I have heard it attributed to Rousseau, Diderot, Voltaire and even Mark Twain, but whoever said it, it is one of my favorite axioms: “God created man in his own image and man, being a gentleman, returned the compliment.” I am constantly amazed at how many people’s “God” is nothing more than a projection of their biases, hopes, dreams, fears, and ambitions. I am not speaking here of atheists or agnostics or Muslims or Hindus—I am speaking of every-Sunday-in-Church Catholics—sometimes even daily communicants. They can tell you with great assurance for whom “God” (their deity) wants you to vote, what God wants you to think about Muslims, what his solution is to illegal immigration, and a host of other ideas. And it is just amazing how God always agrees with them. There was a day when people were absolutely convinced that God wanted them to take the land that belonged to the Native Americans, keep the black folk enslaved (hear that Cliven Bundy?), and let only White Protestants from Britain, Scandinavia, and Germany come to our shores and become Americans. For a lot of people, the issues have changed but a God who favors the haves over the have nots is still alive and well—at least in their pious imagination.
Today the Church canonized Pope John XXIII. I am not so sure, as I posted yesterday, that that is a great idea. Don’t get me wrong—I like Pope John. I remember when he was elected. I remember when he announced that he was convoking a Council. I remember when his Council opened. I remember when he died. And I have spent hours sitting in Saint Peter’s Basilica in front of the glass casket that holds his remains—an island of peaceful prayer in the midst of the combination Grand Concourse and Tourist Destination otherwise known as St. Peter’s Basilica. But the Pope John of popular imagination is not the Pope John of historical fact.
John XXIII was a warm and outgoing man. He was remarkably personable and he stood in stark contrast to the introverted and austere personality of his predecessor, Pius XII. But he was no liberal and had he been younger and lived through his Council, things most likely would have been remarkably different.
For one thing, John—unlike the current Pope—loved the baroque trappings of the papacy. He liked wearing the triple-tiara that his successor, Paul VI, would retire. He liked the Cardinals decked out in their long (9 yards) trains of scarlet silk and ermine. His Vatican apartment was over-decorated with red damask walls and heavy gilt furniture that can only be described as “Italian exuberant.” He liked being carried shoulder high on his portable throne, the sedia gestoria, and he liked the accompanying fans and canopy. He loved the elaborate ritual of the Solemn Pontifical Mass. It is highly unlikely that he would have approved of the remarkable changes to the Catholic liturgy enacted under his successor, Paul VI. He probably would have gone for allowing the readings to be read in the language of the congregation but it is unlikely that he would have permitted the entire Mass to be in the vernacular, much less the dramatic changes in the structure of the liturgy that also marked a major theological shift in the way that Catholics understand the Mass. Nor would he have favored the dramatic changes in clerical and religious life with priests and nuns wearing ordinary clothes and the dropping of many monastic customs that had crept into the apostolic life over the centuries in favor of a more secular lifestyle. When it comes to ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue, John had always been cordial, even warm, to people of other faiths and religions, but how far would inter-faith dialogue have proceeded in pontificate? I doubt that the Assisi meetings of 1986, 2002, and 2011 that brought a Pope into prayerful dialogue with non-Christian religious leaders would have taken place. John was always very conscious of his being Pope. One did not meet John on a peer level and while he was very welcoming, he met other religious leaders as his brothers but not as his peers. Many of the Decrees of Vatican II would have passed his muster—especially Gaudium et Spes, Nostra Aetate, and Reintegratio Unitatis—but others such as Christus Dominus and Lumen Gentium (with its teaching on Collegiality) may well not have. Dei Verbum, on Divine Revelation, may have been significantly different as well as well as Ad Gentes, on the Missionary Activity of the Church. Dignitatis Humanae with its declaration on the sovereignty of conscience may also have gone further than John would have permitted. I think the decree Optatum Totius on the formation of clergy might have been implemented very differently under John had he lived than it was under his successor. The fact is that most of the “liberal” accomplishments of Vatican II were not the work of John XXIII but of Paul VI. None of this is meant to be a criticism of John—simply the observation that he, like all of us, was a person of his times and for his times he was forward looking—but he was born in 1881 and he was just short of 78 when elected to the papacy. It is remarkable that he was as progressive as he was, especially given the intellectual paranoia that pervaded the Vatican in the final years of his predecessor, Pius XII.
I am not saying that John XXIII was not a good pope—his calling the Council won him a seat as one of the most important popes in history—but I am saying that the John XXIII of popular imagination is not exactly the same man as the John XXIII of history. What has elevated him to sainthood, I am afraid, is the Pope John of the popular imagination, the Pope of Vatican II and Catholic aggiornamento to balance the ticket with John Paul II, a even more complex (and much more complex) figure to analyze but much beloved by the Catholic-Right-of-Center.
There was a lot in the newspapers and on the internet about the fact that Pope Francis waived the need for a miracle for the canonization of JohnXXIII—unlike John Paul who had several to spare. I am surprised that there were miracles lacking for “Good Pope John.” Back in the ‘80’s—almost twenty years before John was beatified, a friend of mine, the late Father Alcuin Coyle OFM, told me an interesting story. Father Alcuin had worked for many years at the Franciscan Generalate in Rome and one of his fellow Franciscans was the postulator for Pope John’s “cause.” The postulator is the person responsible for “pushing” the cause through the various congregations and committees that have to review the evidence and propose the candidate first for beatification and then for canonization. According to Father Alcuin there were almost two dozen miracles attributed to Pope John but the cause was being held up for “political” reasons—namely that the more conservative pontificate of then Pope John Paul II, was not anxious to advance John XXIII to sainthood as he was identified with the liberal wing of the Church at the very time that John Paul II wanted to correct the Council’s course and steer it in a more conservative direction. I will be doing an entry on John Paul next and while I don’t have the evidence—other than Father Alcuin’s opinion—that John Paul was not anxious to advance the cause of John XXIII (I won’t go so far as to say he was blocking it, but draw what conclusions you may), I must say that I think John Paul’s canonization is no more opportune than Pope John’s. However, Pope Francis is Pope—I am not—and so I defer to his judgment. At the end of the day, we have two new saints.