Canonization politics: The diverse legacies of John Paul II and John XXIII

I am seriously distressed at the choice not to mention the speed with which John Paul II was canonized as if to seal a reactionary agenda which, in essence, defines what the Catholic Church has been standing for in the past couple of decades and has stood for more than a thousand years since the message of its founder, a carpenter’s son, from a remote village corner, crossed the arid West Asian landscapes and became a religion of the Roman empire.

John Paul II represents the socially and politically conservative face of the Catholic Church. The process leading to the making of a saint is a long and tedious one that spans decades and sometimes centuries as in the case of Joan of Arc who was canonized in 1920, a little less than five hundred years after her martyrdom at the stake. The way John Paul II was canonized in just a matter of eight years undermines the seriousness of the process itself.

I personally don’t think there was anything saintly about John Paul II. He was an ordinary man in a high position who apologized a lot for the historical crimes of the Catholic Church but did nothing as far as making the church inclusive and taking an interest in the masses was concerned. The NY Times article says: “John Paul II is a hero to many conservative Catholics—not only for his anti-Communist heroism and personal charisma, but also because of his resistance to liberalizing elements of the church.” There is nothing particularly heroic or saintly in being anti-communist or in preventing the church from entering secular realms.

In putting John XXIII and John Paul II in the same canonization bracket, the Vatican cleverly manipulated the process of sainthood as if to say that both the men were alike in the legacies they left behind except that they occupied different historical time-frames. Somehow the church wants us to believe that there is continuity in the legacy of inclusion from John XXIII to John Paul II. Pope John XXIII lived through one of the most turbulent periods in European history and he responded to his times by looking at it through the eyes of the common masses. His ultimate goal was one of inclusion in the broadest sense possible.

Speaking of the Catholic Left, Chomsky noted:

It began to take on a much broader significance in the 1960s as a result of Vatican II and Pope John XXIII, and the moves of the Latin American bishops to adopt what they called the preferential option for the poor, and that brought together many strands: the worker priests in France, the activists in the Latin American church, groups like Catholic Worker and so on. But in Latin America it was a major movement, called Liberation Theology, which effectively was committing a heresy—serious heresy. It was trying to get people to take the gospels seriously, and that is real heresy. The gospels are a radical pacifist text essentially, and in fact that’s why Christians were persecuted so badly in the first few centuries of Christianity. Up until the emperor Constantine took it over, and turned it into the religion of the powerful and the rich. So the cross, which was the symbol of suffering and the poor, was placed on the shields of the Roman Empire. And from then on, essentially, the church has been the church of the rich and the powerful. And the gospels as a heretical document. I mean you can mouth the words, but you’re not supposed to think about it. (September 2008)

The American establishment declared a war on the legacy of John XXIII in the third world especially in the predominantly Catholic Latin America.

Chomsky notes:

During the decade of the “war on terror” declared by the Reagan administration, the horror was similar throughout Central America. The reign of torture, murder and destruction in the region left hundreds of thousands dead.

The contrast between the liberation of Soviet satellites and the crushing of hope in U.S. client states is striking and instructive—even more so when we broaden the perspective.

The assassination of the Jesuit intellectuals brought a virtual end to “liberation theology,” the revival of Christianity that had its modern roots in the initiatives of Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, which he opened in 1962.

Vatican II “ushered in a new era in the history of the Catholic Church,” theologian Hans Kung wrote. Latin American bishops adopted “the preferential option for the poor.”

Thus the bishops renewed the radical pacifism of the Gospels that had been put to rest when the Emperor Constantine established Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire—”a revolution” that in less than a century converted “the persecuted church” to a “persecuting church,” according to Kung.

In the post-Vatican II revival, Latin American priests, nuns and laypersons took the message of the Gospels to the poor and the persecuted, brought them together in communities, and encouraged them to take their fate into their own hands.

Reaction to this heresy was violent repression. In the course of the terror and slaughter, the practitioners of liberation theology were a prime target.

Among them are the six martyrs of the church whose execution 20 years ago is now commemorated with a resounding silence, barely broken. (December 2009)

The agenda of Western capitalism, which is also the global corporate agenda, is a cruel and divisive one. It divides people and keeps them fighting for things that they don’t need to own, turning men into worse than wolves or street dogs. The sinister agenda defines what evil is all about because it plays on a sense of insecurity rooted primarily in animal instinct. It is an agenda which makes the poor less than human because their lives are condemned to being bodies without souls and deprives the rich and the powerful of a conscience.

Overt materialism is consumerism just as spiritualism isolated from the material self is hot air. If everything is reduced to politics and possessions people would be busy slaughtering one another. We need to limit the role of objects and increase the space for human beings. That is not possible where a large number of people suffer the loss of dignity because they suffer the loss of freedom in having to sell their bodies for wages. Having denied the opportunity of a creative life we leave a spiritual vacuum that like a gaping wound stares in the face of the onlooker. Violence is the only option that the terribly poor are left with in the process. By spiritual life I simply mean a life not obsessed with things or with seeing people as things. Only such a life can create the space for inclusion.

Pasolini’s movie The Gospel According to Saint Matthew (1964) made in response to the inclusionary call of John XXIII is about the Jesus who walks with the downtrodden classes, not the Jesus of the faithless bourgeoisie who need miracles in order to believe, but a Jesus who knows the poor as the poor know themselves, the Jesus who defies to the end the priestly classes and the Roman imperialists, a radical Jesus that Saint Francis and William Blake had made the central being to their existence. The Jesus of Pasolini wants to change the world making it fall a little more in love with the weak and the outcasts and so does that of John XXIII. Thus the latter reminds us of what is at stake when he brings together God and society:

Free from mundane cares, he [man] should lift up his mind to the things of heaven, and look into the depths of his conscience, to see how he stands with God in respect of those necessary and inviolable relationships which must exist between the creature and his Creator.

In addition, man has a right to rest a while from work, and indeed a need to do so if he is to renew his bodily strength and to refresh his spirit by suitable recreation. He has also to think of his family, the unity of which depends so much on frequent contact and the peaceful living together of all its members.

Heavy in heart, We cannot but deplore the growing tendency in certain quarters to disregard this sacred law, if not to reject it outright. This attitude must inevitably impair the bodily and spiritual health of the workers, whose welfare We have so much at heart.

In the name of God, therefore, and for the sake of the material and spiritual interests of men, We call upon all, public authorities, employers and workers, to observe the precepts of God and His Church and to remember their grave responsibilities before God and society.

There is simply no comparison in the remotest sense between the two popes. It is the American agenda that is being echoed in this decision to equate the legacies of the two popes who stood in polar opposition to one another except that both of them were part of the same institution. The decision to canonize John Paul II reflects the inability of the Vatican to stand up to the US and the EU and the attempts of global capitalism to repress protests in the third world especially in Latin America only to end the legacy of John XXIII and replace it with that of John Paul II.

John Paul II was a politician with no sense of a larger destiny to the church. The sainthood therefore is undoubtedly a posthumous reward for the role he played in the dismantling of communism back in the 80s and for taking the church away from social and political issues. He was against liberation theology and kept separate the church’s role from being too involved in the day to day lives of common people. That is the church we see today: indifferent to what is happening in the world. It’s not a church with a future. Already plagued with allegations of child abuse, it’s a church seriously in decline.

At the point of his death the humble Pope John XXIII who gave his thanks to God for taking birth in a “Christian family, modest and poor,” summarized his life’s goal which is also the goal of the Vatican II in the following lines:

The secret of my ministry is that crucifix you see opposite my bed. It’s there so that I can see it in my first waking moments and before going to sleep. It’s there, also, so that I can talk to it during the long evening hours. Look at it, see it as I see it. Those open arms have been the program of my pontificate: they say that Christ died for all, for all. No one is excluded from his love, from his forgiveness. . . .

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is currently Associate Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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