A Century of Great Popes

John XXIII and John Paul II: not only two of the most consequential popes, but two of the most consequential men of the twentieth century – and beyond. What the Catholic Church or the world would look like without them is not easy to imagine. But it’s quite easy to see that, in multiple ways, Church and world would have been quite different. That fact and the conspicuous holiness of these two great modern leaders is why Pope Francis will canonize them, together, this Sunday.

And they’re far from alone. Since the great Leo XIII inaugurated modern Catholic social teaching and renewed the study of Thomism, very different men have occupied and exerted a powerful influence from the Chair of Peter. There have been scholars, diplomats, philosophers, even two mountain climbers (Pius XI and JPII). They wrestled with modern ideologies like Fascism, Nazism, and Communism – and came out on top, eventually. Pope Francis confronts the functional materialism and atheism of our time. But we shouldn’t think this unusual: all modern popes have faced serious challenges.

Still, as almost everyone, even non-Catholics, understand, John XXIII and John Paul II occupy special territory. John XXIII, for instance, was a lifelong Vatican diplomat who never served as a regular parish priest, but was undeniably a man of the people. He rightly saw the need for a more “pastoral” and evangelical Church – without the slightest inclination to change Catholic teaching in order to get there. But we know what came after Vatican II – great renewal and also great confusion. (I tried to sort out the different results here on the recent fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Council.)

People still debate Papa Roncalli’s intentions in calling the Council and what he might have thought of the results. But anyone who reads into his life – even the many biographies that tend to flack the “Spirit of Vatican II” – will have a hard time finding evidence that the pope intended the vast disruption in religious vocations, Mass attendance, and doctrinal teaching that ensued. He would have thought all that a disaster, had he lived to see it. It was his misfortune to have called the Council at the very moment when Western culture was about to shift from being residually Christian, a world he thought might be vigorously catechized, to one definitely post- and, to no small extent, anti-Christian.

That’s the culture in which we now live and in which the Church must now find its way.

John Paul II was an active young bishop at Vatican II and showed in his own diocese of Krakow what he and many others thought the Council really meant. He organized a series of synods in Krakow, still going on, which implemented the Council in a much more faithful and orderly way than anywhere else in the world. Besides Karol Wojtyla’s obviously large presence on the world stage and his role in defeating Communism – his fellow Pole Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz said he was the only world leader of his time who could have been one of Shakespeare’s kings – his steady hand in Rome over the last quarter of the twentieth century stabilized the whole Church.

We’re already seeing secular sources contending that his legacy is “stained” by a failure to deal with the priestly abuse crisis (JPII was badly deceived in his final years by Fr. Marcial Maciel as well.) But no one can do everything. Defeating Communism or restoring Church teaching would have been a full-time job for most people. JPII did both and much more. His papacy brought renewed respect for the Church and a recognition of his moral leadership that was unequalled by any other world figure in his day.

The Catholic Church very much needs a true integration of what’s best in the legacy of both these men as it seeks to deal with a world that can only be described as increasingly hostile to Catholicism. It was a stroke of genius by Pope Francis to declare these two very different men saints on the very same day, this coming Sunday.

The best outcome we might hope for from this gesture would be a return to the fullness of Catholicity, a Catholicism defined by loyalty to the whole of Catholic teaching and not by political or ideological agendas. Roncalli and Wojtyla were each confident enough about the faith to be willing to engage the modern world. They both also believed it was possible to do so without in any way compromising Catholic teaching.

We’ve had too long a debate over “pastoral” versus “doctrinal” approaches – and too partisan a tendency of assigning one or the other label to this or that pope. Popes John Paul I and II tried, with their very choice of names, to bridge the gap between the perceived openness of John XXIII and the agonized fidelity of Paul VI (whom Pope Francis resently characterized as “heroic” and “prophetic” for his holding the line on contraception). Taking the names didn’t solve the problem; more work remains to be done.  

        We have to start by realizing that the pastoral is simply the doctrinal, applied intelligently and charitably. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: a pastoral approach without guidance from doctrine is like a doctor with a good bedside manner but little medical knowledge. If we wish to do good to others, we first have to know what is good for all of us. Clunky or rigid “application” of doctrine is not good theory or practice. “Knowledge carried to the heart,” in Cardinal Newman’s phrase, is the Catholic ideal. And JPII and John XXIII, for all their differences embodied that ideal. Let’s hope the Church and the world understand that some day.

          Men of the century


I am on my way to Rome this morning and will be covering the canonization ceremonies and other events on EWTN television Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I’ll also be on the program at a conference organized by TCT’s own Austin Ruse of C-FAM on the legacy of John Paul II, which includes several friends of the late pope such as George Weigel, Michael Novak, and Rocco Buttiglione, among others.

We’ll also be publishing here at The Catholic Thing a daily Canonization File (look for a link in the listings to the left starting Thursday). We’ll keep you up to date on what’s happening over these days in Rome. Last year, during the conclave that elected Pope Francis, we did something similar and the response to that effort convinced us that many of you would like another series of reports.

All of which leads me to something else I have to bring up with you. We need to begin our Spring fundraising efforts this week as well. If you’re a habitué of this site, you know that we only ask twice a year for your help. The columns that we publish here – we are not a casual “blog,” but a site that seeks to bring you a daily series of well thought out columns by a distinguished set of writers – are what enable us to participate in larger Church events like those of this week.

Let me assure you, we’re not spending one penny of your donations for travel or expenses. All that has been covered by others who want us to help shape the public appreciation of such events – this year by the generous CEO of Newsmax, Chris Ruddy, who has also organized a delegation to Rome in honor of John Paul II.

All your donations are used for bread-and-butter needs: TCT writers, editorial and support staff, technical advisors, and the other costs that are probably invisible to you, even if you’re a regular reader. Everyone involved in this enterprise works out of commitment to the cause, not for financial gains. (Given what we can pay, that would be laughable anyway.)  But the efforts we make, make a difference, because of your efforts to help us.

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I know I don’t have to convince you, but I want to urge you to do your part in this effort. No one else will, if you do not. Reader contributions are a crucial part of our yearly budget. If you want The Catholic Thing to continue appearing here every morning and to have an influence on how Catholicism is seen in the world, please, donate to TCT today.

And come back, tomorrow and through the weekend, for coverage of the canonizations (and don’t forget about EWTN television – check local listings).

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.