The Catholic Thing
Hagiography Made Simple Print E-mail
By Brad Miner   
Monday, 24 September 2012

Words are like bundles. For instance, when a presidential candidate says he wants to “redistribute” wealth, the statement may seem innocuous to some – a way, perhaps, of giving the poor a leg up – whereas to others it’s a red flag driven directly into the heart of the Constitution. Only time and experience may reveal what the candidate, if he or she is elected, actually intended. The bundle gets untied and unpacked.

Consider many of our most commonly used political adjectives: conservative and right-wing; liberal and left-wing. And “progressive.”

Back in the 1980s, a major newspaper could write that America’s conservative president was causing agita among conservatives in the Kremlin. Readers may have been understandably confused.

Some political words are so freighted with contradictory meanings that they’re probably useless. They’re portmanteau or even counterwords, having “broad and vague range[s] of meaning through widespread use in many markedly different situations.”

Yet some are effective, none more than “progressive.”

Did anybody ever find a receptive audience who described himself as “regressive” – in politics, economics, or faith? To be a progressive is, to an extent, to claim some immediate, instinctive advantage over a conservative. It has to do with the popular assertion, made in many contexts beyond the political, that you “lead, follow, or get out of the way.” Progress is inevitable and, therefore, unstoppable. Only a fool stands athwart history yelling, “Stop!”

In the context of religion, specifically the Catholic faith, you have the “conservative” Church before Vatican II and the “progressive” one after. Thus do some hail the Council’s originator, Pope John XXIII, as either the last pope or as the Good Pope: villain for some conservatives; hero for all progressives.

Greg Tobin’s new book, The Good Pope: The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church – the Story of John XXIII and Vatican II (288 pp., $26.99, HarperOne), takes the view that the pope was definitely some sort of progressive.

          Progressive pope?

Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli had an extraordinary life and career before his election as Supreme Pontiff. As was true of a number of his predecessors, fame among his brethren derived in large measure from his diplomatic service, during which time he was both a wise serpent and a gentle dove (MT. 10:16), although it’s the gentleness that’s remembered. I like very much an anecdote Mr. Tobin relates: named apostolic delegate to Istanbul, Archbishop Roncalli faced Atatürk’s ban on clerical dress by wearing tailor-made suits and a bowler. He was described (by another writer) as looking “like a Milanese bank clerk at the wedding of the managing director’s daughter.”

Mr. Tobin’s work is easy to read, although readers seeking to know why and how the pope “remade” the Church – or, for that matter, if he did – will be unconvinced by the assertions of the book’s subtitle or by such summary statements as these (dealing with the end of the Council’s first session and the pope’s last encyclical): 

John’s huge accomplishment was to make the far-flung bishops realize that the Church was truly “catholic,” truly universal.
                              – or, later, that – 
Pacem in terris. . .is the most catholic of papal encyclicals. . . .Its substance and mandate changed the political discourse of world leaders in its wake.

A lawyer might object that this refers to facts not in evidence, which is not to suggest a revolution of sorts didn’t follow the in the “wake” of John’s and the Council’s work. But was the mind of John reflected in the conciliar documents or in the later interpretations and misinterpretations of them?

Mr. Tobin writes that one of the leading liberal cardinals was “a progressive who fully supported John’s program,” implying that John XXIII was a progressive. (And Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, the heavy in this melodrama, was a conservative.) That’s debatable, especially as “progressivism” has developed in the half century since John’s death.

Let’s not read contemporary liberalism back into the life of Angelo Roncalli. To read Tobin, you’d never imagine this was a pope who opposed abortion, artificial insemination, contraception, divorce, euthanasia, the ordination of women, and (interesting in terms of a later crisis) the admission of homosexuals to seminaries.

Mr. Tobin is certainly right to conclude that, beyond partisan politics, Blessed John XXIII was “an extraordinary man and pope,” and, perhaps, that he deserves to be proclaimed a saint.

But let us say, with charity, that he also let the foxes loose in the hen house, which created what Benedict XVI has called “a hermeneutic of discontinuity and rupture.” The Council that John launched was, by intention, pastoral and not doctrinal. John himself was a great pastor.

And it’s a fair question to ask: Did all this pastoring lead to a false personalism? John Paul II preached the true personalism of self-giving (as did the Council’s Gaudium et spes): “the person is a good towards which the only proper and adequate attitude is love.” But, perhaps, too many Catholics after Vatican II allowed personalism to become synonymous with subjectivism and relativism.

Does anyone really believe that John XXIII ever intended such an outcome?

Brad Miner is senior editor of The Catholic Thing, senior fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute, and a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA. He is the author of six books and is a former Literary Editor of National Review. The Compleat Gentleman, read by Christopher Lane, is available on audio.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by DS, September 23, 2012
One need only read John's inspiring opening address to the Council (easily Googled) to realize that he was both orthodox and progressive.
written by Alasdair Frew-Bell, September 24, 2012
Can a Church which claims to teach eternal truths have orthodox, liberal or progressive factions? These terms may operate in the temporal and relational context in which the Church finds herself but do they have any meaning within?
written by Athanasius, September 24, 2012
The changing use of words is very interesting. For example, at the time of the American Revolution, the conservatives were the loyalists, and the liberals were the patriots who wanted independence. But today, the conservatives are the ones who want to "conserve" the founding principles of those same revolutionary liberals. Today's conservatives are more closely identified with "classical" liberalism, while today's liberals are really better described as "Progressives", and are more closely identified with illiberal philosophies like socialism.

And terms like "social justice" are used by some solely to describe a greater level of governmental involvement as if that is the only acceptable way to help the poor and less fortunate.

And of course, we all know that there are those who use "choice" as a euphemism for abortion rights, while those same people would be very against choice when it comes to selecting which car or light bulb one can buy.

And so, I feel it is necessary for us to really discern what people, especially our political candidates, really mean when they use certain words. We have been given an intellect by Our Lord, and we have a duty to use it to make reasoned and informed judgments about our elected leaders.
written by Thomas C. Coleman, Jr., September 24, 2012
Dr. Miner's penultimate sentence wonders whether Catholics "allowed" personalism to become subjetivism and realtivism. If we did so it was only because we were led in that direction by lamb's wool-clad wolves waiting to twist every word that was published and invent words never said at the Council. Those wolves are now moslty dead, but their spawn is stil with us. What a mess Poor Pope Benedict XVI is faced with! Let us restore the Leonine praeyrs now! We know what the mean by progress: It is the movement toward a world with no marriage or worship of God--a world of enforced poverty and equality where the creature is worshiped instead of the Creaator.
written by senex, September 24, 2012
Although I have not read Mr. Tobin’s recet book o John XXIII, I liked his earlier books on the Vatican. His calling Pacem in Terris the most Catholic of encyclicals is, in my judgment misleading.

Recently, I read the papal encyclicals starting with Rerum Novarum through Caritas in Veritate to get a better understanding of the development of papal thought on the broad topic of social justice. In my opinion (such as it is and for what it is worth), Leo XIII’s presentation was right on target. The nadir, in my opinion, came in John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris.

As I read these two encyclicals, the significant difference between Mater et Magistra and Pacem in Terris is that the former concentrated on the economic side of socialism, eliminating the social and economic differences among people through the redistribution of wealth imposed by government social programs. In Pacem the focus was on ‘rights’, where the government is not only to assure the protection of human rights, but to establish and enforce every conceivable benefit on every person as a ‘right’ through government action to be taken in the name of the common good. What was truly astounding to me was the Pope’s creation out of whole cloth of some 17 new ‘human rights’. Although some of these ‘rights’ seem to parallel ones found in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, I do not look upon the UN as the most reliable articulator of human rights.

Despite John Paul II’s attempt to pull back in Centesimus Annus on John XXIII and Paul VI’s socialist views, many in the hierarchy still follow the socialist theme. Even the current pope’s Caritas in Veritate has elements of the socialist mentality, although I sense a bit of schizophrenia in this encyclical as though Benedict has one view and the Peace and Justice Commission had another, and the encyclical is a compromise with both views appearing in the document.
written by Ib, September 24, 2012
Although it is perfectly true that Pope John XXIII called the Second Vatican Council, it is not true that he controlled it. The agenda for the Council was for the most part decided by the Council's Bishops, not by John. The general feeling among the Bishops was that a Council was needed. After two world wars, and living in the shadow of a nuclear threat of a kind never before experienced by human kind, the Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church were in favor of the Council and wanted to address the role of the Church in this newly reconstituted world. Pope John could only have avoided it by refusing to call a Council. But as Brad Miner points out Pope John was primarily a pastor and so heeded the sentiments of many Bishops in calling the Council.

On the whole, Pope John XXIII was not a progressive in most ways. His 1962 edition of the Tridentine Rite simply carried out the much more sweeping changes under Pope Pius XII, with very few mostly terminological changes in the rubrics. If he had lived through the Council, it may be that the revision of the liturgy would have been far less radical than under Pope Paul VI, and we may still be using a version of the Tridentine Rite (e.g., perhaps in the vernacular).

Those who want to blame the excesses of Bishops, clergy and religious in the wake of the Council on Pope John XXIII are pursuing the wrong guy. Each of those Bishops, priests and religious who took it upon themselves to reformulate Doctrine, experiment with the Sacred Liturgy, and dispense with Church Law are to blame for their own misdeeds. Blaming a Pope who did the pastorally important act of responding to the call of many Bishops, for the subsequent misuse and sometimes sinful abuse of his action is unjust and illogical.
written by Titus, September 24, 2012
Add to the list of things to which John XXIII was opposed "the elimination of Latin from the liturgy."

Pope John wanted the Church to think of some new tools with which to spread Her timeless good news. He was not angling for the silly season that we got, nor need he be blamed for it. His successor's inability to keep his curia on a leash and his defeatist attitude toward dissent are far more responsible for what happened, even more so than the fathers who rejected the Council's terna.
written by Walker, September 24, 2012
I would humbly submit that Pope John was certainly a liberal. They are notorious for pushing large-scale social change programs which soon fall victim to the Law of Unintended Consequences. Vatican II may be the greatest example of that unfortunate situation in modern history.
written by DJR, September 27, 2012
I received, by email, the following advertisement for this review. It has the statement, "Well, where I come from, all popes are good..."

Where does this writer come from?

Has he never heard of Pope John XII or Benedict IX, to name just two? What is the writer's definition of "good"?

No Catholic in his/her right mind believes that all popes are good; we have historical proof that it is not so.

Some popes have been strongly, and publicly, condemned for their immorality by subsequent popes and canonized saints.

Quote from the ad:

If you missed it, you may be interested in the review I did on Monday of a new book about Pope John XXIII, the gist of which is that he was a saint, a “progressive,” and the Church needs another “good pope” like him. Well, where I come from all popes are good, and I suggest that John XXIII was really not a progressive, not anyway in the style of Nancy Pelosi.
written by Brad Minerl, September 27, 2012
@DJR: I come from Columbus, Ohio.

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