Garry Wills: Popes Making Popes Saints

tags: Catholic Church, Garry Wills, NY Review of Books, popes



Garry Wills is Professor of History Emeritus at Northwestern. His study of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1993. His latest book, Why Priests? A Failed Tradition, was published in February 2013.

On September 3, 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX. (Beatification is the third and penultimate rung on the ladder to sainthood—it certifies that a genuine miracle was worked through a dead person’s intercession, establishes a liturgical feast day for that person, and authorizes church prayer to him or her.) Pius IX was a polarizing figure. He wrested from the Vatican Council a declaration of his own infallibility; he condemned such modern heresies as democratic government; he took a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, from his family—on the grounds that Edgardo’s Christian nurse had baptized him as an infant, making him belong to the church, not to his infidel parents.

Promoting such a man was a touchy matter for Pope John Paul—but he helped ease Pius into the ranks of the blessed by simultaneously beatifying the popular Pope John XXIII. Though liberals of all sorts disliked Pius IX, only hardened Curial types and sedevacantists—“throne-empty” believers, who hold that John XXIII was not a legitimate pope—hated John for changing the church with the Second Vatican Council. Otherwise, “good Pope John” was loved by most Catholics and many non-Catholics—Lyndon Johnson gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The mutterings over Pius were practically drowned out by the cheers for John.

Now Pope Francis has come up with another ablutionary pairing. He is canonizing John Paul II in record time (Benedict XVI had already waived the normal five-years-after-death period to allow the beatifying process to begin.) Though John Paul II is not as hotly resented by liberals as Pius IX, he is still subject to deep criticism. He presided over the church during its worldwide pedophile scandal, and he gave the handling of that problem to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith—the very man who, succeeding him, would waive the time-lapse needed to begin his predecessor’s canonization. (Who can think that a saint in heaven ever protected a predatory priest?) John Paul had treated as “irreversible” his stands on matters such as homosexuality, married priests, and women priests. He is a symbol, for some people, of things that need remedy in the church....



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