Was Pope St. John Paul II a “Modernist”?

Was Pope St. John Paul II a “Modernist”? November 27, 2023

Chapter 15 (pp. 129-140) of my book, Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries (December 2002; revised second edition: 17 August 2013; slightly revised again in November 2023 for the purpose of the free online version). Anyone who reads this book should first read the following three introductory articles, in order to fully understand the definitions and sociological categories I am employing:

Introduction (on the book page)

Definitions: Radical Catholic Reactionaries, Mainstream “Traditionalists,” and Supposed “Neo-Catholics” [revised 8-6-13]

Radical Catholic Reactionaries: What They Are Not [9-28-21]

If you’re still confused and unclear as to my meanings and intent after that, read one or more of these articles:

Rationales for My Self-Coined Term, “Radical Catholic Reactionaries” [8-6-13]

My Coined Term, “Radical Catholic Reactionary”: Clarifications [10-5-17]

Clarifying My Coined Term, “Radical Catholic Reactionary” [4-3-20]

This book is modeled after the method and structure of the French mathematician and Catholic apologist Blaise Pascal’s classic, Pensées (“thoughts”). Catholic apologist and philosopher Peter Kreeft described this masterpiece as “raw pearls” and “more like ‘sayings’ than a book . . . ‘Sayings’ reflect and approximate the higher, the mode of Christ and Socrates and Buddha. That’s why Socrates is the greatest philosopher, according to St. Thomas (S.T. III, 42, 4).”

I am not intending to compare myself or my own “thoughts” or their cogency or import in any way, shape, or form, to those of Pascal, let alone to Socrates or our Lord Jesus! I am merely utilizing the unconventional structure of the Pensées, which  harmonizes well, I believe, with the approach that I have taken with regard to the present subject. I have sought to analyze (minus proper names, a la Trent) the premises, presuppositions, logical and ecclesiological “bottom lines” and (in a word), the spirit of a false and divisive radical Catholic reactionary strain of thought held by a distinctive sociological sub-group of Catholics.

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  1. Radical Catholic reactionaries falsely claim that Pope St. John Paul II’s teachings contradict the Bible, past papal encyclicals, and councils. Apparently they think that it is a small thing for laymen to routinely and “authoritatively” accuse the pope of material and (by implication) even formal heresy. Apart from the unseemly and impious nature of such a charge, made wrongheadedly and slanderously (as it is objectively false to begin with), it is yet another instance where reactionaries want to have their cake and eat it, too. They don’t want to say “without horns” that the pope is a formal heretic (as most Catholic theologians and historians have believed that no pope was ever a formal heretic — many also hold that it couldn’t even possibly happen, as a function of the indefectibility of the Church). They want to have it both ways: create the implication, qualify it, yet proceed in the argument as if it were likely true. In other words, ambiguous language and argumentation is hypocritically used, rather in the fashion that they claim to detest as typical of Vatican II documents.
  1. Reactionaries maintain that Pope St. John Paul II ambiguously states Catholic truths, thus opening them up to modernist interpretations. But they rarely offer proof for such a charge. It is a circular argument — good only for the one who already accepts it as an axiom. And how can one disprove such a charge, itself extremely ambiguous and subjective?
  1. Reactionaries contend that Pope St. John Paul II interprets Catholic teaching according to un-Catholic and foreign philosophies. But who determines what school is “foreign” or “un-Catholic”? Is it anything besides Thomism? Some Eastern Orthodox Christians consider the whole of “Latin” Catholic theology as an “alien” philosophical construct. But this is fundamentally silly. The Church has always adopted current philosophies (insofar as they express truth) in order to defend the gospel, whether it was the platonism of St. Augustine, the “baptized” aristotelianism of Aquinas, or the phenomenology of John Paul II. In so doing, they did nothing more than St. Paul did, when he cited pagan poets and philosophers at Mars Hill in Athens, during the course of an explicit presentation of the gospel (Acts 17:16-32).
  1. Reactionaries maintain that Pope St. John Paul II has a malicious intent to introduce false dogma into the Church. But the reactionary will often equivocate, make an accusation, state a suspicion, even while decrying such judgments of motive and intent (concerning the pope) elsewhere. They qualify, in order to soothe their conscience, cover themselves, and to maintain the illusion that they are being obedient Catholics. But when it comes down to brass tacks, some (particularly the even more radical sedevacantists) actually believe the above calumny.
  1. Pope St. John Paul II is not a “theological pluralist” because “both St. Therese of Lisieux and Hans Kung are allowed in the same Church.” If he were, on this account, how then, would one explain Judas as one of the apostles (he truly was one)? Jesus selected him! Hans Kung is no longer officially a Catholic theologian. The mere presence of dissenters does not prove that Pope St. John Paul II is a “pluralist,” for any number of reasons, any more than the presence of de Lubac, von Balthasar, Rahner, Ratzinger, Wojtyla, the earlier, more orthodox Kung, or Congar in the Church of Ven. Pope Pius XII proved that he was a “pluralist,” or any more than his decision to not denounce Nazism officially “proved” that he was a Nazi sympathizer, or anti-Semite (a clear case of Ven. Pope Pius XII prudentially considering the results of a proclamation, as I have argued with regard to dissenters).
  1. If the modernist danger was so apparent (after all, he wrote about it), why didn’t Ven. Pope Pius XII boot these people out, so as to avoid the “disaster”? One might argue, rhetorically, that therefore, he was far more responsible for the virtual shipwreck of the faith (as reactionary alarmist rhetoric would have it) than Pope St. John XXIII, Pope St. Paul VI, or Pope St. John Paul II. He was, in other words (still following the warped reasoning of the reactionary), guilty of the same inaction that Pope St. Paul VI is accused of (and arguably, more culpably and inexplicably). Constant preaching to the choir, as we see, has a way of blunting the logical and critical faculties.
  1. We are told that Pope St. Paul VI and Pope St. John Paul II are the most “unusual popes” ever, and have presided over “the destruction” of the faith. To the contrary; I think the verdict of history will be to deem John Paul II (in addition to being a saint) the “Great” — so magnificent are his accomplishments. History will show that John Paul II was the chief factor in the “destruction” — not of the Church –, but of modernist heterodoxy and apostasy. I dare say that history will take a very dim view of the reactionary movement. If destruction means what it means, this is the belief in defectibility, and it is, of course, extremely impious and uncharitable language for any Catholic to utter. The very statement of it is proof positive that the one uttering it has lost the virtue of supernatural faith.
  1. Pope St. John Paul II is supposedly “doing nothing to alleviate the modernist crisis.” He is dealing with the problems, but it is not according to the reactionary method and timetable. It is with a long view of history, and wisdom and prudence, and care and concern for the entire flock, of which he is the earthly Shepherd. There are certain things he can do, and some things he cannot do (even God can’t do certain things concerning men, if men in their free will won’t let Him). The pope makes judgments and determinations based on rational considerations of the likely response, just as Ven. Pope Pius XII did with regard to the Nazi question. Reactionaries don’t accuse him of complicity, for not speaking out magisterially, yet they have the unmitigated gall to accuse this pope of implicit complicity with the modernists (or claim that he is one himself).
  1. We are supposed to believe that for 27 years, Pope John Paul II has been allowed by God to unleash heterodox poison upon the Church? At least with Honorius, Vigilius, and Liberius, their error was short-lived, and not pronounced with any authoritativeness. And if we start with Pope St. John XXIII in 1958, it is now 55 years and running of wholesale “destruction” of Catholic tradition, according to the reactionaries.
  1. Pope St. John Paul II wrote in Ecclesia Dei:

The extent and depth of the teaching of the Second Vatican Council call for a renewed commitment to deeper study in order to reveal clearly the Council’s continuity with Tradition, especially in points of doctrine which, perhaps because they are new, have not yet been well understood by some sections of the Church.

The Holy Father is clearly using “new” in the sense in which the New Testament was “new,” or the indwelling of the Holy Spirit was “new,” or the inclusion of Gentiles into Christianity was “new.” In none of these cases was the “newness” a corruption of what came before; rather it was a development. And in each case there was much misunderstanding and dissension, and accusations that the “new” doctrine had forsaken the “old” ways. Secondly, Pope John Paul II refers to “points of doctrine,” not “doctrines” per se — which cannot happen, as all dogmatic doctrines are received from the apostles, and cannot be changed. He writes about “the Council’s continuity with Tradition.” He doesn’t see any discontinuity.

  1. The council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) dealt with the Judaizers. There had been some confusion and “ambiguity,” just as with the reception of the teachings of Vatican II. What caused that confusion? The proclamation of the gospel itself? Paul’s preaching? Peter’s preaching? The problem was primarily in the hearers. Misunderstanding requires clarification. That doesn’t prove that the original teaching was faulty or deficient.
  1. Jesus, too, found Himself confronted with opposition from the Pharisees to His teaching, which was an expansion and new application (see Matthew 5:17-20) of what came before (a development), but different enough so that the Pharisees deemed it to be a corruption. He gave the following parable to illustrate the “new” perspective of the new covenant:

“No one tears a piece from a new garment and puts it upon an old garment; if he does, he will tear the new, and the piece from the new will not match the old. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; if he does, the new wine will burst the skins and it will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine desires new; for he says, ‘The old is good.’ “ (Luke 5:36-39)

  1. Immediately after the parable of the wineskins, in Luke 6:1-5 (the New Testament did not originally have chapters, so there is no break in topic here), Jesus and His disciples were chastised by the Pharisees for eating grain from the fields and “rubbing them in their hands” on the Sabbath. In other words, our Lord was accused of not observing the Law and not understanding it, just as popes and councils today are charged by reactionaries with not knowing Catholic dogma and former practice, and contradicting or subverting it. But Jesus appealed to the practice of David, who did the same thing (see 1 Samuel 21:1-6), and said, “The Son of man is lord of the sabbath.” So what was thought of as quite “innovative” and controversial, was shown to be quite old indeed (King David died around 970 B.C.). The same state of affairs occurs with regard to many false reactionary accusations. They often think and act much like the Pharisees, with much excessive legalism, an inability to see the forest for the trees, and frowns upon those who don’t see things exactly as they do.
  1. One can question decisions and decrees and “strategies” of popes to an extent (especially matters of discipline: how to deal with the liberals) within a posture of obedience and deference. Orthodox Catholics object to the flat-out disobedience and overriding characteristic of overwhelming, unedifying and never-ending criticism, which we so often observe in reactionaries.
  1. Reactionaries want to call Pope St. John Paul II a modernist: the very man who has undoubtedly done more than anyone alive to crush the Beast of modernism, through his excellent encyclicals, the Catechism, evangelistic travels, his courageous defense of the male priesthood, preborn children, the oppressed, reason, etc. They lack faith in the Holy Spirit’s guidance of His Church through thick and thin.
  1. The liberal disdains the infallibility and even general authority of the pope, and the Protestant denies it altogether; likewise, many reactionaries s selectively disobey the pope or brand him with the label of “liberal” (just as liberals slander him as a “fundamentalist”); some (sedevacantists) deny that Pope St. John Paul II even is a pope.
  1. There is the “attitudinal problem” among reactionaries and the “factual problem” of determining whether Pope St. John Paul II is some raving heretic, or senile, or lax on doctrine and discipline, etc. I believe he is one of the greatest popes ever, and on that basis in particular, I take a very dim view of all the hyper-criticism taking place about the ecumenical gatherings at Assisi and what-not, not on the fatuous, wrongheaded basis that no pope can ever be criticized. But that is a convenient caricature for many reactionaries to construct, so they milk it for all it’s worth.
  1. Of course most reactionaries acknowledge Pope St. John Paul II as a valid pope, if asked. Yet if he is not given the respect and reverence proper to the office, then that is scarcely different from saying that the Archbishop of Canterbury is who he is. It’s not saying much, when we look at what reactionaries do habitually say about the Holy Father.
  1. Why should I think any given reactionary’s  opinion carries more weight than Pope St. John Paul II’s in the first place? The very premise is ludicrous. A Catholic is supposed to think, “okay; let’s see now, on one hand I have reactionary person X’s and reactionary person Y’s and reactionary group Z’s opinions; on the other I have an ecumenical council, the Holy Father, and Cardinal Ratzinger, etc. Which shall I prefer?” Can reactionaries explain how this scenario, entailed by their opinions (in effect, offering such a “choice”) is not absolutely ridiculous and thoroughly un-Catholic from the get-go?
  1. What makes reactionaries think that they can ascertain that Pope St. John Paul II is some sort of closet liberal (as often insinuated), on the basis of his actions, allegedly imprudent to the point of laxity, compromise, and irresponsibility, or negligent with regard to the disciplining of liberal dissenters? If he is merely imprudent in some instances, then that alone is not a basis for saying he is no longer trustworthy. On the other hand, if some reactionaries think he actually is a modernist (if that is their explanation of his actions), that needs to be established from documentation of his words (and — most importantly — his words in their proper context). Our reactionary friends have become quite adept at “proof-texting” out of context from the pope, to “prove” some negative, cynical point they wish to make; quite as “good” as fundamentalist Protestants are, with their anti-Catholic biblical “proof-texting”.
  1. What makes reactionaries think that they know more about prudence itself, for that matter, and all the intricacies of the internal working of the Church and its problems, than does the pope, whose job it is to preside over the Church (so that they can sit and analyze why he does what he does, giving a negative slant to it, according to their own preferences)? This is a prime example of a certain outrageous presumption that lies behind all so-called reactionaryism. It’s often not the conscious intent of such criticism, but it still stinks to high heaven when analyzed closely, for the rank presumptuousness that it is, objectively speaking.
  1. Of course, prudence itself (by its very nature) is the sort of thing where good men can differ in the first place, so it would be rather difficult to obtain agreement of all on any particular instance of it. Thus I don’t think it can be deemed determinative in an examination of someone’s Catholic orthodoxy or lack thereof. It could be introduced as an aspect of an overall picture, but not all by itself, or as the primary factor. I agree that any pope (or any saint) might be imprudent, rarely or often, just as a pope could conceivably be a heretic. That is not at issue. But the stance that the average Catholic routinely takes towards the leader of their faith, and successor to St. Peter, is the highest level of respect and deference.
  1. Faith and trust in the integrity and holiness of Pope St. John Paul II shouldn’t be confused with reasons given for his “misunderstood” actions, in particular instances. I admire Pope St. John Paul II; he is my hero as well as my Pontiff. That doesn’t mean I can’t give reasons for why I defend him against whatever charges reactionaries wish to throw at him. The two things don’t exclude each other. The circularity resides on the reactionary’s side. They have assumed that the Holy Father is now untrustworthy and perpetually suspect, and that anything he does that hits the usual reactionary “hot buttons” is proof positive that he is deficient. Most people simply fit new ideas into their existing framework or paradigm (things are “plausible” to them to the extent that they mesh with their current opinions). Reactionaries and their critics both do this. Everyone does.
  1. Pope St. John Paul II supposedly “dropped the football” on the 49-yard line, and we can count on the savior-reactionaries to come pick it up and make things right — to get the “weird” pope back to common sense and away from his senile fantasies and flights from reason. Thank God for that. What a mess we would be in without all the armchair quarterbacks out there to constantly correct the player-coach . . .
  1. Protestants think Catholic teaching in general is “contradictory” or “paradoxical.” Reactionaries foolishly apply that to their own pope. The dynamic is the same, just on a different plane. People often disparage what they don’t understand. Reactionaries don’t understand the highest levels of Catholic magisterial teaching, and where the Holy Spirit seems to be leading the Church in the last 150 years or so, as expressed through the teaching of its leaders, in council, and in the person of the vicar of Christ.
  1. Pope St. John Paul II is regarded by thousands of liberal dissidents as the most intolerant, old-fashioned, regressive, backward, “repressed,” judgmental old fuddy-dud there is. At the same time, he is viewed by reactionaries as overly tolerant, prone to introducing outrageous novelties and innovations, “progressive,” inattentive or hostile to precedent, non-judgmental, indifferentist, and modernist. This is a quite radically differing and contradictory summation of one person; rather like the different perceptions of Jesus Christ. The Pharisees viewed Jesus rather similarly to the ways that reactionaries regard Pope St. John Paul II.
  1. It remains true that no pope has ever taught heresy as binding upon the faithful (and that includes the famous trio: Honorius, Liberius, and Vigilius). As far as I know, Pope John XXII is the only one who ever held a heretical opinion even privately (concerning the Beatific Vision), and he retracted it before he died. But even in his case, Catholic historian Warren Carroll thinks senility may have been involved, as the controversy occurred in his 88th-90th years of age. In 1332, John XXII explained that his sermons on this topic were not intended to define doctrine but simply to initiate discussion. He claimed that he was acting as a private theologian, not as the pope. Carroll states that this was “imprudent in the highest degree.” But in any event, the aged pope retracted the heresy on his deathbed – not having defined it, so that infallibility was not involved. So then, no pope has ever been an obstinate heretic, let alone binding the faithful to such error. And yet reactionaries come along and vociferously assert that Pope St. John Paul II is a loose cannon, teaching all sorts of error . . . Amazing . . .
  1. The role of the pope is much different, ecclesiologically and strategically, from the role of a local bishop. Pope St. John Paul II is most definitely effecting positive long-term change by forcefully teaching truth, promulgating the Catechism and various reforms, of schools, of architecture, of moral teaching, Catholic philosophy, etc. The damage of liberalism has been so profound that one must look at cures in terms of decades and generations, not “right now” (as in a certain puritanical and utopian mindset). A major reason (if not the sole one) for this strategy (as stated by Servant of God Fr. John A. Hardon, among others) is to avoid schism, because schism is generally longer lasting (and arguably, even more damaging) than even heresy.
  1. I think Pope St. John Paul II’s and the Church’s primary concern is for souls. The pope has no easy choice. If one acts with principle but excludes a corresponding prudence or foresight as to result (as Luther and Calvin did), then one barges ahead and slashes away at all the heretics and de facto schismatics. The pope wants the same result that people who ask this question do: how to have an orthodox Church and how to retain as many souls in the Church (and for ultimate salvation) as possible. He thinks it will take a long time. His critics (or those who are simply bewildered) often think the solution is instant and simple: slash and burn! It’s not that simple at all, given the situation in the Catholic Church in America that we have today. De jure schism is even worse than de facto schism. If the former is the almost-certain result, then things will be even worse than they are now. Time is on the side of orthodoxy. That’s what we learn from history.
  1. If people truly want to learn about orthodoxy and tradition, there are plenty of means to do that. Each person still stands alone before God; accountable to Him for their actions. They can crack the door of a library; dust off their Bible from the attic, hit the Internet and find Catholic sites, watch EWTN, go to a Mass, talk about the faith with an educated, committed Catholic friend or relative, or take their life savings and invest $10 for a Catechism. Is the pope at fault for all these people who don’t do these things, too?
  1. Heresy and schism are both extremely grave sins. Schism has the additional characteristic of being a sin against people and charity. The problem here is that if the pope plays a strong hand, he (in all likelihood) gets schism as well as heresy, because the heresy will continue right on within the schism. So, then, two very bad things would be present, and the heresy would have much more chance of lasting for decades, maybe centuries. At least now the Church is held together in some fashion (mostly abstract, in America, Canada, and Europe), and the pope can continue to forcefully assert the truth in his encyclicals, by promulgation of the Catechism, etc. He can bide his time, and let the liberals grow old and die off (which they are doing in big numbers now). History shows that terrible periods in the Church are followed by massive revival.
  1. The pope’s dilemma is twofold: he can’t really be expected to do all that much by himself because liberalism is so absolutely entrenched in many local areas. What do reactionaries who want immediate action want him to do: come to the liberal Catholic universities and magazines with tanks and helicopters? He “inherited” this situation; he didn’t create it. But even if he pulled out all the stops; excommunicated several million dissidents, put the American Church under interdict (as in the old days of the Middle Ages), burned dissident leaders at the stake, that would be far worse.
  1. Pope St. John Paul II is taking the most prudent course. He’s between a rock and a hard place. That’s what reactionaries who habitually bash John Paul II never get, because of their shallow Puritan / Donatist / rigorist / Pharisaical-like social analysis and inability to take the long view of history. What the Holy Father can do is exactly what he has been doing in superb fashion: teaching orthodox, traditional Catholicism in his official documents and a host of speeches, audiences, books, etc. Anyone who knows that the Catholic Church has a leader can get to his writing and learn for themselves what the Church teaches (especially now with the Internet). People have responsibility for their own souls, too. They can’t expect the pope to wipe their noses for them and change their diapers. But the pope can’t do much more than he is doing, without far worse results happening. His hands are tied by the nature of the problem. Until this is clearly understood, the “slowness” or “failure” to discipline or excommunicate dissenters will never be comprehended by reactionaries . The Holy Father knows many things we don’t know, and God has entrusted the leadership of the Church into his hands, not ours.
  1. The Holy Father can continue to write about and preach truth (which is not without effect, and plants many seeds), and there is not a thing the liberals can do about that. They can’t fault him for it because of their claimed belief in free speech and thought. And they can’t totally publicly denigrate the papacy because of their perpetual pipe-dream of getting a “liberal pope.” So some reactionaries think they already got their wish with Pope St. John Paul II? That would be news to the dissenters themselves (as it would be to the pope himself, who has put up with their rank insults and stupid slanders all these years). Whatever myriad deficiencies liberals have; one thing that can be said for them is that they recognize their own. They’re as fond of “Panzer-Cardinal” Ratzinger as they are of John Paul II . . .
  1. A reactionary claimed in a discussion with me that the Holy Father “never” talked about the Catholic Church being the only way of salvation. I had no problem finding contrary words in a matter of a few minutes, in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (I received no reply to that shocking “revelation”).

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Photo credit: Pope St. John Paul II (21 May 1984) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]
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Summary: Ch. 15 of my book, Reflections on Radical Catholic Reactionaries (December 2002; revised in November 2023 for the purpose of the free online version).

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