Transparency is not a virtue we associate with the Vatican. It is, after all, the last of the Renaissance courts. And like all court systems, it thrives on secrecy: In the years I spent in Rome interviewing Vatican officials—usually not for attribution—it was said that a secret is something you tell one person at a time, in return for one of his secrets.
It is all the more remarkable, then, that the Holy See has released a long and institutionally painful report on ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick detailing what three successive popes were told about McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians and why the first two, Pope John Paul II and Benedict XVI, chose not to investigate the American cardinal after hearing rumors of his routine bedding of young seminarians going back decades. At 449 pages and 1,410 footnotes, it is as if the Department of Defense had published the Pentagon Papers.
Understandably, the media’s first responders relied on an official summary of the report provided by the Vatican’s communications office. Some of them used the occasion to raise three questions. Did the revelations about John Paul II do serious damage to his status as a certified saint—and to the credibility of the canonical process that provides such certification? And did church officials under Benedict XVI, bowing to popular pressure, err in initiating a canonization process on behalf of his predecessor immediately after his death? Had they waited, would the McCarrick scandal have brought his canonization process to a halt?
The canonization of a pope is not a canonization of his papacy as well. Were it otherwise, there would be no papal saints beyond the first 50 or so bishops of Rome who—like most other saints of the first two centuries—died as Christian martyrs. Indeed, from 1234, when canonization was finally formalized as a legal process under papal supervision, until the 20th century, only three popes were found worthy of sainthood.
There were sound reasons for this. First, popes were secular as well as ecclesiastical rulers who presided over vast tracts of land, exacted taxes from the faithful all over Europe, and raised armies when needed. The job attracted men high on personal ambition and, all too often, low on moral scruple—not the kind to develop the reputation for holiness that triggers the canonization process. Conversely, those who aspired to the exceptional holiness of a saint were drawn to the religious life of monks and friars, not the pomp and power of the papacy.
The case of Pope Celestine V illustrates the point. He was an ascetic hermit prior to his unexpected election as pope in 1294. Inept, miscast, and unhappy, he abdicated the papacy after a mere five and a half months to return to his former austere life. In 1313 he was declared a saint, in part because he had rejected the privileges and pleasures of an ecclesiastical potentate.
By contrast, John Paul II is one of five popes canonized since 1954, three of them just in the last two decades. There are several reasons for this dramatic reversal, but a key one is that after Italy seized the Papal States in the 1870s, popes ceased to be secular rulers. Shorn of worldly power, the papacy paradoxically gained in spiritual and moral stature, and attracted men to match.
Saints are not perfect, but they must exhibit the virtues expected of a Christian to an extraordinary degree. John Paul II did that and his place in the canon of saints is secure. But judgments on his papacy remain forever open to revision.
I agree with the Vatican report when it says that the Polish pope’s experiences under communism, specifically the regime’s use of spurious stories of sexual misconduct to discredit bishops and clergy, partially explains why he was loath to credit the allegations against McCarrick, a man he had come to rely on as a diplomat. And it is clear that McCarrick lied to him in self-defense. I suspect the cardinal also lied to himself. The few sexually abusive priests I’ve known personally could never bring themselves to acknowledge what they’d done.
It is also clear that clericalism—the cultural system of priestly and hierarchical privilege and status—protected moral monsters like McCarrick and failed their victims. Still, blaming the system is too pat an explanation. By the 1980s and ’90s, the young men studying for the priesthood were fewer, at least a decade older, and many had abandoned promising careers to become priests. Some of them must have been aware of McCarrick’s predations and mature enough to report what they knew. Unfortunately, the Vatican document does not address this issue.
We already knew that John Paul II was deaf to complaints about other, equally horrible sexual predators—like Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legion of Christ. We also knew that he was a man who, when chosen, felt destined to lead the church, and a pope who seldom second-guessed his own decisions. As Dorothy Day, herself a candidate for canonization, recognized, not everything in a saint’s life is worthy of imitation.
I also agree with critics who argue that John Paul II’s canonization was much too hasty. The crowds in St. Peter’s square who shouted “Santo subito” (sainthood as soon as possible) at John Paul II’s funeral were both spontaneous and orchestrated. Certainly they represented a popular sentiment, but also a concerted partisan effort to place a halo around the conservative policies that eventually characterized his papacy.
Pope Benedict did indeed err in allowing an accelerated process, though I would blame the process itself. Throughout the Middle Ages and well beyond—an era when memory more than media was how stories were preserved and told—the canonization process could not be opened for at least 50 years after a candidate’s death. That was to ensure that the candidate’s reputation for holiness persisted—which in all likelihood would have happened with John Paul II. But in 1983 he signed off on reforms that cut the standard wait time to a mere five years, in part to provide more contemporary models of sanctity, and in part to secure testimony from personal witnesses while they are still alive.
But it was another piece of the reform which, if left in place, might well have prevented the cloud that now hangs over his papacy: the elimination of the office of the Promoter of the Faith, popularly known as “the Devil’s Advocate,” whose job was to systematically challenge the arguments and evidence presented on the candidate’s behalf. Here too, there were good reasons for reform, which effectively transformed the canonization process from a long and often tedious trial model to one of historical investigation supervised like a doctoral dissertation. The practical effect, however, is that there is now no one involved in the process who does not have a vested interest, if only of his time, in its positive outcome.
If more of the old system had been in place, reports like this would certainly have delayed John Paul II’s canonization—which is exactly what has happened to the cause of Pope Pius XII because of controversy over his reactions, or lack of them, to the Holocaust. But I doubt it would change the outcome. After all, even with the reforms the Vatican sometimes puts cases on hold for pastoral and even political reasons. One example is Salvador’s Cardinal Oscar Romero, who was assassinated at Mass in 1980 and finally canonized in 2018 after it became clear he had been murdered not for political reasons, but for carrying out the gospel.
In any case, God alone makes saints and God knows who they are. As a Catholic, I am happy to venerate St. Pope John Paul II. But my prayers are for the victims abused by Catholic priests.
Kenneth L. Woodward was religion editor of Newsweek for 38 years.
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