Friday, January 28, 2011


Like all of us humans, the late John Paul II was like the moon. He had both a dark side and a bright side. Advocates of his impending beatification focus on the light in his life (and there certainly was a good deal of it) while critics emphasize the darkness. Some wonder if the so-called Devil’s Advocate might have been asleep in the process. Others ask if the whole business of beatification and canonization should be shelved along with the triple tiara and the gestatorial chair.

The bright side of JPII encompasses his courageous opposition to Communism, his efforts to heal the Church’s chronic anti-Semitism, his many trips around the globe, and his outreach to youth. Also his pursuit of personal holiness by such means as the rosary, meditation and self-flagellation (although this latter practice may seem somewhat bizarre in our day and age.)

And what of his shadow side? Fundamentally, his style of governance was that of a commissar. Ironically, he was a mirror image of the Soviet system which he opposed so strongly. It featured a party line, which was non-negotiable. The supreme leader was engulfed by a cult of personality. Apparatchiks were rewarded and promoted. Dissenters were banished to the ecclesial equivalent of Siberia. A pervasive spy system monitored and reported instances of non-compliance, which were promptly corrected or punished. The chain of command featured lesser commissars who echoed the behavior of the man on top of the pyramid. And it was all sanctioned by Almighty God himself.

Like the Soviet system, this style of governance had strengths and weaknesses. It was rigidly centralized, clear, pervasive, and well defined. It inspired great loyalty among many and, of course, deep consternation among others. It paid lip service to Vatican II while subverting many of its key reforms which appeared messy and inefficient. It caused an existential schizophrenia among many clergy and laity.

It created a climate for the great failure of John Paul II’s pontificate – the clergy sex abuse crisis. The Pope was blinded to the predations of people like Marciel Maciel, who as founder of the Legionnaires of Christ, was a fellow commissar and thus above suspicion. Cardinal Law of Boston was rewarded with a sumptuous exile because he too was a loyal apparatchik. That trumped his ineptitude as well as that of numerous other bishops. And Cardinal Ratzinger’s eventual efforts to deal with predator priests were rebuffed because they too, for all their flaws, were sacred persons and valued cogs in the system. Only those clerics who married or veered from the party line were exiled. As long as everyone – bishops, priests, theologians, nuns, laypeople, children – remained observant and subservient, all would be well.

Having a big shindig on May 1st, printing holy cards, erecting statues and naming parishes after St. John Paul seems inevitable. However, the true sadness is the fact that his commissar system seems to have pervaded so many dioceses and parishes with similar regrettable results. Recently, Cardinal George, the retiring head of the American bishop’s conference, gave a farewell address which urged his fellow hierarchs not to shrink from being “strong” in their duty of governance. In other words, to be efficient commissars. So, we can expect a continuing stream of condemnations, punishments, excommunications, public apologies and all the rest of the sad paraphernalia which comprised John Paul’s soviet style pontificate. One wonders if and when his iron curtain will crumble.

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