Tim Rutten: Is Pope John Paul II fit for sainthood?


On Sunday, an estimated 1.5 million people crowded into St. Peter’s Square and surrounding streets to celebrate the beatification of Karol Wojtyla, who as Pope John Paul II reigned for more than a quarter of a century as pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church.

Beatification is the penultimate step in the process that confers sainthood, and the church has suspended its normal rules to accelerate John Paul II’s elevation to that honor. In the Catholic tradition, saints are people whose demonstration of “heroic virtue” makes them worthy of emulation and veneration throughout the universal church. Before the church formalized the process of canonization, saints simply were proclaimed by those who admired them, and something like that already is occurring with the Polish-born pontiff, whose beatification celebration — like his funeral six years ago — rang with chants of “santo subito”: sainthood now.

As a recent Marist Poll of Americans found, he remains an ecclesiastical rock star: Of respondents, 82% of Catholics and 59% of all Americans believe John Paul II was one of history’s best popes; 90% of U.S. Catholics approve his beatification, as do 75% of Americans, whatever their faith.


In the face of such adulation of a man in so many ways so admirable, it seems almost churlish to wonder how well this approving crowd listened to or read what John Paul II preached and wrote, or how many regard the man and his legacy as part of a delightfully archaic pageant with amorphously “spiritual” overtones.

Those Catholics attentive to the substance of John Paul II’s pontificate and legacy — as embodied in the reign of his longtime collaborator, Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI — tend to be divided on Sunday’s ceremony. The two pontiffs’ admirers see them as heroic figures who have restored traditional notions of sanctity and moral authority. Those with reservations see them as reactionaries bent on restoring a hollow and corrosive authoritarianism.

As the dissident Swiss theologian Hans Kung told the Frankfurter Rundschau: “John Paul II is universally praised as someone who fought for peace and human rights. But his preaching to the outside world was in total contrast with the way he ran the church from inside, with an authoritarian pontificate which suppressed the rights of both women and theologians.... Wojtyla and Ratzinger are the people most responsible for the chronic sickness of today’s Catholic Church.”

Part of that sickness, of course, stems from the sexual abuse scandals that continue to be revealed in one country after another, and to flare anew. There is little doubt that John Paul II was obtuse and derelict in his handling of the crisis, perhaps because, as his defenders argue, sexual misconduct charges were so frequently fabricated against clerics by communist authorities in his native Poland. Still, difficult questions remain about his close association — and that of members of his household — to moneyed sexual predators like the now-disgraced founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

Equally troubling are continuing attempts to bring the church’s theologians and more outspoken bishops to heel, an effort that began under John Paul II with the repression of Latin America’s leading liberation theologians. Many Catholics worry about a Vatican that fires an Australian bishop for speaking in favor of ordaining women and married men, but declines to act against a Belgian prelate who unapologetically admits to molesting young boys. Many are troubled too by the U.S. Catholic bishops — all conservatives appointed by the last two popes — who attempt to force theologians to resume the old practice of submitting their work to the local prelate for approval before publication.

Although it’s true that not everything about a saint’s life need be blameless, there’s also a reason so few popes are made saints. Pius X, made a saint in 1954, was the first in centuries. Canonization in the Catholic Church always has a political significance. John Paul II set out to remake the canon of saints, as he did the church’s hierarchy, and beatified an astonishing 1,340 men and women, canonizing 483, more than all the popes in the previous 500 years together.


Even so, John Paul II’s legacy is, for many Catholics, best summed up by one of his own favorite phrases: “a sign of contradiction.”