The May 1st beatification of John Paul II will not bestow the title “the Great” on the first Polish pope. Beatification, like eventual canonization, is straightforward testimony by the church that the person’s life merited both salvation and imitation: it is not judgment about administrative wisdom. Moreover, a person does not need the title “Blessed” to enter Heaven. Catholics believe that all canonized saints are in Heaven, but not everyone in Heaven is a canonized saint. Canonization promotes the virtues of a person now dead because they carry a “message” to the contemporary world. Canonization allows the past, as it were, to speak to the present. As pointed out in 1996 by Ken Woodward in his
this kind of political advantage-seeking is part of canonization decisions.
In the wisdom of Holy Mother Church, political excesses were avoided in times past by requiring the passage of time to cool down enthusiasms and by demanding multiple miracles that could not be contested by science. However, in 1983 Pope John Paul II relaxed these criteria, and he now stands to personally benefit in bypassing both time and rigorous examination of his cause.
The political motive for beatifying John Paul II is not as clear as in the case of St. Maria Goretti. She was an 11 year old who died resisting rape in 1902, a deplorable event but not uncommon either then or now. Pope Pius XII selected her case for rapid advancement, although it is difficult to understand how an 11 year old had lived long enough to acquire a “reputation for holiness.” But Italy was torn in those days by electoral conflicts between communists and Christian Democrats. By making the Maria’s rapist into a symbol of the secularization of society under Communism, his wicked deed became an electoral symbol of why Italians should vote for the Christian Democrats. In fact, they won in 1948, a matter of months after the beatification of Maria Goretti.
There are other examples where politics become negative factors that torpedo a step towards beatification or canonization. Queen Isabella of Spain and Pope Pius XII fall into this category, probably because their reputations got entangled in political questions about how they treated Jews.
So what, it might be asked, are the political motivations for the beautification of John Paul II? Immediately upon the death of the pontiff there were popular calls of “Santo, subito!” meaning there should be a rapid canonization. But in the ensuing decade, questions about John Paul’s role in covering up in the scandal of clerical pedophilia have cooled popular ardor. The impetus for his canonization remains strongest among the bishops he appointed and the millions of retro Catholics who admire the Polish Pope for reversing the torrent of reforms after the II Vatican Council. Put succinctly, the Polish Pope gave to Catholicism a strong sense of direction and personalized the papacy as few had before him. These are admirable qualities; however, being popular is not the same as being wise.
Pope John Paul II is sometimes linked to President Ronald Reagan because of the similar efforts of ecclesiastical and governmental restoration in the 1980s. Ironically, both these conservative leaders often did the opposite of their talking points. Reagan, for instance, talked about a “balanced budget” but more than doubled the national debt. John Paul II spoke against the control of human liberty exercised by communist societies, but pursued ecclesiastical centralization in ways that sharply curtailed Catholic intellectual freedom and suffocated local pastoral initiatives.
The 2011 problems of episcopal credibility after clerical pedophilia and unrest with heavy handed governance are major issues dividing the church today. Without question, Catholic America is different today than some 40 years ago when John Paul II became pope. It would be an unfortunate if the political would contaminate the spiritual, so that instead of celebrating the holiness of the pope during his lifetime Catholics would instead be told that the Roman ceremony is about pursuing time-worn administrative politics. The call of John Paul’s beatification, I would say, is to imitate his love of Catholicism even if such a love requires us to disagree with blindly following his policies in our own times.