There were some disturbing elements to the Easter Mass I attended at Nativity, my childhood church in Washington, D.C.
The choral director sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “Danny Boy.” The pews were half-empty on the church’s most sacred day.
My sister reminisced about my christening, when the elderly Monsignor Coady turned away while he was dedicating me to the Blessed Virgin and I started rolling off the altar, propelling my gasping mother to rush up and catch me.
But it was most upsetting as a prelude to next Sunday. In an unprecedented double pontiff canonization, Pope John Paul II will be enshrined as a saint in a ceremony at St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Vatican had a hard time drumming up the requisite two miracles when Pope Benedict XVI, known as John Paul’s Rasputin and enforcer of orthodoxy, waived the traditional five-year waiting period and rushed to canonize his mentor. But the real miracle is that it will happen at all.
John Paul was a charmer, and a great man in many ways. But given that he presided over the Catholic Church during nearly three decades of a gruesome pedophilia scandal and grotesque cover-up, he ain’t no saint.
Sometimes leaders can be remarkable in certain ways and then make a mistake so spectacular it overshadows other historical achievements. Lyndon Johnson deserves to be secularly canonized for his work on civil rights but he never will be because of the war in Vietnam.
Just so, John Paul deserves major credit for his role in the downfall of communism. Even though neocon Catholics who idolize and whitewash John Paul don’t like to dwell on it, he also directed consistent and withering moral criticism at the excesses of capitalism long before Pope Francis did. During his first tour of America as pope in 1979, the rock-star pontiff spoke in Yankee Stadium and warned about “the frenzy of consumerism,” although John Paul did encourage the royal lifestyle among his own cardinals.
Perhaps trying to balance the choice of John Paul, who made conservatives jump for joy because he ran a Vatican that tolerated no dissent, the newly christened Pope Francis tried to placate progressives by cutting the miracle requirement from two to one to rush John XXIII’s canonization. That pope was known as “il papa buono,” the good pope. He reached out with Vatican II, embraced Jews and opened a conversation on birth control.
“This is a political balancing act,” said Kenneth Briggs, the noted religion writer. “Unfortunately, the comparisons are invidious. John opened up the church to the world and J.P. II began to close it down again, make it into a more restricted community, putting boundaries up.”
John XXIII, whose reign lasted from 1958 to 1963, comes out “free and clear,” Mr. Briggs noted, while John Paul has a “cloud hanging over his papacy.”
One of John Paul’s great shames was giving Vatican sanctuary to Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, a horrendous enabler of child abuse who resigned in disgrace in 2002 as archbishop of Boston. Another unforgivable breach was the pope’s stubborn defense of the dastardly Mexican priest Marcial Maciel Degollado, a pedophile, womanizer, embezzler and drug addict.
As Jason Berry wrote last year in Newsweek, the late Maciel “was the greatest fundraiser for the postwar Catholic Church and equally its greatest criminal.”
Maciel’s order, the Legionaries of Christ, which he ran like a cult and ATM for himself and the Vatican for 65 years, denounced him posthumously in February for his “reprehensible and objectively immoral behavior.”
The statement followed a U.N. report upbraiding the church for turning a blind eye to child abuse by priests and the sins of Maciel, who had serially abused adolescent seminarians, some as young as 12, and had several children with at least two women. His sons also claimed he abused them.
It is wonderful that John Paul told other societies, communist and capitalist, to repent. But his tragedy is that he never corrected the failings of his own society, over which he ruled absolutely.
His defenders say that the pope was kept in the dark and that he believed the accusations were phony ones, like the efforts to slime the church in his homeland, Poland, during the Cold War.
Given the searing damage the scandal has done to so many lives and to the church, that rationalization doesn’t have a prayer. He needed to recognize the scope of the misconduct and do something, not play the globe-trotting ostrich.
The church is giving its biggest prize to the person who could have fixed the spreading stain and did nothing. The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn’t stop here. There is something wounding and ugly about the church’s signaling that those thousands of betrayed, damaged victims are now taken for granted as a slowly fading asterisk.
John Paul may be a revolutionary figure in the history of the church, but a man who looked away in a moral crisis cannot be described as a saint.
When the church elevates him, it is winking at the hell it caused for so many children and young people in its care.
A big holy wink.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.