In a matter of days Pope Francis will canonize two of his many mis-understood 20th century predecessors, declaring them saints fit for universal veneration and examples given their state of life. I generally shy away from blogging about politics—and that is precisely what these canonizations are—but the significance of this event warrants some thoughts.
Why are John XXIII and John Paul II mis-understood? Because modern people think them more important and influential in the modern Church than they really were. In principle, I am entirely indifferent to the canonization of Papa Giovanni. He was elected to do three things: 1) make Pius XII's true successor, Msgr. Montini, a cardinal 2) call Pius XII's Council and 3) die. In some sense he was the first pope since Gregory XVI to live up to expectations! So why has the Roman bureaucracy undertaken effort to canonize John? It is an attempt to canonize a particular narrative and aesthetic of the Second Vatican Council.
When he died on the feast of the Transfiguration in 1978, ABC news reporter Stuart Laurence said of Pope Montini "Romans never really in fact warmed up to Pope Paul because he was not gregarious and grandfatherly like his predecessor Pope John. John, of course, was loved. Pope Paul was only liked." Pope John represents a kinder, gentler means of looking at the transitional years of the Church than the harsh, turbulent years of Pope Paul. Paul VI's pontificate was more the reality of the transition, with the drop of Mass attendance in America (it plummeted in Europe decades earlier), the fallout over Humanae Vitae, the open resistance of Lefebvre, the failure of ecumenism and ostpolitik, and the decay of the Vatican's potency in political affairs. John's pontificate, for those lacking in perspicacity and historical knowledge, saw a fleetingly vibrant Church—rich in faith and dignity—opening itself up to a changing world with open arms. Rome has chosen to canonize a strong Church entering renewal rather than a long collapsing Church emerging from self-inflicted chaos. They have chosen to canonize a fuzzy, paternal pope rather than a morose one full of regret. The canonization might actually make Vatican II into "Pope John's Council" rather than "Pope Pius' Plan" and "Pope Paul's Burden."
The other canonization has nothing (I cannot emphasize this enough) to do with Vatican II and everything to do with crowd pleasing. He traveled everywhere. He touched everybody. He smiled for everyone. He was something for ever Catholic to behold. John Paul II was the first media superstar pontiff. He trotted the globe over the course of four decades and cemented himself into every living person's memory for good or ill. Two generations of Catholics (those born in the '60s-70s and those born in the '80s-90s) and Catholic priests know John Paul as their pope. He was against abortion. He had a warm, vague, way of inspiring confidence for people of all walks of like while maintaining the tenets necessary for orthodoxy. Conservatives could point to him as a living example of "renewal": he was clearly on board with many brands of spirituality, he favored the new liturgy, he was pro-life, he was against Russian Communism, he was friendly with people of other walks of life, and he had the occasional humorous moment when he defended orthodoxy, such as forcing a monarch to receive Communion on the tongue. He was everything a college student wants in his campus chaplain: Catholic, fun, and not too demanding.
Even Traditionalists got something out of him. Many favorite saints in the Traditionalist milieu—Padre Pio, Juan Diego, and Maximilian Kolbe—were canonized by John Paul. He also gave both domesticated Traditionalists and neo-conservatives the Divine Mercy devotion (never quite understood it or the Sacred Heart). Indeed, National Review religion editor and ex-priest Malachi Martin succeeded in convincing many Traditionalists that John Paul really did believe everything they did and with the same sensus fidelium, hence the 1984 indult and attempts to smooth out relations with the potentially schismatic Lefebvre. He even invoked infallibility against women taking priestly orders!
The truth about the man is probably somewhere in the middle. He was elected because he was a charismatic man who could appeal pastorally to Catholics and non-Catholics while not disturbing the Vatican political machine, which continued to run the administrative side of the Roman Church into the ground. It is likely the same reason the prior pope and namesake of Wojtyla was elected.
The canonization of John Paul II will be an act of self-affirmation for hundreds of millions of modern Catholics following his unusual synthesis of doctrine, engagement, and outlook. "My pope is a saint," the average Mass-going Catholic between ages 20 and 50 will say in a manner akin to answering a question out of a self-help book. Whether he was actually a good pope is entirely irrelevant. Rome wants to keep its young faithful and young priests content. This, like the canonization of Celestine V by Rome and that of Emperor Constantine by Constantinople, is highly political in its motives and meant to continue to steer the barque of Peter in a particular direction.
Which brings me to my last point: the canonization I hope I never see. Readers know exactly who I mean. Given that yesterday's reformers are getting their canonization with John and today's youth are getting their's with John Paul, Traditionalists (particularly here, here, and here) are asking "Why not Pacelli?" Religiously and historically I cannot see any reason to canonize the man. His papacy was one of the all-time worst, certainly the worst since the Renaissance, replete with an immense relaxation of discipline, an undermining and re-programming of priestly education, friendly relations with Communists (except when it came at the cost the Christian Democratic party in Italy), liturgical destruction on a scale—at the time—unseen, bureaucratic centralization, and he put the people in place to finish the revolution which he began. Politically speaking his canonization would make even less sense: he wore the tiara, defined a dogma, and issued a large volume of encyclicals that go into the Magisterium file. Liberals see Pacelli as the last of the old guard while neo-conservatives have no substantial acquaintance with the popes before John Paul. Who, other than American and FSSPX-affiliated Traditionalists, gains from the canonization of Papa Eugenio?
American Traditionalists are fond of Pope Pius because the American branch of the Church seemed to be growing at an exponential rate: more vocations, more seminaries, more parishes, more converts. As Cardinal Spellman said, in a hundred years America would be a Catholic country. Then came the 1960s and the "fresh air" of the Council blew over the house of cards that was American Catholicism. The numbers touted by American Traditionalists are quite ignorant. The growth in the 1950s and 1960s was due to the Baby Boom generation, progeny of World War II veterans and their wives, reproduction at a rate unseen since the 19th century. Yet many of these Boomers were second and third generation descendants of immigrants and, often, practicing the faith out of cultural obligation. The first generation Italians would go to Mass and carry on the traditions of Catholic Italy with conviction. The second generation would continue the same out of devotion to one's parents. The third would do so out of habitual custom, far removed from the source of custom and devotion. American Catholicism had no firm roots. It was in many ways Catholicism-lite made for a protestant country: low Masses, devotions, and church organizations allowed for the "personal relationship" with God emphasized by protestants while upholding the administrative and communal side of the Church. What was missing was a strong foundation grounded in liturgy, martyrdom (very little devotion existed to the North American martyrs), local traditions, and episcopal authority. The American Church's structure was planted during the mid-19th century, when the previously mentioned trends were in vogue. The Church in Europe had long collapsed. America, demographically vibrant but spiritually frail, shattered at the shock of the Council. The growth had nothing to do with Pope Pius and its end had nothing to do with Gaudium et spes. It was about the young tree of American Catholicism that was turn up and was exposed to have not taken root. Canonizing Pope Pacelli would add him to the museum of 1950s American Catholicism. Nothing more.
The canonizations of Popes John and John Paul indicate a Vatican ready to affirm itself and the psychological needs of its devotees. For the same reason, the Rad Trad thinks a canonization of Pope Pius quite unlikely, unless Francis is overcome with nostalgia for the pope of his youth and early formation.
Alright. Enough politics for a month or two. Time to do something spiritually productive. Christ is risen after all.