On the Sunday after Easter — what Catholics now call Divine Mercy Sunday — Pope Francis will canonize two of his predecessors, John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005). Papal canonizations are rare; the last one was Pope Pius X (1903-1914) in 1954, and before that, Pope Pius V (1566-1572) in 1712. To have two on the same day is doubly extraordinary. It is not just a curious historical anomaly though, or of intramural interest for Catholic piety alone. The story of the joint canonizations highlights one of the great pastoral questions facing the entire Christian world in the 21st century.
That the two popes would be canonized together was not obvious, and not accidental. Perhaps the greatest funeral in human history was held for John Paul II after his death in April 2005. The whole world was represented. The millions present in Rome chanted Santo Subito! — Make him a saint now! — and the Church responded, with Benedict XVI waiving the usual five-year waiting period for the investigation to begin. In 2011, after the investigation had concluded favourably and a miracle worked through his intercession had been confirmed, John Paul was beatified and given the title "blessed." For a blessed, another confirmed miracle is required for canonization.
Pope John XXIII died in 1963 after capturing the heart of the world as the "Good Pope." He launched the Second Vatican Council in 1962. Immensely popular in his native Italy but with worldwide devotion, John XXIII was beatified in the Jubilee Year of 2000. But there was a twist. John XXIII was beatified at the same time as Pope Pius IX (1846-1878). In the upheavals of the 19th century, Pius IX felt the hot blasts of secular modernity in France, Germany and even Italy. He adopted a largely defensive posture, fiercely condemning the errors sprouting around him and the attacks on the Church. For this, he earned the enduring enmity of liberal historians. So to beatify him at the same time as John XXIII, hero to those same liberal historians, sent something of a signal.
When canonizing a pope, the Catholic Church's official view is that it is no different than canonizing a cobbler. To be declared a saint means a judgment that a particular person is in Heaven, having lived a demonstrably holy life in response to the undeserved and unearned gift of God's grace. If a cobbler is canonized, it does not mean the Church favourably views his shoemaking technique. It is only about personal holiness. Yet while that remains true in theory, in practice the canonization of a pope does imply a favourable judgment of his pontificate. Hence when it came time to beatify Pius IX and John XXIII, John Paul did them together, signifying that neither the "reactionary" nor the "progressive" option was the only path the Church could follow.
John Paul was a pope of such epic proportions — the kind that comes along once every few centuries —that it was not surprising when he was beatified so quickly and another miracle was confirmed for his canonization within two years. The surprise was that Pope Francis, just months after his election, authorized the canonization of John XXIII without a confirmed miracle and decided to canonize him at the same time as John Paul II.
This was highly unusual on three counts. First, while the requirement for a miracle can be waived by the pope, it is usually only done when centuries have passed since the candidate died. There is no reason to think another miracle for John XXIII would not occur in the years ahead. Second, both John XXIII and John Paul are immensely popular and either of them would bring an enormous throng to Rome for the canonization; to do both at once might prove a logistical challenge. Third, the double beatification of John XXIII and Pius IX in 2000 was clearly meant to balance two contrasting pastoral approaches. Was there something lacking in John Paul's pastoral approach that required balancing by John XXIII? That's the implication.
It seems to me the most plausible reason for Francis' decision is the third, namely that he prefers to balance John Paul by including John XXIII in the same ceremony, even if the latter has not met the usual requirements. A recently published book by Vatican journalist Gianluca Barile reported on the conclave of 2005 when, according to many reports, Jorge Mario Bergoglio (the future Francis) got many votes in the conclave but was not elected.
"John, I would have called myself John, like the Good Pope; I would have been completely inspired by him," Bergoglio reportedly told his friend Cardinal Francesco Marchisano.
Indeed, Francis sounds more like John XXIII than he does John Paul II or Benedict XVI. The three are all in continuity with the deposit of the faith, of course, but John XXIII was distinctive in his conviction that the world needs the "medicine of mercy" more than correction — and that the many errors of the world would collapse of their own falsity.
The great synthesis of John XXIII's pastoral approach is found in his opening address at the Second Vatican Council. Entitled Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (Mother Church Rejoices), it remains inspiring still, and such was his soaring vision on October 11, 1962, that the Church has made that day his liturgical feast.
"The salient point of this Council is not, therefore, a discussion of one article or another of the fundamental doctrine of the Church which has repeatedly been taught by the Fathers and by ancient and modern theologians, and which is presumed to be well known and familiar to all," John said. When Francis demurs from repeating some moral teachings and says simply that he is a son of the Church and what the Church teaches is well known, he is echoing John XXIII exactly.
"The substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character," John continued, favouring the pastoral environment of the day over doctrinal precision, confident that the ancient doctrine was already abundantly clear.
"We see, in fact, as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other," John continued, describing the pastoral situation as he read it. "And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She considers that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations. Not, certainly, that there is a lack of fallacious teaching, opinions, and dangerous concepts to be guarded against and dissipated. But these are so obviously in contrast with the right norm of honesty, and have produced such lethal fruits that by now it would seem that men of themselves are inclined to condemn them, particularly those ways of life which despise God and His law or place excessive confidence in technical progress and a well-being based exclusively on the comforts of life. They are ever more deeply convinced of the paramount dignity of the human person and of his perfection as well as of the duties which that implies. Even more important, experience has taught men that violence inflicted on others, the might of arms, and political domination, are of no help at all in finding a happy solution to the grave problems which afflict them. That being so, the Catholic Church, raising the torch of religious truth by means of this Ecumenical Council, desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brethren who are separated from her."
It is an astonishing vision, and one that can be easily understood to have captured the imagination of the Council. The Church would remain a loving mother, benign and beneficent, not having to correct or reprove the errors of the time as they are so flimsy as to vanish as fog before the sun. It is a vision attractive to the Church, for it emphasizes the healing, comforting and consoling mission of the Gospel. It is attractive to the world, for the Church no longer positions herself against the false ideas of the day but rather grants them a sort of benign neglect.
The widespread popularity of Pope Francis is of a piece then with the vision of John XXIII, who likewise was much beloved by the world at large. That optimistic vision of John XXIII, which is not opposed to Christian hope but remains distinct from it, was a hallmark of the Church in the 1960s and into the 1970s. Then it fell out of favour as the world seemed rather persistent in her errors and quite unable to learn that the ways of materialism and violence brought misery and death. The world seemed quite uninterested in mercy at all, whether the Church was benign or otherwise.
Fourteen years after Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, a visiting Polish cardinal delivered an address in Philadelphia on the occasion of the bicentennial of the American Revolution, amid the celebrations of a country deeply committed to a progressive, optimistic view of history. What he said was at odds with the spirit of the party.
"We are now standing in the face of the greatest historical confrontation humanity has gone through. I do not think that the wide circle of the American society, or the wide circle of the Christian community realize this fully. We are now facing the final confrontation between the Church and the anti- Church, between the Gospel and the anti-Gospel, between Christ and the antichrist. The confrontation lies within the plans of Divine Providence...and it must be a trial which the Church must take up...."
The visitor was Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, who in 1978 would be elected John Paul II. It was not the language of errors vanishing before the Church's preaching of the mercy of God. It was the language of spiritual battle and cultural war. This battle was for the very identity of the human person, and involved both a denunciation of error and a comprehensive restatement of Christian philosophy.
Ten years before his election as pope, Karol Wojtyla explained this in a letter to a French theologian, Henri de Lubac: "I devote my very rare free moments to a work that is close to my heart and devoted to the metaphysical sense and mystery of the person. It seems to me that the debate today is being played on that level. The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person. This evil is even much more of the metaphysical order than of the moral order. To this disintegration, planned at times by atheistic ideologies, we must oppose, rather than sterile polemics, a kind of 'recapitulation' of the inviolable mystery of the person."
That defence of the person against the anthropological errors of the 20th century would lead in 1995 to John Paul's most noticed encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), the great pro-life charter.
"We are confronted by an even larger reality, which can be described as a veritable structure of sin," John Paul wrote. "This reality is characterized by the emergence of a culture which denies solidarity and in many cases takes the form of a veritable 'culture of death.' This culture is actively fostered by powerful cultural, economic and political currents which encourage an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency. Looking at the situation from this point of view, it is possible to speak in a certain sense of a war of the powerful against the weak: a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or lifestyle of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated. In this way a kind of 'conspiracy against life' is unleashed. This conspiracy involves not only individuals in their personal, family or group relationships, but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and States."
That is John Paul's language: Historical confrontation. Gospel versus anti-Gospel. The pulverization of man. The culture of death. A conspiracy against life.
This is not the language of John XXIII and the medicine of mercy. It is the language of prophetic denunciation. It considers the evils of the world not as fog evaporating at dawn, but rather a toxic cloud in which all life chokes and dies. There is a reason that, even during his John Paul Superstar (as Time magazine once styled him) phase, no one ever called him Good Pope John Paul. The forces John Paul saw as arrayed against the Gospel recognized that he was their enemy.
Francis is not naive, and neither was John XXIII. But in their rhetoric, they prefer not to speak about enemies but rather trust that the benign face of the Church will conquer hearts and convert enemies. There is no small measure of pastoral wisdom in that path. Yet John Paul was rather less sanguine about the Church's enemies and his emphasis was on defeating that which he considered unlikely to convert. With that approach, he vanquished communism and also considered it valid for the ills of secular Western culture.
One can admire John XXIII greatly and consider indispensable the work of the Second Vatican Council — as did both John Paul II and Benedict XVI — and still think that Good Pope John had too optimistic a reading of the signs of the times. It is not irreverent to hold that he was wrong about the world's desire for mercy and its readiness to abandon its own errors.
It is not necessary to choose between John XXIII and John Paul II. Both are heroic. Both are holy. It is more than defensible to say that both were necessary for their time. But their pastoral paths were different in emphasis and inspiration. Pope Francis thinks the path of John XXIII more suited for the 21st century. If he had canonized John Paul II alone, he may have feared emphasizing a continuity that he would prefer to de-emphasize. He likely prefers going back to an earlier time, to the sunnier outlook of the late 1950s, when the Church was invigorated by an old man who surprised the Church and the world. Sound familiar?
When Francis was elected, he appeared on the central balcony of St. Peter's, joking that the cardinals had gone to the "ends of the earth" to find a new pope. Note though that his father was an immigrant from northern Italy, from the Piedmont region, which neighbours the Lombardy region from which John XXIII came. The model for his pontificate may not be Buenos Aires but Bergamo, the birthplace of John XXIII.
To draw the distinction between John XXIII and John Paul II overlooks, of course, the continuities. It is a helpful distinction though because the choices are faced not only by every Christian communion in the world but also by the whole world of faith more expansively. Is the world in which the Church lives basically hostile, or is it genuine but misguided? Is it entrenched in a rejection of the Gospel or only immersed in unsatisfying confusions? Is it open to conversion, or must it be defeated? Does it consider religious faith to be a possible path of liberation and happiness, or does it dismiss faith as a superstitious danger and a threat to freedom? Is the medicine of mercy sufficient to convert the culture of death, or does it need to be defeated by a more stern confrontation?
One does not have to choose between Saint John XXIII and Saint John Paul II. But one does have to choose a pastoral approach. The future of the current pontificate has been set now by Francis' choice of John XXIII's path. That choice bears watching by the entire religious world.
Lest The Cross Of Christ Be Emptied Of Its Power
By the time this issue of Convivium reaches many readers, the results of the Quebec provincial election will be in and the fate of the Parti Québécois' secularist Charter will be known. There has been no shortage of comment about the Quebec Charter of Values, and most of it — aside from that from the government itself — has been negative. One particular noteworthy comment came from Louise Arbour, former Canadian Supreme Court judge and former UN Commissioner of Human Rights. In the world of mainstream human rights law, Mme. Arbour is the ne plus ultra.
"Three main lines of argument divide Quebecers: whether this legislation is unconstitutional; whether it promotes gender equality; and, finally, whether it is a wise political and moral choice," writes Arbour. "This proposed secular Charter, which purports to ban the display of ostentatious religious symbols by employees in the public sector, seeks to affirm the neutrality of the State and its secularism. In doing so, it infringes freedom of religion, a fundamental right protected under Quebec law, the Canadian Constitution and international human rights law. If enacted, it is likely to be challenged before the courts all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Under the court's existing jurisprudence, it would be difficult to sustain the proposed Charter's constitutionality. There is a well-known test to determine whether an infringement of a constitutionally protected right is justifiable. I don't believe this could possibly meet that test."
That is all sensible enough, but then Mme. Arbour goes on to speak about the nature of faith in our common life, and demonstrates why mainstream human rights law so often gets religious liberty wrong.
"The proponents of the Charter will argue that there is no infringement of freedom of religion in the first place as religion is fundamentally a private matter, best kept in the private sphere, and that the right doesn't encompass displays of religious affiliation. This is a very Catholic understanding of religion, which of course cannot be the starting point for defining the contours of religious freedom, particularly in an environment where Catholicism — religious or cultural — is dominant."
The idea that Catholicism understands religion to be a private matter because Catholics don't wear hijabs or yarmulkes is so absurd that it is hard to believe Mme. Arbour believes it. She grew up in Quebec, so she must have noticed it is more likely than not that a major street or square is named after a saint. Mon Dieu, Quebecers cannot even curse without employing religious language. It is a sign of how detached Quebec has become from its own religious heritage that it regards as foreign any external religious symbols and must extend to them a sort of tolerance born of generosity, rather than a continuation of public religiosity that is as old as Quebec itself. Arbour agrees, but from a different angle:
"Quebec society is modern, open to the world and until now inclusive. In that setting, the proposed Charter of secularism is a siren song. It evokes images of a homogeneous Catho-secular society where 'our' religious symbols are innocuous, since we have voided them of their purely religious content, but where the religious symbols of 'others' are a perpetual menace to us all."
This is discouraging for Quebecers, no matter who wins the election. If the PQ triumphs, the secularist Charter is back. If they are defeated, the argument will be won by those who consider a "Catho-secular" public culture to be not an oxymoron but a real achievement, one in which pluralism and tolerance are achieved by pretending that symbols no longer mean anything. And so the PQ and Mme. Arbour actually agree. Religious symbols, once voided of all meaning, are safe for our common life. For those "backward" Muslims who insist on their head scarves, the government must force them to conform. The alternative proposed by Mme. Arbour will take longer but is still more lethal to religious liberty, namely convincing Muslims that hijabs no longer have any meaning at all.
Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians, telling them not to let the Cross of Christ be emptied of its power (I Corinthians 1:17). He was speaking of the Cross itself. The same applies to the symbols, too. Alas, for Quebec, it may be too late, for even some opponents of the secularist Charter wish to do what the Corinthians were warned against.
The Uses Of Stigma