Only one vision of the complex lives of two Vatican II saints

Only one vision of the complex lives of two Vatican II saints April 28, 2014

So, what was that remarkable “day of the four popes” all about anyway? Prepare to be shocked, shocked, at the framing of this amazing event.

Here is the archetypal opening of the pre-event report in The Los Angeles Times:

One helped revolutionize the church, becoming an enduring icon among progressive Roman Catholics who view religion as a vehicle for justice and peace.

The other figured in a societal revolution outside the church, earning the adulation of conservatives by battling communism and contributing to the downfall of the Soviet Union.

So, St. John Paul II — many are already replacing that numeral with “the Great” — was not working for peace all of those years in the pressure cooker that was Eastern Europe, before and after the Nazis and Communists? He was not seeking justice when he talked about the Culture of Death and defined that in terms of Catholic doctrines protecting the sacred nature of the lives of the weak, the poor, the defenseless, the unborn and the elderly? His goals — even in the towering Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth) — were merely geopolitical?

And the world-shaping agenda of St. John XXIII is best understood in terms of its impact on issues that matter only to “progressives”? He was not trying to reach out to a changing world on behalf of mission and evangelism, too?

Most of all, must professionals in the mainstream press insist on seeing this historic event strictly through a lens that assumes the savvy Pope Francis was merely trying to play a smart political hand? As a longtime GetReligion reader — yes, a Catholic — noted in a personal email:

There are not two visions here — there’s only one, that of Christ — but it’s impossible for these guys to see it because they only see the world through politically-tainted wrap-around glasses, without even the slightest possibility of a peek of the larger reality ever coming through.

However, there is the key Los Angeles Times passage, when it comes to describing the template that shaped most of the coverage (I would love to hear about exceptions, in our comments pages):

Some observers see Francis as keenly aware of the political minefield surrounding canonization, especially for those candidates whose legacies remain heavily contested. This has led to conjecture that Francis’ move was largely an act of reconciliation, aimed at healing deep divisions between Vatican II enthusiasts and those who favor John Paul’s more conservative approach to church doctrine. Some view the dual canonization as a means of freeing Francis from the ideological constraints of the two camps. …

Whether the canonizations will foster greater unity among conservative and progressive strains in the church is not clear. Francis, for all of his popular appeal and admiration for John XXIII, has not shifted from traditional Catholic doctrine on hot-button issues such as contraception, abortion, gay marriage, married priests and ordination of women.

So the only path to unity is, of course, to shift forward on 2,000 years of Catholic teachings on moral theology and sacraments. Yup. That will certainly produce unity. Note the implication that this is the path that St. John XXIII would have pursued, if he had been allowed to live longer and finish his work. Right?

Once again, please understand that I know how important this “two visions” template is in discussions of the modern church. I am not saying that this point of view should be ignored. Now way. Call folks at Georgetown University and let them do that thing they do, because that is an important perspective.

However, there is another point of view out there that needs to be represented, as well. This point of view defines the work of these two saints in terms of the CONTENT of Vatican II, the actual doctrinal content of the documents, rather than the so-called “spirit” of Vatican II that everyone knows was supposed to keep on going and going, leading to massive changes in doctrine and big-T Catholic Traditions. In this point of view, St. John Paul the Great — a man whose life was greatly shaped by the events of Vatican II — is seen as the defender of the council, not as a man who opposed its core teachings.

In other words, what we have here are two saints for the Vatican II era, but two saints linked to one vision.

Again, that is one point of view — but an important one, unless one wants to ignore the views of many major players in the life of the church. Shouldn’t the coverage include both of these common perspectives?

Instead, what I saw over and over was the familiar framework centering on one man being the father of Vatican II, while the other was the charismatic, but oh-so-conservative, crusher of the “spirit” of the council. In other words, the press focused on one side of the great Vatican II debate and one side alone. Note this crucial paragraph in The Washington Post (which pulled from its site the early draft of its story on the Vatican rites, which was — in my view — truly radical in its anti-John Paul perspective):

By declaring both men saints on the same day, the crusading new pontiff, and the first Latin American pope, had apparently set out to please both reformers and traditionalists.

Born Karol Jozef Wojtyla in Wadowice, Poland, in 1920, John Paul II is seen as the first truly global pope, a charismatic conservative known for stirring oration and staring down communism even as he stood firmly against birth control and divorce. John XXIII, meanwhile, launched the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s that made the Catholic Mass, once said in Latin, switch to the common tongues of the faithful.

And, on the crucial issues changed by the council, the “reformers” and the supporters of St. John Paul II (as opposed to arch traditionalists) were on opposite sides? And the “reformers” surrounding St. John XXIII wanted to change major moral doctrines? And how do we know that?

The New York Times put it this way (in an admirably restrained news report):

In the days before the ceremony … Vatican officials had sought to dispel the political subtext of the event — that the two former popes are icons to different constituencies within the church, and that by canonizing them together, Francis was making a political statement as well as a religious one.

John XXIII is a hero to many liberal Catholics for his Second Vatican Council of the early 1960s, which sought to open the church to the modern era. John Paul II is a hero to many conservative Catholics — not only for his anti-Communist heroism and personal charisma, but also because of his resistance to liberalizing elements of the church.

By pairing their canonizations, Francis sought to de-emphasize their differences, many analysts said, in the service of trying to reconcile divisions within the church and finding consensus as he prepared for the meetings, known as synods, centered on the theme of family. In his homily, Francis described John XXIII as the pope of “exquisite openness,” while he called John Paul II “the pope of the family.”

I actually like the fact that, while the two-visions template is in place, the New York Times team actually stressed the “hero” role the two saints have played for often clashing camps, which left a door open for the views of people who saw the actual work of these two remarkable men as being rooted in — well — Catholic doctrine.

It would have been nice, of course, to have quoted experts who can argue in favor of that point of view. But perhaps that would have been too, too, too — journalistic.

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13 responses to “Only one vision of the complex lives of two Vatican II saints”

  1. Great article by Fr Martin.
    I have a few comments:

    1) “The other figured in a societal revolution outside the church, earning the adulation of conservatives by battling communism and contributing to the downfall of the Soviet Union.” Is the reporter saying that liberals were not hapy to see the downfall of the Soviet Union? That is truly perverse.

    2) John XXIII died after the Council had only met once. John Paul was a participant as a theology aide to the Polish Cardinal, as was Benedict to the Cardinal of Cologne. All kinds of people were involved in the Council. Why is this never mentioned?

    3) The Council DID NOT switch that language of the Mass to the vernacular. If you read the document – it says it can be allowed. To this day we still use Latin at times in the Catholic Mass. We didn’t dump the classic Latin hymns and in many parishes, Latin is used particularly during Lent. It is perfect for occasions such as the celebration yesterday at St Peter’s because it favors no particular language and Catholics around the world understand what is going on and know the chants.

    4) I was a student at a Catholic Jesuit university during the Council. We studied the agenda documents and debates as they were happening – our professor had Jebbie friends who sent stuff to our class. Once the OK had been given to use vernacular, there were seminarians in their dorm rooms who were playing guitar like everybody else – they came up with some English stuff to try out in the basement of the college church on an experimental basis. It was great fun to be part of something new and these guys became the fames “St Louis Jesuits”, but I wonder if a different style of music had been popular at the time, if we had ended up with rap music for Mass. Our pop English music is stuck in the 60s just by happenstance.

    5) It drives me crazy to keep reading about how different Francis is from Benedict. There is only the same difference as the personality aspects for John XXIII and John Paul. Holy Cow! Just look at the photos of John XXIII in that processional chair with the triple crown and ostrich feather fans! John Paul snuck out to go skiing – and he’s the conservative? Benedict is the first Pope to resign not under pressure for the good of the church and he’s a conservative? Francis is at least as devoted to the BVM as JPII and surely more than Benedict, but he’s the liberal?
    I think the whole news business has been reduced to getting the most clicks.

    • You are really straining the point about Latin and the vernacular. The council gave permission for use the vernacular, and then as a direct result pretty much the whole church switched most of the mass to the vernacular. What the article actually says is, “Vatican II…introduced vernacular languages into the Holy Mass.” Seems accurate enough to me. (It does not say “exterminated every last trace of Latin from every Mass everywhere.”)

    • Excellent points, but one small correction: Karol Wojtyla participated in Vatican II not just as a theology aide or peritus, but as a full-fledged Council Father; he was consecrated as auxiliary bishop of Cracow in 1958; Fr. Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, was a peritus, but an enormously influential one – he worked with Yves Congar and other well-known theologians on drafts of the Council documents; Wojtyla also worked on the Constitution Gaudium et Spes. Isn’t it just nuts that journalists who parrot the popular fiction that JPII and Benedict were opposed to Vatican II don’t realize they are saying this about two of the major architects of the Council?

      • Thanks for the correction. And, yes, the media’s failure to hardly ever mention their important participation in the Council is nuts and distorts readers’ perception of what happened.

  2. Here’s an interesting CNBC piece on corporate sponsorship of the Day of 4 Popes that is a bit strange.

    It never says where the writer got his/her information about the corporate donations. And it doesn’t say to whom the money was given. Seeing as how the City of Rome was providing massive amounts of security, it would seem more logical for the donations to be mostly to the city of Rome – not Vatican City.

    And the writer gives away that he/she doesn’t understand what the “Vatican Bank” is set up to do.

    “The Catholic Church sits upon enormous assets – the Vatican Bank manages $8 billion worth of worldwide investments as well as 33,000 accounts for clergy and parishes – but its governing body, the Holy See, made a loss of $18.4 million in 2011.”

    The 33,000 accounts are not in addition to the $8 billion, they represent most of those accounts. This writer is assuming the equivalent of Deutche Bank being able to use all the money it holds for its own purposes. Additionally, the accounts are mostly for religious orders and NGOs, not parishes. Currently there is an on-going effort to weed out accounts for most individuals, which is where most of the problems lie.

    The funniest part is claiming that Francis was forced to respond to a comment by Rush Limbaugh. LOL I doubt that Francis even knows who Rush is.

    BTW Here’s 2 links to the latest real news about the “Vatican Bank” which isn’t really a bank that makes loans, but more of a depository to facilitate movement of funds to far-flung locations, particularly to 3rd world countries without reliable banking faciities.

  3. Face it, most mainstream journalists are not all that bright and some are not professional enough to actually do legitimate research and analysis besides the liberal “story” they so often just phone in from bed. And of course virtually all of them are atheists or agnostics/liberal Christians who really have no understanding of things religious, or spiritual, let alone the Church.

  4. When do we learn that the Popes are not politicians and therefore political language just doesn’t apply?

  5. “This point of view defines the work of these two saints in terms of the CONTENT of Vatican II, the actual doctrinal content of the documents, rather than the so-called ‘spirit’ of Vatican II…” And I don’t suppose we can demand, much less expect or even request that reporters who are going to report on the Catholic Church will have actually read a line or maybe even two from the Council documents, can we? “That would be too, too, too — journalistic.”

    But if they were to do that, they would see that, for instance, the organ is to hold the pride of place amongst the musical instruments for the Mass. They would also see that Gregorian chant is to do the same in terms of liturgical music. And if they bothered to read the rubrics of the Mass (horrors!) they would find that they presume the priest is facing the altar during most of that liturgy. But again, that’s too demanding of those people tasked with reporting on the largest single Christian body in the world.

  6. Enjoyed the article. It reminded me of a time when I wrote the NPR Ombudsman to complain about that organization referring to Dominic Crossan as “Father” when he did not use that term himself. I suggested that NPR might want to find a reporter who actually understood religion but the Ombudsman assured me that indeed they did. Yeah right.