“There is a misunderstanding regarding sainthood itself, and it is that saints are perfect. Saints aren’t perfect, they’re human. A saint is recognized for heroic virtue in the service of Christ, but saints have flaws, failings and eccentricities. It is because they are not perfect that they are inspiring. They remind you what you could become.”—Peggy Noonan, “‘Santo Subito!’ They Chanted,” The Wall Street Journal, April 27, 2014
This weekend’s column by Peggy Noonan reads like an indirect response to Maureen Dowd’s takedown in The New York Times of Pope John Paul II’s simultaneous canonization along with Pope John XXIII. Dowd's commentary—notably, criticizing the late pontiff for not cracking down on the sexual abuse scandal—was predictable, as was the torrent of comments from online readers weighing in on MoDo’s side. (Opinions ran about 20 to 1 against John Paul before I gave up reading.)
Noonan—herself a scathing critic of the Church’s response to the scandal—makes the two necessary and appropriate arguments regarding John Paul’s response to this. First, that the Communists and Nazis he had struggled against all his life used false allegations of sexual misconduct to undermine opponents, including priests (such happened in the early 1980s, when the Soviets and their lackey Polish regime when they tried that line of attack, unsuccessfully, against Lech Walesa). That left him inclined to discounts any scattered reports he may have initially about priestly misconduct. Second, that, had he been fully apprised of the widespread and widening nature of the abuse crisis by his bishops (who, so often, had their own reasons to downplay the threat), he would not have tolerated the damage to children, who meant so much to him.
Noonan does offer a useful catalogue of how history will recall John Paul:
“He was a crucial actor in defeating the Soviet Union, an expansionist, atheistic, totalitarian state that for 70 years bedeviled mankind. After he was shot and almost killed in 1981, he made a point to go to the would-be assassin’s prison cell to assure him that he was personally forgiven, and that God loved him. He wrote and spoke in a new way of the true nature and meaning of the Catholic faith from its beginnings to its missions to its meaning in the world. As Francis would, he stood for the powerless, from the unborn to the unwell to the aged.”
Even this, however, does not go far enough. The essential place to start, I think, is with Jonathan Kwitny’s biography Man of the Century. The hyperbolic title is unfortunate, given the author’s far more nuanced argument for John Paul’s greatness. While fully acknowledging the late pontiff’s faults, in a depth far surpassing even Dowd’s, he nevertheless points to John Paul’s crucial role in bringing down Communism. It was not, as so many American conservatives have claimed, primarily owing to Ronald Reagan or even Margaret Thatcher that the specter of Communism vanished from Eastern Europe, but because of John Paul, his fellow Poles, and other (more often than not, Catholic) subject peoples behind the Iron Curtain.
The magnitude of that achievement, the product of John Paul's stubborn faith as well as his political dexterity, cannot, as Dowd tries to do, be underestimated. East Bloc Communism fell without a shot being fired. No less an authority than Mikhail Gorbachev has noted that this would not have occurred without John Paul. Just how extraordinary that is can be seen in comparison to the contemporaneous crackdown in Tiananmen Square or Vladimir Putin’s maneuvers in the Ukraine today.
In providing essential leadership in the peaceful movement of mass numbers of people from oppression to liberty, John Paul’s achievement ranks with that of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi. In short, if for this alone, he fully merits being called the Church’s apostle of freedom through nonviolence.