I think it’s more accurate to say that JPII was conned by Maciel, and that this makes a difference. Somebody who was merely fooled by Maciel would have–when his trusted aide Cardinal Ratzinger said there was real cause to investigate Maciel–assented to the investigation. JPII blocked the investigation and would not allow it to continue. If he had merely been mistaken it would have been one thing. But when faced with a clear choice between following the words of warning from Ratzinger and just shutting his eyes, he shut his eyes. So the buck stops with him and I think he committed a sin and a very serious one. It will be the biggest blot on his record.
So now we ask why. And I think the reason (not the excuse, the reason) is that he was taken in by a conman and committed the sin that people with big hearts commit in such situations: they don’t want to believe that somebody in whom they have invested a great amount of trust has betrayed them (and in Maciel’s case, betrayed them in an unimaginably huge way.) So, I believe, John Paul committed an almost archetypally Petrine sin: Just as Peter lost his nerve on Holy Thursday and at Antioch (Galatians 2), so JPII lost his nerve in the crucial moment when he ought to have had the courage to do his job and investigate Maciel. He was an old, sick, and dying man who was unable to bring himself to look squarely at the magnitude of the fraud he’d supported and bought into and failed in his duty. That’s what happens when you’ve been fooled by a conman. You give him your heart.
So, granting that John Paul sinned and not simply that he made a boo boo, what do we do? Assume the worst of him? Talk as though he *wasn’t* somebody fundamentally ordered toward being a serious disciple of Jesus? Or assume the best of him and say, as we say of Peter, that he tried his best and, like Peter, committed a serious sin of cowardice with regard to facing the truth about Maciel? I think we have to do that because I simply can’t credit the idea that JPII’s basic holiness and orientation toward Jesus was a sham and a fraud any more than I can credit that notion about Peter.
We have never been committed to the doctrine of the impeccability of Peter, nor to the notion that such failures of nerve eradicate the holiness of Peter. It seems to be a pattern with him that at the very time and place at which his lives out his office with greatness, he also embarrasses it by his frailty and is only sustained by grace. He gets called “Rock” and “Satan” by Jesus in almost the same breath. He professes eternal fidelity and then denies him. He nearly bugs out of Rome when Nero starts burning Christians and requires a vision of Jesus himself to strengthen his wobbly legs for the final trial. So with John Paul. He failed greatly with Maciel. But he did not fail in faith in Christ, nor were all his acts of charity eradicated by this failure. So I pray “Look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.” If I can’t hope for so great a man as he, what hope do I have for myself?