Saints can fail yet be holy (and that goes for popes too)

Although the millions who will visit Rome this weekend and watch the ceremonies from around the world show the immense popularity of Pope Francis’s decision to canonise his predecessors Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II, the decision has not been without its critics.

The late Cardinal Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan.

The late Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, Archbishop of Milan.

Some have wondered, perhaps inspired by the late Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, Maria Martini, about the propriety and wisdom of declaring popes to be saints; as Fr Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, acknowledged in Tuesday’s press briefing, Martini felt there was a broader discussion to be had about this.  Italian author Luigi Accatolli says that when the Church canonises a pope it can give the impression that that pope’s policies are untouchable. Fr Thomas Reese in the National Catholic Reporter argues that the canonisations are more about Church politics than sanctity: saints are supposed to be models of sanctity for Christians to imitate, but who can a pope possibly be a model for, save another pope?

Yet this misses the point that regardless of their ministry in the Church, popes are Christians first and foremost and can inspire us through their kindness, simplicity, generosity, fortitude, and prayerful closeness to God. As Fr Timothy Radcliffe remarks in Take the Plunge: Living Baptism and Confirmation (2012) of one of the nineteenth century’s most celebrated cardinals :

In Cardinal John Henry Newman’s church in Rome, San Giorgio al Velabro, there is a modest plaque which celebrates all his honours. It concludes with the words Sed ante omnia Christanus — ‘but before all else, a Christian.’

The most serious reservation is about the decision to canonise Pope John Paul II when questions are still to be answered about his handling — or mishandling — of the child sexual abuse crisis which broke at the end of his pontificate. The most glaring case was  Mexican priest Fr Marcial Maciel Delgado, founder of the wealthy and conservative Legionaries of Christ. Fêted in Rome and lauded by Pope John Paul II,  Maciel lived a double life as a morphine addict and womaniser, misappropriating funds and fathering six children, two of whom he is reported to have sexually abused, as he did at least 20 seminarians between the 1940s and 1960s.

Reported incidents of clerical sexual abuse in the United States between 1950 and 2002, showing peak in late 1970s and decline from early 1980s.

Reported incidents of clerical sexual abuse in the United States between 1950 and 2002, showing peak in late 1970s and decline from early 1980s.

Few would disagree that the Vatican was slow to realise the enormity of the abuse issue in the 1990s, but this was largely – albeit not entirely – due to information having been withheld from Rome. Interviewed in 2010, Charles Scicluna, now auxiliary bishop of Malta and then Promoter of Justice in Rome’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, claimed that between 1975 and 1983, the worst period for clerical abuse in the United States at any rate, not one abuse case was reported to his office from anywhere in the world. Independent evidence from outside the Church supports this: in examining how 85 abuse allegations were handled in three Irish dioceses between 1962 and 2009, for instance, official Irish state investigations showed no allegations whatsoever being reported to Rome for disciplinary purposes before 2003.

With relatively few complaints reaching Rome before the late 1990s, John Paul II was  sceptical of allegations of clerical abuse in general; his former spokesman Joaquín Navarro-Valls remarked today that he did not think John Paul really understood the ‘cancer’ of clerical sexual abuse immediately. His experience of life under communist and Nazi rule, with false accusations being used to discredit and otherwise undermine priests – historian Michael Burleigh, for instance, cites Nazi claims that 7,000 clergy were convicted of sex crimes in Germany between 1933 and 1937 – almost certainly influenced his failure to respond to the abuse crisis with the urgency it merited.

The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to whom John Paul in 2001 gave the task of tacking abuse in the Church.

The then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, to whom John Paul in 2001 gave the task of tacking abuse in the Church.

Indeed, it was not until 2001, when John Paul was in poor health, that Rome really began to get to grips with the abuse issue — and he should take the credit for it, however late and feeble the action may seem in retrospect. John Paul II issued Sacramentorum  Sanctitatis Tutela, an apostolic letter which reserved to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith the authority to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct by priests with minors under the age of eighteen years, and the then Cardinal Ratzinger issued De Delictis Gravioribus, updating the Church’s procedures for tackling abuse allegations. It recognised a ten-year statute of limitation on the sacramental abuses which the CDF could investigate, but in the case of people alleging abuse it extended that statute of limitation to ten years after the eighteenth birthday. The following year John Paul granted the CDF the power to derogate from this limitation period on a discretionary basis.

But there seems little excuse for ignorance about Maciel, about whom concerns had been expressed as early as the 1940s, with complaints in the 1950s having led to his being suspended as superior of the order he had founded. This makes it all the more peculiar that, when asked on Tuesday whether John Paul II had known about Maciel’s crimes, Monsignor Slawomir Oder, the postulator for John Paul’s canonisation, answered that having investigated matters thoroughly, ‘There is no sign of a personal involvement of the Holy Father in his matter.’

Marcial Maciel Delgado with Pope John Paul II

Marcial Maciel Delgado with the elderly Pope John Paul II

This may seem implausible, but as John Allen explained in a 2004 lecture entitled ‘Top Five Vatican Myths’, the Vatican is not a single-minded entity, and nobody in the Vatican – even the Pope – has absolute knowledge or absolute control.  Just as Britain’s Prime Minister is not automatically privy to the business of every government department, so the Pope is not automatically privy to the business of individual congregations or dicasteries of the Holy See.

Cardinal Stanisław Dziwisz, who for almost 40 years was John Paul’s personal secretary, has blamed the Vatican’s ‘extremely bureaucratic structure’ for preventing information about Maciel’s misdeeds from reaching John Paul. That may be another way of saying that others were loath to volunteer information the Pope hadn’t sought; George Weigel’s biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope, makes it clear that throughout his life John Paul’s approach to administration was to delegate it to people he trusted, and to leave it in their hands:

Ecclesiastical administration had never been Karol Wojtyla’s understanding of his episcopal vocation. For him, the episcopate is pre-eminently an office of preaching and teaching, and in the service of that apostolate in Krakow he was indefatigable.

In any case, it seems there is no evidence that complaints to the Congregation for Religious in the 1950s and again in the 1970s were ever reported to Pope John Paul or his predecessors. Fresh complaints were entered by a group of former seminarians in 1998, but for reasons that remain obscure the case was shelved the following year, and Maciel continued to be fêted in Rome, where it is clear that some important figures were duped by him, with John Paul, who regarded him as ‘an efficacious guide to youth’, being misled in turn.

Charles Scicluna, now auxiliary bishop of Malta, meeting Pope Francis.

Charles Scicluna, now auxiliary bishop of Malta, meeting Pope Francis.

In 2004, however, Cardinal Ratzinger reopened the case against Maciel, and even while John Paul was dying in 2005, sent Mgr Charles Scicluna to interview Maciel’s accusers in Mexico and New York. Just weeks after Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict XVI, the Legionaries issued a statement saying that they had been assured by Rome that there was no case underway against Maciel, and that there would be no such case; it subsequently transpired that this assurance had come from the Secretariat of State, rather from the CDF, which was investigating the matter and had made no statement on it even to the Secretariat of State.

While the investigation was going on, Maciel stepped down as head of the Legionaries, and in 2006 the Holy See issued a statement that the CDF had conducted an investigation in line with its powers under Sacramentorum  Sanctitatis Tutela, and had decided in light of Maciel’s age and poor health to forego a formal disciplinary process in favour of inviting him to spend the remainder of his life in penitential seclusion.  Maciel died less than two years later, and more allegations and revelations followed his death.

In 2010, following further investigation, Rome issued a statement condemning Maciel’s ‘extremely grave and objectively immoral behavior’, describing him as devoid of ‘scruples or authentic religious sentiment’ and noting how his skill at ‘winning the trust, confidence and silence of those around him, reinforcing his role as a charismatic founder,’ caused many sincerely to believe that any accusations against him ‘could only be calumnies’.

Rome’s inaction in response to years of complaints about Maciel seems reprehensible and inexcusable. But what Pope John Paul II knew of them is not clear. The best evidence is that, like many other good people, he was deceived by a dangerous charlatan.

His failure to stop Marcial Maciel is a stain on his pontificate. And it may well have reflected a deeper malaise in the Vatican in his final years which his ill health prevented him from tackling. But it does not make him any less of a saint. As Fr Tom Rosica explains, the Church this Sunday is canonising two popes, not two papacies:

That a person is declared “Blessed” or “Saint” is not a statement about perfection. It does not mean that the person was without imperfection, blindness, deafness or sin. Nor is it a 360-degree evaluation of a particular pontificate or of the Vatican. Beatification and canonisation mean that a person lived his or her life with God, relying totally on God’s infinite mercy, going forward with God’s strength and power, believing in the impossible, loving enemies and persecutors, forgiving in the midst of evil and violence, hoping beyond all hope, and leaving the world a better place.

[Greg Daly]

About catholicvoicesmedia

This blog offers comments on news stories as they relate to the Catholic Church. For more information on Catholic Voices visit
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Saints can fail yet be holy (and that goes for popes too)

  1. Pingback: Could Lord Marchmain Have Been Canonised? | Myrmicat Forever

Comments are closed.