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Michele Somerville Headshot

The Beatification of John Paul II and the Express Canonization Protection Program

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A few friends, knowing I still go to Catholic mass on Sunday, have asked me what I think about the beatification of Pope John Paul II. I think it's silly, but that the Express Canonization Protection Program might actually be a good thing in that it offers a fresh reminder of all that's wrong with a church hierarchy that supports dramatic change so long as that change is retrograde and increases the vatican's power.

Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) implemented the nifty shortcuts for canonization, so we can hardly be surprised that he should benefit posthumously from them. Canonization is exciting -- and not just for Catholics. I knew atheists who were excited about the talk of beatifying Dorothy Day! And the pomp that attends the canonization is good for business. Wojtyla saw the advertising value in streamlining the path to sainthood. During his pontificate, Pope John Paul II made more saints (483) than the all the (263) popes who came before him combined.

The current pope (Joseph Ratzinger/Benedict XVI) has much to gain by expediting the canonization of his predecessor. The clerical child abuse/rape crisis festered and its astonishing scope came to light under John Paul II's pontificate during which time Cardinal Ratzinger (as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith) was in charge of handling such cases. The fanfare that accompanies canonization promises to create a useful diversion for Ratzinger. In his capacity as the pope's enforcer, Ratzinger shaped policy, and many Vatican experts believe Ratzinger was the strong force behind John Paul II's campaign to rein in some of the enlightenment the Second Vatican Council had introduced. In many respects, the John Paul II pontificate was Ratzinger's as well.

The current pope has a personal stake in adorning the John Paul II pontificate with any glory he can rustle up, because as things stand, team Ratzinger and Wojtyla have a good chance of going down in history as the accessories to countless sex crimes against children. If the John Jay College of Criminal Justice report released by the of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops is to believed, tens of thousands of incidents of child rape took place while John Paul II was pope. (Survivors groups' estimates are higher.) The question of how exonerative the "We didn't understand the severity of the crimes" defense will prove to be as time passes is something only time will tell. I believe the answer -- so long as Ratzinger continues to hide -- is "not very." The current Vatican may be hoping that canonization will insulate John Paul II's legacy, that history might be more forgiving toward Wojtyla if he is an official saint.

Some Catholics feel that members of the church should raise their voices in opposition to the canonization of John Paul II. Their hearts may be in the right places, but the vatican isn't interested. Though Ratzinger has a substantial quotient of popular support for the the canonization of John Paul II, the man in Prada shoes hardly requires it. Current church teaching holds that saints are not "made" per se -- that God makes saints; popes identify them as such, via canonization. For much of the history of the church, saints were "made" in response to popular opinion. Ratzinger is playing that card now. Supporters of the push to expedite the canonization of Wojtyla claim that Ratzinger's desire to speed the process along grows out of his desire to honor the wish of the crowds who called out, in the aftermath of John Paul II's death, for his sainthood. I'm not buying it. Papacy by consensus? That's hardly Ratzinger's style.

Would the current pope be so quick to respond were those Catholic throngs gathered in Piazza San Pietro calling out for justice for the few hundred thousand victims of clerical rape? No.

Joseph Ratzinger answers to no one. The current pope doesn't care what today's Catholics think, and for a rapidly growing majority of Catholics, the feeling is mutual.

Before John Paul II, it took a long time for a pope to make his bones as a saint. A case for sainthood used to require decades of detective work, a short stack of miracles, and triumphing in the face of scrutiny by a "Devil's Advocate." Not anymore. Wojtyla simplified the process in 1983. Now the sacred event can occur in a decade. And on television -- which is very much not beside the point.

John Paul II was a telegenic pope. His popularity was built on the former actor's ability to exploit the medium, a natural talent which certainly played a role, after his death, in the frenzy for beatification. His gift for performance is one of the reasons the man who made it easier to become a saint is now a mere medical miracle away from sainthood himself.

Wojtyła may be short on miracles in the old-fashioned saint-making sense (Even under the Express Canonization Protection Program, he's still short a miracle.) but it's something of a miracle that a pope who embraced a serial rapist like Marcial Maciel Degollado can even be considered a candidate for canonization.

With John Paul II's support, Maciel, a Mexican priest, built a cultlike empire called the Legionaries of Christ even as he was being credibly accused of raping children. Maciel took bribes, fleeced the poor, fathered at least three children with as many women (One of Maciel's sons has claimed his father raped him as a child.) and was ultimately, publicly, albeit in weaselly terms, denounced, after his death, by the Vatican. Hundreds of rapes, which appropriate vigilance on the vatican's part could have prevented, occurred as a result of the inclination of future saint Karol Wojtyla to overlook such crimes as those perpetrated by his close friend, and powerful Catholic leader, Father Maciel.

There is plenty to like about John Paul II. He opposed the Iraq war. (It was through the example set by so many Catholic, doctrine-compliant conservatives who were quick to dismiss papal teaching as it pertained to the making of war that I learned that all Catholics are "Cafeteria Catholics.") He forgave and absolved a man who attempted to murder him. He had been an actor. He was an athlete. He had tried his hand at poetry. John Paul II was a charmer.

But the pontiff with the twinkle in his eye did little to stop the cardinals and bishops who shuffled and enabled rapist priests, lent credence to ultra-conservative groups like Opus Dei, punished and silenced Liberation Theology professors and scholars, and put an hysterical kibosh on the bishops' talk of women's ordination and alienated some of the best and brightest of his bishops. With Vatican II came a more expansive view toward discussion of family planning and birth control, yet the John Paul II Vatican shut that down too, during whose pontificate the AIDS crisis took hold. In heavily Roman Catholic regions of the developing world, it is likely that millions whom condom use might have saved, died (of?) complying with Wojtyla's (and Ratzinger's) papal teaching as it pertained to the use of artificial contraceptives.

I don't much care one way or another whether Wojtyla's successor makes a saint of his former boss because, like many Catholics, I don't look to the papacy for religious instruction or faith formation. I am not alone in this; millions of Catholics believe that the pope has no moral or spiritual credibility whatsoever. It wish it were otherwise. There are so many fine priests in the Roman Catholic Church. I regret that the pope of my church is not one of them.

I don't watch much television, but on Sunday nights my husband and I watch (Showtime's) "The Borgias." Not every act of rape, murder, simony, torture and larceny Pope Alexander VI commits on screen really happened -- but many did -- a small fraction of which ought to offer more than enough cause to discourage any Catholic from strict adherence to papal authority. Although we both think Jeremy Irons is a brilliant actor, my husband and I keep thinking James Gandolfini should have been cast as Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia pope.

"But then it would be 'The Sopranos,'" the husband said.

"Exactly."

Joey Ratz is the boss and the vatican thinks of the church as its "thing." As long as the money's coming in, Joey Ratz will call the shots, dispensing tributes and honors as he sees fit. So there isn't much the church -- by which I mean the Catholics in the pews -- can do to stop him, beyond working to help the church to become more legit, and stopping, along the way, to think twice, before forking over the Sunday vigorish.

Around the Web

Pope John Paul II - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Pope beatifies John Paul II before 1.5M faithful - Yahoo! News

Pope John Paul II - The New York Times

John Paul II - The Holy See

John Allen: Pope Benedict XVI declares Pope John Paul II 'blessed ...