Published November 19, 2020
St. John Paul II enjoys the beatific vision—the church gave her definitive judgment about that when he was canonized. There is nothing we can learn or discover or uncover about his life that will retroactively change that. Like all the church triumphant, he is far beyond our capacity to lift up or tear down.
John Paul II preached habitually about the liberating power of truth and enjoined us always to “be not afraid.” We should not shy away from asking hard questions about his failings. The truth about the past cannot hurt him; nor should we allow that the truth would hurt us.
Too often, a misplaced concern for scandal has led church leaders to conceal the truth from the people of God and from the world. The result has been immeasurable pain and lasting damage, not only to victims of abusers, but to the credibility of our shepherds and trust between the members of the body of Christ.
Instead of looking past the failings of Pope John Paul II, we should look squarely at them. We ought to know that we can learn as much from the failings of a saint as from his successes. The release of the McCarrick Report gives us an opportunity to do just that.
Pope John Paul II promoted Theodore McCarrick to be archbishop of Washington even after rumors of sexual misconduct had reached Rome. No one else made that decision; it was the pope’s alone to make. It is clear, in hindsight, that the decision was the wrong one. It is also clear that the Polish pope did not believe McCarrick was guilty of misconduct. The McCarrick Report also makes it clear that the information provided to Pope John Paul II and his advisers was incomplete, and in some cases, inaccurate.
The strongest case against promoting McCarrick was made by Cardinal John O’Connor. Cardinal O’Connor was both deeply impressed by McCarrick and deeply concerned by the rumors and allegations—never substantiated in O’Connor’s mind—that followed McCarrick. It is worth noting that even Cardinal O’Connor, in his letter recommending against the promotion of McCarrick, insisted that he “would support unconditionally any appointment of our Holy Father, including an appointment to the Archbishopric of New York, and give every assistance to anyone appointed, including Archbishop McCarrick.”
Cardinal O’Connor’s was the strongest voice against promoting McCarrick. But there were many more voices speaking in McCarrick’s favor. When the matter came before Pope John Paul II, the Congregation for Bishops recommended against appointing McCarrick and John Paul II demurred.
But that, as we all know, was not the end of the matter.
McCarrick somehow got wind of O’Connor’s letter. He wrote personally to the Holy Father’s secretary, Stanisław Dziwisz. Dziwisz gave the letter to the Holy Father. In that letter, McCarrick, addressed the rumors about him directly: “[S]ure I have made mistakes and may have sometimes lacked in prudence, but in the 70 years of my life, I have never had sexual relations with any person, male or female, young or old.”
McCarrick lied, and Pope John Paul II was deceived.
When McCarrick’s name appeared on the terna in October 2000, the Prefect for the Congregation of Bishops, Cardinal Re, had changed his recommendation on McCarrick: “Cardinal O’Connor, a person of great honesty and seriousness, would not have reminded us of this risk had he not considered it a real possibility. However, now certain that the accusations are false, they can easily be denied.”
John Paul II again followed the recommendation of the Congregation for Bishops, this time appointing McCarrick to Washington.
This is what the McCarrick Report reveals about Pope John Paul II: He was deceived by Theodore McCarrick, a man who was a master of deception. A chance to halt the career of a wicked man was missed. The seeds were sown for a later, greater betrayal of victims and faithful alike. At the end of the day, culpability for the predations of Theodore McCarrick—and all that his sins wrought—belongs to Theodore McCarrick.
John Paul II was an imperfect man—a man who could be deceived. That an imperfect man has been declared a saint ought not surprise us in the least: It is true of every saint save one, Our Lady. There is a Pelagian streak in those who would denounce a saint on account of his weakness. It is God who makes saints by his grace—not by our strength of will, not even the wisdom of the church and certainly not the magnificence of one’s “legacy.”
The blemishes of the saints, including John Paul II, ought not be hidden, nor should they scandalize us. Rather, they should be a reminder to us of both humility—in the face of our own many failings—and of hope. The consequences of sin, ours or others, cannot be undone by human effort. If our salvation depended on our own perfection, we would be lost. It is only because of God’s mercy—unmerited and unfailing—that we have any hope of attaining the beatitude John Paul II now enjoys. And that alone is reason for us to “be not afraid.”
Stephen White is a fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and is the executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America.