Monday, November 14, 2011

So, Is it John Paul the Great?

So is John Paul II “John Paul the Great.”  One sees him referred to as such at times—will the appellation stick?  There are only three popes known as “The Great” and two of them have the same name making it very difficult at times to figure out which one is being talked about.  You have Leo the Great.  And you have two Gregorys the Great, Gregory I and Gregory VII.  They both deserve the title though for different reasons.  Actually Wikipedia refers to Pope Nicholas I (reined 858-867) as "The Great" but I have never seen him called this in a history book.  The only distinguishing remarks about his papacy would be to say that he wasn't as bad as most popes of the ninth and tenth century so maybe he should be called Nicholas the Mediocre rather than Nicholas the Great.  But let me do some more research on him and maybe I can find some reason to let him join the very exclusive club to which the appelation "The Great" entitles you membership.        Leo the Great, (Leo I, reigned 440-461) is accorded the title for several reasons.  He defended Rome from Attila the Hun. The story goes that the Apostles Peter and Paul wielding swords appeared in the sky over the invader’s army throwing the Huns into panic.  In historical fact, Attila’s support lines were stretched, his troops decimated by plague, and he was afraid that further battle would make retreat back to his secure strongholds beyond the Dolomites impossible.  Who knows?  But Leo had another achievement and that was the "Letter of Leo" outlining the two natures (one divine, the other human) in the one Person of Christ.  "Peter has spoken through Leo" the Council bishops declared at Chalcedon!  His was a crucial papacy in establishing the claim for Rome to be the Apostolic See and arbiter of Christian orthodoxy. 
     Gregory I, also known as Gregory the Great (the first of two) reigned from 590-604 and is known for his patristic writings, most notably the Moralia in Job, probably one of the five most important books of the Christian Middle Ages.  He also sent Augustine and his band of merry monks (no, that was Robin Hood who had a band of merry men, sorry) his band of monks to Canterbury where they established a mission beachhead that was to evangelize the Anglo Saxon peoples of southern England.  And of course there was the chant—never catchy tunes, but hey, they’ve lasted.  Like Leo he is worth a blog entry of his own some day.             
     Gregory VII is also termed “Gregory the Great.” His papacy lasted form 1073 until 1085.    As we have seen in some blogs a great reformer of the Church, he struggled to eliminate simony and impose clerical celibacy.  More important he fought—and suffered greatly—to free the Church from the control of the Holy Roman Emperors.  The eleventh century Reform of the Church credited to him—the Gregorian Reform—was one of the most important epochs in the history of the Church.
     Now, as for John Paul.  It is complicated.  I remember when he died hearing a commentator on the BBC say, quoting Dickens—“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”  That about sums it up.
     As for the best, John Paul was the single most important player in the downfall of the Soviet Empire.  His election to the papacy energized his home nation of Poland and galvanized resistance to its puppet state that followed Moscow’s lead.  John Paul fanned the flames of nationalism, offering public support to the Solidarity movement challenging the hegemony of the Communist Party and demanding governmental reforms leading to democracy.   John Paul wrote extensive critiques of both Marxist-Leninist thought and Free Market Capitalism, offering an alternative to both in his socio-political-economic construct termed “Solidarity.” 
     John Paul, like his contemporary, American President Reagan, had an effective foreign policy but disastrously retrogressive domestic policies.  In terms of external relations of the Church with modern political and religious institutions he was a genius.  Not only did he hammer away at the Marxist-Leninist regimes of Eastern Europe, but he built very good relationships with other Christian Churches and with non-Christian religions.  In fact his ecumenical and inter-religious ties made many in the Church—including his number 2 key aide, Cardinal Ratzinger—very nervous.  Some thought he went way too far in his dialogues with those outside the Church.   Whatever one thinks from a doctrinal viewpoint, he certainly created an atmosphere of trust and open dialogue.  Unfortunately, while it contributed to a deepened cordiality,  it did little to actually resolve any of the neuralgic points and by the end of his reign the various Christian Churches remained as far apart from one another, at least as regards restoring the unity of Christendom, as ever.  He also had a tremendous popular appeal especially to younger people.  They didn't necessarily heed his message--especially regarding sexual and reproductive ethics--but they loved him nonetheless.  He should be seen more as a popular cult figure than a succesful shaper of moral values and doctrines. 
     As to the downside of the John Paul's papacy, within the Church, the fractures grew ever deeper.  John Paul seems to have not been very enthusiastic about many of the developments of the Second Vatican Council, particularly those that restored authority to the bishops that had been taken over by Rome since the Napoleonic reorganization of Europe at the beginning of the nineteenth century.  The brilliant leadership that had been appointed by Pius XII and guided the Church through the Council of John XXIII and Paul VI—men like Cardinals Bea, Alfrink, König, Lorschieder, Arns, Suenens—were to be seen no more.  His years in totalitarian Poland—where the Church under its Primate had to be as ruthlessly dictatorial as the State to prevail—imbued him with a fear of pluriformity  and bishops seem to have been chosen for their blind loyalty.  There were exceptions, of course, such as the Benedictine Cardinal Hume of Westminster or the Dominican Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna but overall there was certainly a dumbing down of the hierarchy.  Some intelligent minds such as Dulles or Congar were given red hats when they were too old to be of any danger, but overall the John Paul appointees were mediocre at best.  Nor did John Paul seem to know what to do about the fractures within the Church.  While he could be inflexible he also was overly anxious to hold the Church together even when groups who rejected the Second Vatican Council, its teachings, and its liturgy were acting in bad faith.  His decision to permit the revival of the pre-conciliar liturgy as an acceptable option has only served to polarize the Church even further as he seemed not to understand that the liturgy was not the key issue of the Lefebvre schism but rather the doctrinal thrust of the Council, particularly its stance on ecumenism, inter-religious dialogue, and freedom of conscience.  Under John Paul, prelates and priests who reject the Conciliar teachings found their ways into the higher reaches of the Curia Romana and have caused considerable confusion as the papal administration failed and continues to fail to speak with a consistent voice.  This is symptomatic of the problem that John Paul never got control of the Curia which took on a life of its own in his pontificate and has continued to be unmanageable in the reign of his successor.   
     Most detrimental to his historical position John Paul bought the Legionnaires of Christ hook, line, and sinker.  The financial scandals (we won’t mention the sexual scandals) by which the Legion founder, Marcial Maciel bought protection from papal Secretary of State, Cardinal Sodano,  and was able to maintain papal favor are just now coming to light but they threaten to undo the reputation of the late pope to the point of making his beatification a conundrum if not a scandal.   While Opus Dei has yet to be tainted with this sort of scandal, there were serious questions about the beatification and canonization of its founder, Monsignor Escriva, and whether or not his sainthood was “bought.”  Like the Legion, only more so, Opus Dei has a long reputation of freely scattering large sums of money around various Vatican Offices and while no sexual scandal has tainted the reputation of the founder, there were stories that Monsignor Escriva’s disillusionment with contemporary Catholicism was leading him to look beyond the Roman Communion for a spiritual  home for himself and his followers.  Those allegations have been neither proved nor disproved, but equally serious are the ties of Escriva to the Fascist Regime in Franco’s Spain and whether they should have been an impediment to formal sainthood.  If Opus Dei didn’t have the reputation of paying, and paying well, for everything on their agenda, the canonization would probably not be called into question but unfortunately their “generosity” has called the integrity of Vatican officials under John Paul into question.  And that brings up in particular the suspectibility of John Paul’s secretary, now Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow Dziwisz, to being bribed for access to the pope.  Frankly it is all  a mess.  “Blessed”—well, that is water over the dam and perhaps someday “Saint” as his personal integrity—if not his sagacity—seems to be above question.  But “The Great.”  No.  John Paul is not John Paul the Great nor will he ever be if history be taken seriously.     

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