Did They Love You, Pope John Paul II?

As millions gathered in Rome to say goodbye,
some are left to wonder what it all means

Christopher Ferrara

The Catholic’s first instinct is to observe the death of a Pope with silence and prayer, reserving until the appropriate time any sort of analysis of the relative merits and demerits of the just-concluded pontificate. Such analysis is inevitable with every Pope’s passing. But the mass media are not going to allow us the usual period of circumspection, for they are “spinning” the death John Paul II the way they spin their coverage of everything Catholic: in favor of the world’s long revolt against the Church

In the days immediately following the death of Pope John Paul II, Catholics with any sense of dignity and tradition are horrified to see the organs of world opinion, as if by some prearranged signal, conducting a campaign to make of our late Pope a veritable icon of the New World Order--literally the first pope in Church history deserving of the world’s unanimous praise.  An endless parade of dignitaries without the least respect for the teaching authority of the Catholic Church has been instantly produced to hail John Paul II, not as the Roman Pontiff that he was, but as an esteemed leader of “the global community” -- a community that will never, of course, submit to any Pope.

What we are seeing in the incredible non-stop, 24-hour-a-day coverage of the death of John Paul II is the world’s attempt to install in our minds, as the model for the future of the Church, a Pope who would be a kind of spiritual politician, leading only by moral example and with the consent of whoever cares to be his subject. We are reminded of Pius XI’s condemnation of similar efforts to reduce the papal office by the fledgling “ecumenical” movement of the 1920s: “Among them there indeed are some, though few, who grant to the Roman Pontiff a primacy of honor or even a certain jurisdiction or power, but this, however, they consider not to arise from the divine law but from the consent of the faithful.”

This is the figurehead Pope of Masonic dreams: loved and admired, but never feared; respected, but not obeyed, unless it pleases one to obey him; an eminent leader among the leaders of the world’s religions, but no more than this. This is the kind of Pope the “modern world” wants to see emerge from the next conclave--the kind it has always wanted to see emerge from the next conclave. And that is why the world, at this very moment, is trying to appropriate to itself the memory of John Paul II.  But we must not allow the world to abstract the Pope from the Mystical Body of Christ, to which he is inseparably attached and without which he is nothing. 

And so we cannot remain silent during what should be a period of mourning, for even the process of mourning is being manipulated to attack the Mystical Body.  For in this case, with the death of this Pope, something unprecedented is happening that compels us to speak now in opposition: one Pope is being exalted above all others by a world that otherwise has no use for Popes.  We must not allow the papacy to be exploited in this way. Nor can we allow our fellow Catholics to assist in that exploitation by agreeing with the world that John Paul II was indeed a Pope above all others, and that by implication the Church has never had a Pope so worthy of the world’s respect. That notion undermines the very integrity of the Church.  We have no choice but to object.

First of all, it seems necessary to remind some of our fellow Catholics what it means to love the Pope. John Paul II is dead, and we must pray for the repose of his soul out of love for him as a fellow creature of God who was the earthly head of the Mystical Body. That is what Catholics do when a Pope has died.  But while they are praying, Catholics ought not to speculate publicly, as an EWTN celebrity has just done, that John Paul II is “stomping right up to heaven,” just as he stomped up mountains as a young man, and that the Pope is already being received “with enthusiasm on heaven’s part.” A Catholic should not say, as another EWTN celebrity did, that while Catholics ought to pray for the dead, he was “not praying too much” for John Paul II because the late Pope was almost surely already in heaven. Catholics ought not to proclaim instant canonizations of deceased popes on national television, especially when the Pope in question has left behind, by his own admission, a Church and a world in crisis.   That is not how one loves the Pope.

Nor does a Catholic love the Pope by attempting an immediate revision of the history of the past 26 years. Wild declarations that the Pope transformed the whole world, restored the faith of the multitudes and gave hope to all of humanity are not expressions of love for the Pope, but only flattery. That John Paul II took strong stands on moral issues, resisting all pressure to change the Church’s teaching, cannot be doubted. This is admirable, but it is also what the faithful have the right to expect from every Vicar of Christ. That the Pope was a giant on the world scene is also beyond question, although one may be permitted to debate what lasting effect his presence had on world events. 

But the love we owe the Pope -- the love of Christian charity, as opposed to pleasing sentiments -- requires us also to acknowledge the state of the Church the Pope left behind, as he himself described it. This is not to blame the Pope for everything that has happened in the Church since 1978. It is, rather, to admit the reality we must face in the coming years, the reality the Pope himself acknowledged not long before his death, instead of deluding ourselves that the end of this pontificate finds us in the Promised Land.

In his apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in Europa (2001), the Pope described a Europe that has succumbed to “a vision of man apart from God and apart from Christ.” The Pope lamented “the loss of Europe’s Christian memory and heritage, accompanied by a kind of practical agnosticism and religious indifference whereby many Europeans give the impression of living without spiritual roots and somewhat like heirs who have squandered a patrimony entrusted to them by history.” The Pope concluded that “European culture gives the impression of ‘silent apostasy’ on the part of people who have all that they need and who live as if God does not exist.”  The results of this silent apostasy are “the diminishing number of births, the decline in the number of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, and the difficulty, if not the outright refusal, to make lifelong commitments, including marriage.” 

EWTN anchorman Raymond Arroyo at least made some effort to reconcile his eulogy of the Pope with reality when he asserted that while the Church had declined “numerically” during John Paul II’s reign, what was left was “a fervent small body of believers” from which the “renewal of the Church will take place.” Does it really help the Church, do we really show love for the Pope, by presenting mass defections from the faith as a great pontifical success, as if John Paul II had deliberately put into play a kind of survival-of-the-fittest plan of spiritual privation? Arroyo here echoed Cardinal Ratzinger’s claim that the Church has undergone a “qualitative renewal” since Vatican II. But how does one determine the “quality” of the remaining faithful, and how could this “quality” counterbalance a loss of “quantity,” when that “quantity” represents immortal souls in need of salvation?  As Peter’s net is drawn up with increasingly meager catches, is it not ridiculous to marvel at the imagined plumpness of each fish -- as if human souls were fungible goods whose total combined “weight” is all that matters?  The Pope himself, however, did not marvel at the quality of the diminishing catch when he spoke of Europe’s silent apostasy. Why do those who say they love the Pope not admit with him that he reigned during a silent apostasy?

In fact, the Pope returned to the theme of apostasy in the Church in July of 2003, less than two years before the end of his pontificate. Speaking at Castelgandolfo, he reiterated that “European culture gives the impression of a ‘silent apostasy’ on the part of men who are sated, who live as if God did not exist.”[1]  

Adopting the same theme only a few days later, Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, observed that “Unbelief is no longer a phenomenon reduced to a few individuals but a mass phenomenon” that is seen especially “in countries where a secular cultural model prevails”—in other words, the whole Western world.  Poupard dismissed claims of a “return to the sacred” as “the emergence of a new weak religiosity, without reference to a personal God, something more emotional than doctrinal. We are witnessing the de-personalization of God. This new religiosity does not coincide with a return to the faith…” And while militant atheism may have subsided, it has been replaced by “a phenomenon of practical unbelief which is growing in cultural realms penetrated by secularism. It is a cultural form that I would describe as ‘neo-paganism,’ in which religion is an idolatry of material goods, a vague religious feeling that is rather pantheistic, which is at ease with cosmological theories, such as those of New Age.”  This phenomenon, said Poupard, “is typical of the secularized cultures of the West.”[2]

In short, the whole of former Christendom exhibits a silent apostasy. Whereas before the Second Vatican Council the great Popes lamented the growing apostasy in the world from which the Church had been vigorously defended and protected--even at the beginning of the Council Pope John proclaimed the continuing integrity of the ecclesial fortress--the postconciliar Popes have lamented apostasy within the Church as well, an apostasy that followed immediately upon the conciliar “opening to the world.” Thus, Paul VI famously declared that “from somewhere or other the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God. We have perhaps been too weak and imprudent.”  A breach had suddenly appeared in the wall of the ecclesial fortress. That breach could only have been the “opening to the world.”

Here too the words of our departed Pope confirm the reality as opposed to the myth his neo-Catholic hagiographers are already beginning to construct. In his 1986 encyclical Dominum et vivificantem the Pope wrote that in assessing the Council’s supposed fruits “one must learn how to ‘discern’ them carefully from everything that may instead come originally from the ‘prince of this world.’ This discernment in implementing the Council's work is especially necessary in view of the fact that the Council opened itself widely to the contemporary world, as is clearly seen from the important Conciliar Constitutions Gaudium et Spes and Lumen Gentium.”

Thus the Pope himself depicted Vatican II, precisely because of its unprecedented “opening to the world,” as a council whose fruits must be carefully distinguished from what comes from the devil! No other ecumenical council in the history of the Church has carried such a papal caveat. And now, with the Pope gone, we reap the whirlwind. A state of apostasy is what the next Pope will have to confront in the Church’s ceaseless war against the world, the flesh, and the devil. This is the reality John Paul II left behind, as his own words confirm. What sort of love for the Pope would make us pretend that it doesn’t exist?

This brings us to the heart of the matter: How is it that a world in the grip of apostasy had nothing but praise for the Pope whose moral teaching it simply ignored? On every major television network politicians of the Left and the Right, conservative and liberal journalists and political commentators, Protestant ministers, rabbis, Imams, Hindus and Buddhists, rock stars and even MTV video jockeys--spokesmen of every conceivable persuasion and political orientation -- unanimously offered unstinting tribute to the Pope.

How does one explain this seeming paradox? Part of the explanation is that even in its apostasy, the world implicitly recognizes that the Catholic Church is the one true Church and that the papal office is a divinely instituted monarchy. The religion the world most detests is also the only religion it takes seriously, for “the devils also believe and tremble” (James 2:19). Thus the world’s attention is naturally riveted on the death of any Roman Pontiff.

But there has to be more to the explanation than this, for the Church has never seen anything like the unceasing hosannas offered to John Paul II by virtually every organ of world opinion. Far more is involved here than the usual expressions of worldly respect for a deceased Pope. What is going on?

As the opening paragraphs of this piece would suggest, the answer lies in what the world is praising in the pontificate of John Paul II. Consider some examples: Mikhail Gorbachev lauded the late Pope as “the number one humanist on this planet.” Kofi Annan eulogized him as “a tireless advocate of peace, a true pioneer in interfaith dialogue and a strong force for critical self-evaluation by the church itself.” Fox News called him “a tireless and outspoken campaigner for world peace and humanitarian causes.” European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that the Pope had played “an essential role in the reunification of Europe and in the advance of ideas of freedom and democracy in our continent.” George Bush (who at least referred to the Pope as a “fearless priest” and “the Bishop of Rome”) hailed him as “a champion of human freedom,” who “spoke of our providential Constitution, the self-evident truths about human dignity in our Declaration, and the blessings of liberty that follow from them.” Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said that “Israel, the Jewish people and the entire world lost today a great champion of reconciliation and brotherhood between the faiths.” The Dalai Lama expressed “deep appreciation for the pope’s mission to bring peace to the world.” CNN summed up the tributes of the world this way: “Pope John Paul II was remembered Saturday as a ‘champion of human freedom,’ a ‘tireless advocate of peace’ and a man with a ‘wonderful sense of humor’…. The pope was known for his energy, intellectualism and activism on the global stage.”

The world, then, praises the Pope entirely for reasons unrelated to his office as the Vicar of Christ. He is praised for his effect on social and political relations in the world. But wherever the papal office as such was actually exercised authoritatively during John Paul’s reign, the world is now silent or even critical.  Hence there was no praise from the world, but only criticism, for the Pope’s definitive ending of the debate on women’s ordination and his “inflexible” stand on such moral questions as contraception, abortion, euthanasia, and homosexual “marriage” and adoption.  Then again, the world is at this very moment praising the Pope’s personal opposition to the death penalty, a view he never imposed upon the Catholic faithful and which represented a departure from the constant teaching of the Church.

The conclusion is inescapable: Whatever the Pope’s subjective intentions might have been (and these are known only to God), the world’s unprecedented praise for John Paul II  clearly arises from the perception that his pontificate, unlike any other, served the world’s interests as opposed to the “narrow” sectarian interests of the Roman Catholic Church. As Colin Powell put it in his own tribute to the Pope: “His faith for the world transcended his Catholic background.” Whether or not one wishes to argue that the perception is unjustified, the world thinks of John Paul II as a Pope whose Catholicity was merely part of his “background”; it hails him as a “moral and spiritual leader” for the members of all religions or none, whose leadership did not involve any idea of submission to the Roman Pontiff.

How did this perception arise?  Is the world not responding to the Church’s own “opening” to it at the Council? Is the world not rejoicing in the legacy of a Pope it sees as having, at long last, brought the Church down to earth, dispelling once and for all its aura of divine majesty as the one and only City of God, ruled by a king who is Christ’s Vicar? Raymond Arroyo, summoned by the powers of the world to provide commentary on Fox News, was only too happy to confirm the world’s perception: “This was not a man who went around with the tiara on his head or in the sedia being carried about.  He was the people’s pope.  He used to pull his hand back whenever someone went to kiss it.  He didn’t like all the trappings. There were no red tassels on this guy’s shoes.”

Here we see most clearly what was pointed out earlier: That certain Catholics are assisting world opinion in the use of one Pope to undermine respect for all the others. How pleased Arroyo was to elevate John Paul II as “the people’s pope” at the expense of all his predecessors, whom he suggested were vainglorious royalists and popinjays partial to red tassels. This is neo-Catholic hubris at its height: the Church of today is so much more enlightened than the medieval kingdom of forty years ago. Neo-Catholic luminary George Weigel spoke in the same vein: “He was not interested at all, and in fact was embarrassed by, some of the rituals that traditionally were extended to the pope; for instance, the kissing of his ring.” But even Pope John Paul I reportedly consented to be carried in the sedia as a gesture of humility, once it was pointed out to him that his own embarrassment over the tradition was no reason to deny the dignity of his supreme office, which was no merit of his.  And even a child understands that to kiss the papal ring is not to honor the man who wears it, but rather the office conferred by Christ Himself, who allowed His own feet to be kissed and anointed by a weeping sinner.

EWTN’s implicit denigration of the preconciliar Popes (a basic element of neo-Catholic thinking) continued on Marcus Grodi’s show The Journey Home, where Grodi opined that John Paul II had made Protestants “feel welcome” in the Church, whereas before his reign “there was not that welcome.” One wonders why Grodi failed to mention something of which he is surely aware: the millions of defections from the Church into Protestant sects since 1978. A few moments of statistical research would reveal that in 2002, 24 years into the pontificate of John Paul II, there were only 80,000 adult baptisms in the United States as compared with 126,000 in 1965, when Protestants supposedly felt less welcome in the Church. Is Grodi really unaware of these irrefutable and widely published statistics of drastic Church decline since Vatican II?

This ready denigration of the preconciliar Church by EWTN celebrities suggests that the world’s praise of the last pontificate has only come at the expense of what Saint Pius X called “the Catholic name.” Indeed, as Kofi Annan’s eulogy suggests, the world very much appreciates that during John Paul II’s pontificate the Church was, for the first in her history, subjected to public “critical self-evaluation” by a Pope. Annan was referring to the nearly 100 apologies the Pope had issued for the alleged offenses of deceased Catholics, handily collected and published to the world in When a Pope Asks Forgiveness by Luigi Accattoli. In his own retrospective in The New York Times the day after the pope’s death, Robert D. McFadden described this feature of John Paul II’s papacy in just the way the world perceives it: “a daring, unprecedented apology for the errors of his church and individual Catholics over the past 2,000 years, a catalog of sins that included episodes of religious and cultural intolerance and of historic injustices against Jews, women, indigenous peoples, immigrants and the poor.”  As the Chief Rabbi of Wales, Dr. Jonathan Sacks, put it: “Pope John Paul II was a global leader for a global age. Few Jews will forget his visit to the synagogue in Rome or his deeply moving pilgrimage to the Western Wall in Jerusalem. That one act of atonement for the suffering caused to Jews by the Church was one of the great healing moments of our time.”

Even more telling than this praise of John Paul II by the Church’s critics is the eulogy by none other than Abe Foxman, head of the B’Nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League. This is the same Christophobic bigot who led the effort to destroy Mel Gibson and scuttle The Passion of the Christ. It is hard to think of a more vicious enemy of the Catholic Church today, yet here is what Foxman said of John Paul II:

Pope John Paul II's moral inspiration and leadership was a shining light to the world. Throughout his lifetime the Pontiff defended the Jewish people… John Paul II worked tirelessly to repair the Church's painful 2,000-year history with the Jewish people.

Pope John Paul II revolutionized Catholic-Jewish relations. He denounced anti-Semitism as a “sin against God and humanity.” He was the first Pope in history to visit the central synagogue in Rome, where he recognized Jews as elder brothers, announcing to the Chief Rabbi of Rome and Jews around the world: “I am Joseph, your brother.” He normalized relations with the Jewish people and the Jewish State of Israel, and then made his historic pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he visited Yad Vashem and prayed at the Western Wall.

In his exceptional teachings, writings and pronouncements, John Paul II has denounced the evils that led to the Holocaust and questioned whether the Church's attitudes provided an environment for the deadly anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s and 1940s.

Most importantly, the Pope rejected the destructive concept of supersessionism and has recognized the special relationship between Christianity and the Jewish people, while sharing his understanding of Judaism as a living heritage, of the permanent validity of God's covenant with the Jewish people…

In the eyes of the world, then, John Paul II is more worthy of admiration than any Pope before him because he, unlike any of his predecessors, was willing to lend credence to many of the world’s accusations against the Church, especially the accusations of the Jews. To appreciate this, one need only compare the world’s opinion of Pius XII with its opinion of John Paul II.  Yet, it was John Paul II himself who reportedly viewed Pius XII as “a great Pope” whom he hoped to beatify, despite the libelous accusation that Pius had been complicit by silence in the Holocaust.  Here, as in so many other areas, we see the contradictory nature of the pontificate that has just ended. And it is precisely these contradictions the world now exploits in its great show of adulation for one Pope above all others. What Catholic would want to assist in the exploitation by failing to protest, as a Catholic should, that no Pope is utterly inerrant, and that not everything John Paul II said and did was in the best interest of the Church or a model for other popes to follow?

For 26 years the neo-Catholic establishment chanted: “John Paul II, we love you!” But did they love the Pope as a Pope should be loved, in charity and in truth, being willing, as St. Thomas teaches, to admonish even the Pope should the danger of scandal to the Faith arise?  Or did they love instead the cult they themselves had built up around the man in sports stadiums and at the World Youth Days?

As he viewed the Pope lying in state in St. Peter’s Basilica during EWTN’s coverage, Marcus Grodi said that people must develop an appreciation not only for the Catholic faith, “but for the meaning of John Paul II.”  When the person of a Pope is raised to the level of a “meaning” that is held to be something over and above the Faith itself, we are witnessing a process of papal deification that is foreign to our religion and must arouse in us no little fear of what is to come in the days ahead.

Robert Moynihan of Inside the Vatican has reported a strong rumor (perhaps a trial balloon) that the soon-to-be assembled conclave intends, without the least authority, to “acclaim” that John Paul II is a saint. Why the unseemly haste to do such a thing, when there is no authority to do it in the first place? Why would neo-modernists like Cardinal Kasper and Walter Lehmann do such a thing?

We who call ourselves traditionalists can only object to this whole eerie spectacle, the likes of which the Church has never seen before. Whoever wishes to love the Pope as he ought to be loved must be willing to say now, in charity and in truth, that John Paul II was a ruler whose words often said one thing while his actions said another, and that the contradictions which marked his reign have produced enormous confusion in the Church that must be undone by his successor. Even the liberals can see this. Giovanni Ferro, editor of Jesus magazine, told CNN that John Paul II “was what you might call a revolutionary conservative. In some areas, such as the preparedness to enter into dialogue with other religions, he was very forward-minded. In other areas, however, he was an extremely reactionary, traditionalist pope. He maintained all sorts of opposing currents in the church, with the result that his successor will probably be faced with a great crisis of direction.”

A great crisis of direction caused by opposing currents is precisely what Pope John Paul II’s successor will have to resolve.  We see the opposing currents at work even in the funeral liturgies for the Pope, where the Vatican appears suddenly to have rediscovered the ecclesiastical necessity of Latin and chant, while the rest of the Church suffers the degradation of funerals and other vernacular liturgies whose utter lack of dignity offends even Protestants. Every word of the liturgical text for the procession of the Pope’s body into St. Peter’s was intoned in Latin, every vestment was of the most dignified traditional design, and there was not a woman, lay reader or guitar in sight. Even the choir was composed entirely of men. It was as if the “liturgical renewal” of the past 35 years had never happened, as if the Vatican were finally admitting that the new liturgy is simply not suitable for serious worship. All of this magnificent solemnity in prayers for the deceased Pope, and rightly so, but no such solemnity on the very altars where the divine sacrifice of Our Lord Himself is presented anew amidst the banalities and even the profanations of the Novus Ordo.  How can those who say they love John Paul II not insist in his name that the dignity rightly accorded to the body of a Pope also be accorded to the Body of Our Lord?

As we pray for the miraculous emergence of another Saint Pius X from the conclave, we must pray as well for our departed Pope. But we should also watch and learn from the world’s startling elevation of John Paul II above all his predecessors. The rock star Bono said this in tribute to the Pope: “he was the best front man the Roman Catholic Church has ever had… I was so taken by this showman, even if I didn't agree with everything he said…” The world, too, says it loves John Paul II. But what, really, does the world love, and does it come from God? Or, as the Pope himself warned us concerning the implementation of the Council, does it come from “the prince of this world”? In answering that question one cannot fail to think of Our Lord’s own warning to His Church: “If the world hate you, know ye that it hath hated Me before you. If you had been of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.”

We need to be most wary of what the voices of the world are now praising, and what they might well be praising during the next pontificate.

Eternal rest grant unto Pope John Paul II, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. 
May his soul and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.  Amen.

[1] Vatican Information Service, July 17, 2003.

[2] “Religious Unbelief in the World: Cardinal Poupard Draws a Sobering Sketch of Rising Secularism”; interview with Zenit.org, July 14, 2004.