restore the morale of Catholics worldwide that was badly shaken after the chaos that ensued after Vatican II.

    His globe trotting was completely necessary as he used the force of his own outsized personality to help rally the faithful.

    He put an end to much of the chaos in the Church.

    He used the papacy, which he found in a very weakened state, as a huge megaphone to preach Christ to the world.

    His papacy I think was easily the most consequential one of the last century, and to fully judge him and the impact of his papacy we will need two or three centuries distance. His mistakes, and he made them, I think will be dwarfed by the long term impact of his successes.

  18. Mike Petrik says:

    What Donald said….

  19. Todd says:

    At this point in history, people who admire him as a hero, even for religious reasons, are free to label him “the Great.” Me, I like Wayne Gretzky.

    I’m not sure what to make of turning the 21st century Chair of Peter into a popularity contest. The real issues at hand are the credibility of the pope and bishops, and what will be done to clarify the appearance that our two contestants cared more for their clergy than for victims of predators.

    And for those who pursue this comparison, what do you suppose our heroes would say to being compared man to man in this way?

  20. Pinky says:

    I’d put him in the top three of the last century. Pius X did more to fight heresy, and has been canonized. Pius XII faced a more difficult situation. I can respect John Paul II’s writings, but he was practically the only non-heretic writing at the time, and that doesn’t speak well of the Church he oversaw.

    Things like the Soviet Union rise and fall all the time, if you look at history over the long haul. But the former Soviet Union hasn’t seen a rush back to the Faith. The Church has made gains in Africa, and suffered sizable losses in South America. I just don’t see this last pontificate as having been a period of gaining souls for God. That’s a fair thing to consider in rating a pope.

  21. piotr says:

    If Benedict does not address the abuses of marriage with accountability, he should be forgotten, as I hope JPII will be. It is that important.Karl Says:
    Monday, April 12, 2010 A.D. at 3:02 pm
    True Christian speaking. Ready to throw the first stone?

  22. Pinky:

    I just don’t see this last pontificate as having been a period of gaining souls for God. That’s a fair thing to consider in rating a pope.

    I don’t know about that. To quote LOTR:

    “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo.
    “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”

    To me, that last sentence is the best way to evaluate popes. JPII wasn’t the cause of the turmoil following Vatican II. He didn’t cause communism. He didn’t cause widespread materialism and secularism. But he did an amazing job fighting for souls against those forces, and preserving the church to fight in the future.

    As far as your specific claims, I disagree. Ratzinger was writing at the same time, as well as others. Just b/c many were heretics is not his fault. Again, did he do a good job combating them? W/ his writings and with the appointment of Ratzinger he did a pretty job.

    As for the Soviet Union 1) Most of the area was Orthodox, not Catholic. This makes it hard for the pope & Catholics to come into. 2) Religion was entirely wiped out. We shouldn’t underestimate the damage done by the communists. There’s a lot to rebuild (and as I said above, what was to be rebuilt was largely Orthodox).

    Perhaps the pope could have done better in hindsight, but considering the vast scope of the papacy and the tremendous gains he made in some areas I think he did very well. I don’t think many could have been handed the cup given to JPII and done better.

  23. Art Deco says:

    However what about PAUL THE VI. The exahustive John Jay report shows these incidents of abuse peaked in 79 and we start seeing a dramtic fall after 84

    There is a distinction between when an event occurred and when an event was reported to Church authorities. Here in New York, the statute of limitations which applies to the sexual molestation of youth was two decades ago extended to the 33d birthday of the accuser – i.e. a median of 19 years after the fact. That is exceptional in the penal law and there is a reason for that.

    One might point out that employees of the Holy See number in the low thousands. There are some 3,000 dioceses worldwide. It is not likely the manpower is there to attend to the personnel issues of each and every diocese, but don’t tell that to Rod Dreher or Ross Douthat.

    My take is that he is a good man who investigated the 2002 abuse cases to the point that he couldn’t look at the Church anymore without seeing the scandals;

    My take on it is that he is a highly emotional man who is quite incapable of suspending judgment about much of anything, has throughout the last 29 years undergone a series of affiliations and disaffiliations, and whose default mode is one of accusation. ‘Good man’, perhaps; ‘obnoxious clown’, very often. One can only hope his wife and children do not get banged up in the next of his serial midlife crises.

  24. Karl says:

    Please be accurate Piotr,

    The First and ever thrown was/is by the countless priests and bishops who continue to support the violations of tens of thousands of marriages every year by false nullities with the concurrent support for adultery and all the crimes that go along with it.

    If this truth being pointed out makes me “unchristian”, I am PROUD to wear that mantle. It is “unchristian” to hold your disgusting position.

    How dare you accuse me of throwing the first stone. You are a liar and much much worse. Where is your apology, sir?

  25. Pinky says:

    Michael – Hey, you and I just disagreed, aired our sides, and ended it charitably! It really *can* happen on the internet!

  26. Karl/Piotr

    No one throws stones in my threads.

    I agree with Piotr that karl is being very harsh on JPII, but I think it’s obvious that Karl has some personal experience with this that has hurt him. While I don’t want this threat to digress into a discussion on Church policy on annulments, I think we can all agree that there have been many abuses of it. As Karl points to Canon law as a source of the problem, I would ask Karl what changes in canon law he thinks would help curtail abuses in order to better guide the faithful.


    Is that allowed? I may lose blogging privleges if I keep this up 😉

  27. cantueso says:

    If people remember his as The Great, he ought to be called The Great. And Ratzinger was his teacher. JPII let himself be taught (however selectively :-). That does show greatness.

    He was however not as likable as The Cardinal and his cats and his writings on sacred art.

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