Ethics & Public Policy Center

Interview: A Tale of Two Saints

Published in National Review Online on April 24, 2014


George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies


On Divine Mercy Sunday this weekend in Rome — one week after Easter — Pope Francis will celebrate the canonizations of two recent predecessors in the Chair of Peter, Popes John Paul II and John XXIII. John Paul II’s biographer, George Weigel, distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, discusses the significance of the event with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Why are John Paul II and John XXIII being canonized? Is it a big deal that this is a “doubleheader”?

GEORGE WEIGEL: It’s probably useful to get one thing straight at the outset: The Church doesn’t “make saints,” and neither does the pope. God makes saints, and the Church (through the pope and his collaborators) recognizes the saints God has made. In the first millennium of Christian history, the Church “recognized” saints through popular acclamation. From the mid 17th century on, the Church used a rather complex (and frankly adversarial) legal process to test whether popular reputations for heroic virtue — the definition of “sanctity” the Church uses in assessing these things — were warranted. That process was reformed by John Paul II in 1983, so that the current process more closely resembles a doctoral seminar in history than a trial.

Multiple canonizations are not all that rare. What gives the “doubleheader” of John XXIII and John Paul II its particular resonance is that both men were beloved, both were controversial, and both were deeply involved with the Second Vatican Council. A lot of the contemporary history of the Catholic Church is summed up in these two lives.

I think Pope Francis’s decision to waive the normal requirement for a second, post-beatification miracle for John XXIII and to celebrate his canonization together with that of John Paul II (after a post-beatification miracle due to his intercession had been confirmed) was inspired and bold. What Pope Francis may be saying is that here are the two bookends of the Second Vatican Council: the pope who had the courage and wisdom to summon the most important Catholic event in 500 years, and the pope who had the courage and wisdom to give that council an authoritative interpretation. I’d also suggest that John Paul II completed the work of John XXIII, by giving post-conciliar Catholicism a new vision of its evangelical, missionary potential — which happens to be the reason John XXIII called Vatican II, as we learn from rereading his magnificent opening address to the Council on October 11, 1962.

LOPEZ: What makes each of them saints?

WEIGEL: As always, it’s a case of “heroic virtue.” Both men had a widespread reputation for sanctity during their lives; indeed, in both cases, there were calls immediately after their deaths for them to be proclaimed saints. The dignity with which both of them bore their final suffering was a great priestly example, as was the calm courage with which both conducted the Office of Peter. And they could “pope” as well as they did because they were both men who had displayed, in their pre-papal lives and ministries, a radical conversion to Christ.

LOPEZ: What is canonization anyway? Does the Vatican have a window into who is in Heaven and who is in Hell? Could this be presumptuous on the part of the Catholic Church?

WEIGEL: “The Vatican” is, depending on the context, a micro-state or a set of buildings, and in either instance, “the Vatican” doesn’t have any privileged insight into human souls. What the Catholic Church does have is the promise of the Lord Jesus Christ that, by the Holy Spirit, she will be preserved in the truth Christ left her as a patrimony. And part of the Holy Spirit’s ongoing preservation of the Church in the truth is the Holy Spirit’s lifting up saintly men and women throughout the ages — and enabling the Church to recognize the sanctity of its sons and daughters, even when that sanctity comes in surprising or unexpected ways. The formal process of “canonization” is intended to weigh claims that X or Y lived the virtues in an exceptional way, a claim that is also weighed against the expectation that God will provide his own signal in the case of X or Y, through the medically inexplicable cures that are attributed to the intercession of candidates for beatification and canonization.

​John Paul II was convinced that God is profligate in “making saints,” and that the divine delight in doing so had not slackened over the centuries. Thus his many beatifications and canonizations were an effort to get the Church of the third millennium to recognize the many saints who surround us, that “great cloud of witnesses” of which the Letter to the Hebrews speaks so eloquently.

As for Hell, the Catholic Church has never declared that X, Y, or Z is certainly in Hell, although the Church continues to believe that Hell exists. The question of Hell’s population is for God to determine. The greatest of poets, Dante, was, of course, less restrained in his census of Hell than the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

​​LOPEZ: “Vatican Under John Paul II Knew About Sex Abuse In Legion Of Christ For Decades, Documents Reveal,” one headline this week reads. Did Pope John Paul not want to know the truth about Marcial Maciel? Did he know and not care?

WEIGEL: I discussed the Maciel case in The End and the Beginning, the second volume of my biography of John Paul II, and my conclusion today remains the same as it was when that book was published in 2010: John Paul II was deceived by MarcialMaciel, a master-deceiver who deceived many, many people. That, I think, is clear. But that John Paul II knew about Maciel’s perfidies and “didn’t care” is inconceivable.

​LOPEZ: An AP story Monday was headlined “John Paul’s legacy stained by sex abuse scandal.” As his biographer, would you agree? What is his legacy on this front?

WEIGEL: This is another matter I discussed at length in both The End and the Beginning and in my 2002 book on the abuse scandal, The Courage To Be Catholic. There are a number of things to be said, things that don’t fit neatly into wire-service sound bites.

First, John Paul II was a great reformer of the priesthood. The Catholic priesthood in 1978 was in arguably its worst shape since the Reformation: thousands of men had abandoned the ministry, and we now know that others — a small minority, but one was one too many — were behaving horribly in betraying the trust of the young. The crisis of the priesthood was addressed by John Paul II comprehensively, by his teaching, his example, his reform of seminaries, and his reform of the world episcopate. The first thing to be said in fairness about John Paul II and the priesthood is that he is one of the great papal reformers of the priesthood.

Second, it’s clear that the Holy See and the pope were not living the abuse crisis in “real time” with the Church in the United States in 2002, an information lag that led to a misimpression of inattention or refusal to face facts.

Third, when John Paul II was fully informed of what had been revealed in the first four months of 2002, he acted decisively, summoning the American cardinals to the Vatican and initiating a process that led to a major and further reform of U.S. seminaries.

Fourth, the rigorous way the Catholic Church has dealt with what is a societal plague — the sexual abuse of the young — should be taken as a model for other institutions. The plague is real, but a one-eyed obsession with the plague’s impact on the Catholic Church makes it more difficult to address the far more widespread crisis of sexual abuse: within families (where the majority of the abuse of the young takes place) or in government-run schools. One does no good service to the young, and to the protection of the young, by using this horrible problem and these wicked acts to attack the credibility of the Church’s moral teaching on matters that cut against the grain of contemporary lifestyle libertinism.

LOPEZ: Shouldn’t both John Paul II and John XXIII be held responsible for what happened on their watch? Which certainly doesn’t scream “heroic virtue”?

WEIGEL: Local bishops and religious superiors are the ones to be held “primarily responsible” for failures to address, rigorously and decisively, the sin and crime of the sexual abuse of the young.

LOPEZ: Some have accused Pope Francis of being all talk on the topic of sex abuse. Would you agree? Or is there a story being missed?

WEIGEL: I really don’t understand what this accusation means. Is someone seriously proposing that Pope Francis does not care about the victims of abuse? That he is giving a wink-and-nod to these issues, where they remain? He’s just established a commission to oversee the Church’s response to the societal abuse crisis, and it includes both laity and an abuse victim.

The pope’s brief criticism of a U.N. report on the Church and the sexual abuse of the young rightly reminded the world that this is a global crisis, not some uniquely Catholic crisis. If Pope Francis were a less charitable man, he would also have remarked on the U.N.’s dismal record in addressing the rampant sexual abuse committed by U.N. “peacekeeping forces.”

​LOPEZ: The Holy See is about to go in front of a U.N. torture committee. Is there really cause for celebration in the Church about anything this weekend? At some point does Pope Francis have to not just reform but change tradition and teachings from another time?

WEIGEL: The pope is the servant of an authoritative tradition, not its master. One of his tasks is to preserve the integrity of that tradition in its fullness; note that, in his opening address, that’s what John XXIII said was the primary purpose of Vatican II!

​The millions of people who will flood Rome this weekend to celebrate two great modern Catholic leaders and their lives of heroic virtue know that there’s a lot to celebrate in the Catholic Church — including its steady refusal to cave in to what the New York Times editorial board and certain Times op-ed columnists think it should be. Hundreds of thousands of men and women, presumably neither deluded nor insane, were baptized or entered into full communion with the Catholic Church at Easter. The Catholic Church is the world’s premier institutional defender of religious freedom for all. Amidst the confusions of post-modernism, the Catholic Church is the world’s most important institutional defender of the prerogatives of reason to get at the truth of things — including the moral truth of things. The Catholic Church is the largest educator of women and the largest provider of health care to women and children in the Third World. The Church’s best seminaries in the United States are fuller than they have been in 40 years. Young Catholics are giving years of their lives as FOCUS missionaries on college and university campuses across the United States. The Church offers empowerment to the poor through its extensive social-service networks and compassionate support to women in crisis pregnancies.

So, yes, there’s a lot to celebrate, and a lot for which to be grateful.

LOPEZ: There’s a synod on the family coming up in the fall, convened by Pope Francis. What do you expect come of it? Again, Church teaching seems to be from another reality on marriage and family and women.

WEIGEL: Pope Francis understands that there is a crisis of marriage culture throughout the world. And he wants the Church to address that crisis more effectively. That will happen, I think, by lifting up the beauty of Christian marriage as an alternative to the anorexic notion of marriage as a legal contract for mutual convenience; Christian marriage is a covenant of love and self-giving, and the world needs to hear about that. And the Western world needs to come to grips with the fact that a contraceptive culture is leading to demographic oblivion.

We’ve got a lot of resources to address these issues today, resources that weren’t available in the cultural maelstrom of the Sixties and the furor over Paul VI’s encyclical on the morally appropriate means of family planning, Humanae Vitae. We have John Paul II’s magnificent 1981 apostolic exhortation, Familiaris Consortio. We have John Paul’s Theology of the Body. We have brilliant books like Mary Eberstadt’s Adam and Eve After the Pill. Those resources should all be in play in the special meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October, and in the ordinary meeting of the Synod in 2015, which will also address the crisis of family life throughout the world.

Above all, we have the example of couples and families who are the living answer to the global crisis of marriage culture. The Synod fathers should hear from them, early and often, as these discussions unfold over the next year and a half.

LOPEZ: What will you most appreciate or enjoy about the canonizations this weekend?

WEIGEL: I’m looking forward to another global gathering of the great Catholic family from all over the world. It’s likely to be a bit chaotic, but then so, I expect, was the first Christian Pentecost.

LOPEZ: Is there anything about John Paul II you wish people realized?

WEIGEL: I suppose I wish that people would recognize his extraordinary courage in facing down a crippling illness and reminding us that there are no disposable human beings. More importantly, I wish that people would realize that he could do that, and be that, because of his embrace of the Cross as the truth of life.

LOPEZ: Is there anything about John XXIII you wish people realized?

WEIGEL: I wish we could get beyond the stereotypes here. Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli was steeped in quite conventional Catholic piety, as is clear from his spiritual diary, Journal of a Soul. What made him the bold leader he eventually became as Pope John XXIII were his lifelong study of history — which taught him that the Church must adapt its presentation of perennial truths to the demands of a given cultural moment, so that the truth can be heard and engaged — and his life outside what I would call the “Catholic bubble.” He spent decades as a Vatican diplomatic representative in Orthodox and Islamic countries. He was a Holocaust rescuer. He understood that Catholicism had to rediscover its originating evangelical dynamism if it was going to be the force it should be for the healing of the world.

LOPEZ: Is it right to say one is a right-wing and one is a left-wing pope?

WEIGEL: No, it’s quite ridiculous to say that. Which doesn’t mean it won’t be said, alas.

LOPEZ: Is this some sort of reset in the life of the Church?

WEIGEL: If by “this” you mean the canonization doubleheader, it’s the best kind of reset: a reminder that the Church is, at the bottom of the bottom line, in the business of facilitating holiness, which comes through friendship with Jesus Christ.

LOPEZ: Is there an approach to foreign policy and human freedom and flourishing that is consistent and important about the two?

WEIGEL: Both men understood that, at the root of the sorrows of the 20th century, there was a profound anthropological crisis — a crisis in the very idea of the human person. Roncalli understood this experientially and historically, and responded to it in a deeply personal way that exuded pastoral charity. Wojtyla got it experientially, analyzed it philosophically, and put the Christian view of the inalienable dignity of the human person at the center of his teaching and witness.

LOPEZ: What’s Divine Mercy Sunday and what’s significant about it as the doubleheader date? What does it say about Francis?

WEIGEL: “Easter,” as Catholics understand it liturgically, lasts eight days: every day of Easter week is Easter, and so is the Octave of Easter, the Second Sunday of Easter, which John Paul II designated as Divine Mercy Sunday — the day the Church celebrates the capacity of the divine compassion to heal the most broken of lives. That is what the Resurrection of Jesus confirms. And it’s entirely appropriate that two popes through whom the world “saw” divine compassion and pastoral charity in an exceptional way should be canonized on that day. Pope Francis understands this, and that’s why the doubleheader is what it is and when it is.

LOPEZ: With Elizabeth Lev and your son, Stephen, you recently wrote a book called Roman Pilgrimage on the station churches of Rome. Are there any spots you will not miss when in Rome?

WEIGEL: I’ve got to get back to Sts. Cosmas and Damian and St. Praxedes.

LOPEZ: Christians are still celebrating Easter. How is Easter relevant in the world today with all its challenges and possibilities?

WEIGEL: Easter tells Christians that the end of the world’s story has been made manifest in the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead, and his being constituted as Lord and Savior. That changes everything. So, despite the awfulness that we too often see around us, Christians know through Easter that God’s creative and redeeming purposes are going to be vindicated at the end of the drama of history and creation. So we can get about witnessing to the divine mercy we have experienced in our own lives, through friendship with the Risen Christ, in ways that offer the possibility of that friendship to others. And we can do that knowing that, in the end, it’s all a divine comedy, not a cosmic tragedy.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. 

–Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a director of Catholic Voices USA.

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