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Saint John Paul II? Really?

Pope John Paul II. (Photo: Dennis Jarvis / Flickr)

Maureen Dowd, in her recent New York Times column (“A Saint, He Ain’t”), was, unfortunately, one of the few commentators on John Paul II’s canonization bold enough to voice a dissent.

I, for one, wholly agree with her misgivings. My only problem is that she should have expressed a few more. As heinous, she rightly notes, as was John Paul’s failure to take action with regard to the clerical sexual abuse scandal and, though she fails to mention it, his wallowing in self-pity when it was no longer possible to ignore it (“That this should fall upon me in my old age!” would have been red meat to a Devil’s Advocate fresh out of Infernal Law School if John Paul hadn’t abolished the office)—there were other significant transgressions as well.

The most serious of these had to do with Latin America and nuclear weapons. North American pundits, including Ms. Dowd, have next to nothing to say about the former and nothing at all about the latter.

To put it simply, John Paul, in his eagerness to gain America’s material support in liberating his native land (Poland got its first fax machines thanks to his good friend Ronald Reagan), had no qualms about selling Latin America down the river. He condemned Liberation Theology, acclaimed at the Latin American bishops’ conference in Puebla, Mexico, as Marxist-inspired and charged God’s Rottweiler (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s not-so-affectionate nickname) to put its proponents in their place. This, ironically enough, while he himself was ignoring Ratzinger’s warnings about two of John Paul’s favorites, the pedophile monk Hans Hermann Groer, whom he made archbishop of Vienna, and the notorious “Fr. Maciel,” the founder of the Legion of Christ and wooer of rich Mexican widows, perhaps the most versatile sexual predator in the history of the Church, which is going some.

In keeping with his lack of regard for Latin America, John Paul refused to attend the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero’s funeral, an omission, even if he hadn’t intended it to be so, that gave a green light to the murderous Salvadoran junta eager to rid themselves of pious meddlers. A few months later, they sent a death squad to carry out the rape and murder of Maryknoll nuns Sr. Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline nun Sr. Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan, women whose crime was living out the “preferential option for the poor,” the key tenet of Liberation Theology. And a year after that they dispatched one of their elite military units (whose two commanders were trained at Ft. Benning), to murder six Jesuits on the faculty of the University of Central America (UCA) together with their cook and her teenage daughter.

Throughout all this slaughter—thousands of Salvadoran campesinos and several priests had preceded the four women and the Jesuits at UCA in death–John Paul never ceased to admonish the people of El Salvador not to use the martyrdom of Romero for “political reasons,” never mind what he himself was up to in Eastern Europe.

Meanwhile the papal nuncio to United States, Archbishop Pio Laghi, who had gotten on quite well with Pinochet in Chile and the junta in Argentina in previous posts, was—obviously with John Paul’s full approval—functioning as Reagan’s go-between with the Contra terrorists in Nicaragua, whose favorite victims were doctors, nurses, literacy workers and campesino coffee harvesters.

Pio Laghi, who lost all chance of becoming pope when his playing tennis every week with Admiral Massera, the Argentine junta’s torturer-in-chief, came to light, was also a major actor in the Vatican’s persecution of the saintly Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle, who unlike the rest of the American hierarchy—with rare exceptions like Thomas Gumbleton, an auxiliary bishop of Detroit, and Leroy Matthiesen, the bishop of Amarillo, Texas—raised the Vatican’s hackles by coming out strongly against nuclear weapons, that indispensable bulwark of Western Christendom in the face of godless Communism, by daring to characterize a Trident missile submarine—the city buster nonpareil—based in his diocese as “The Auschwitz of Puget Sound.”

A decade earlier, while the American bishops were composing The Challenge of Peace, their pastoral dealing with modern war, John Paul all but gutted it at birth with a letter read before the United Nations declaring in an almost offhand manner that “for the present, at least, nuclear deterrence seems to be acceptable, not as a permanent state but as a step towards disarmament.” Just to make sure, however, John Paul, in the midst of the American bishops’ deliberations, summoned Archbishop Roach, head of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and Cardinal Bernardin, who chaired the committee charged with writing the pastoral, to Rome to make them fully aware of the grave concern of the “NATO bishops” about the Communist menace, a concern, needless to say, that he fully shared.

The final draft of the peace pastoral fully reflected these concerns, a document that waffled whenever push came to shove and gave neither the Pentagon nor the Vatican any cause for further worry. And so almost everybody—except for Jonathan Schell (now, alas, no longer with us), the board of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, and Catholic activists like Sr. Megan Rice—stopped worrying and learned to love the prospect of civilization’s end, a strange love indeed.

As it happens, John Paul II, even as I write, is being declared a Saint on the same day as the beloved John XXIII, who truly deserved canonization—a cynical, odd-couple pairing meant to mute criticism but one whose intent is so glaringly obvious that it may well intensify it. At least one can hope so.

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