Hagiography Made Simple


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 the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.