Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Commentary on Maureen Dowd's "A Saint, He Ain't"

The New York Times published on April 22, 2014 an opinion article by Maureen Dowd on St. John Paul II's recent canonization, titled "A Saint, He Ain't" (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/23/opinion/dowd-a-saint-he-aint.html). I discovered this article through a link on The Remnant website, a self-identified traditionalist, Catholic publication. Just a few comments on Dowd's article as well as its place on The Remnant website.

Dowd, while acknowledging that John Paul II did many good things during his pontificate, draws attention to the fact that the late pope did apparently very little to nothing to stop the burgeoning sex abuse crisis within the Church. She draws attention specifically to the very unfortunate re-assigment of Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, and his the defense of Fr. Maciel of the Legionaries of Christ. Concluding the article, Dowd writes powerfully,
The church is giving its biggest prize to the person who could have fixed the spreading stain and did nothing. The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn’t stop here. There is something wounding and ugly about the church signaling that those thousands of betrayed, damaged victims are now taken for granted as a slowly fading asterisk. 
John Paul may be a revolutionary figure in the history of the church, but a man who looked away in a moral crisis cannot be described as a saint. 
When the church elevates him, it is winking at the hell it caused for so many children and young people in its care. 
A big holy wink.
I can't comment on the facticity of Dowd's claims because I'm ignorant about them, and I'm not here to comment on those. My comments are reserved for these concluding paragraphs that I have copied above because despite all the attention Dowd brings to John Paul II's apparent failings, her conclusions and understanding of sainthood are problematic and, even on a prima facie reading, inaccurate.

She claims that the saint "status" is something "given" by the Church to a person, but this understanding is incorrect. The implication of this understanding, however, is that the Church therefore "makes" a person a saint. But that is not what is meant by the canonization process. By declaring a person a saint, the Church simply recognizes what is already the case, namely, that a person is in heaven, which is all that is meant by "saint" in itself.

Now, being a saint, veneration follows. Dowd's criticism, then, would (or perhaps should) rather be that we should not venerate a man who has committed so many atrocities, specifically because he "looked away in a moral crisis" that caused hell "for so many children and young people in [the Church's] care."

But again, there is a misunderstanding of what it means to be a saint—it simply means a person is in heaven, and that possibility is open to anyone who has the least degree of sanctifying grace in his or her soul. Even Hitler could be in heaven for all we know. It doesn't mean that Hitler led a life that obviously should be venerated (although some do so regardless).

Now, the difficulty is that when a Church specifically declares a person a saint, she further declares the person worthy of veneration. Again, this is Dowd's specific problem (although she worded it in the problematic way that I have pointed out above). Her complaint actually gets to the heart of what many traditionalists have had with the late JPII, namely, how many people swiftly began to attach the title "the Great" to JPII's name—John Paul the Great. This title has been given only to two other popes in history—Pope Leo I and Pope Gregory I (makes one think that if anyone should have gotten the "Great" title, it should have been John Paul I just to keep the "I" theme going). The title has been given as an indication of the excellence of these popes as popes. Therefore, giving John Paul II the title implies that he was a great pope. This is the heart of Dowd's criticism (although she may not have articulated it in this way and in fact didn't). She is confusing two distinct issues—being a saint (which is being in heaven) and being a great pope worthy of veneration as a pope.

There is a second difficulty with Dowd's criticism, which is that we venerate saints because they are models of different aspects of the moral and spiritual life, such as attention to those who are poor, hungry, homeless, imprisoned, sick, or those who are mystics, theologians, leaders, or those who are single, married, or priests, etc. To canonize two popes at the same time in the timespan given implies that these two popes were excellent and worthy of veneration as popes. The issue isn't (or shouldn't be) whether these two saints (or any saints for that matter) did in fact or apparently commit atrocities during their lives.* If we look closely enough, we will quickly see that we're all guilty of atrocities on different scales. Yes, everyone is a sinner. But were these popes excellent as popes? Did they lead the Church as "servants of the servants of God"?

Dowd's issue is that the Church's move to draw John Paul II into the public for veneration specifically as a pope implies that the victims of the sexual abuse scandal are "as a slowly fading asterisk." And perhaps she's right about that. Nevertheless, she goes too far in the next paragraph by saying that such a man "cannot be described as a saint." That's confusing the issue.


The second thing that I want to draw attention to is that I found this article through The Remnant website. I find it strange that a self-identified traditionalist, Catholic news publication would link to such an egregiously erroneous and even irreverent article—cf. Dowd's "The buck, or in this case, the Communion wafer, doesn’t stop here" comment (we're talking about the infinitely holy Eucharist here! It's not a swap-out for a slang metaphor!). It's one thing to agree with people that a certain pope (in this case John Paul II) shouldn't have been canonized so quickly or even at all, much less given the title (not by the Church but unofficially by many people) "the Great." It's another thing to ally one's self with those who most likely do not look at the Faith in any way other than its political implications and end up naturalizing it through a culturally-imbibed modernism. It indicates, in other words, that The Remnant is at least unconsciously willing to do anything to make a point, even if it means siding with people, movements, and groups that are inspired (and perhaps run) by Satan himself, such as the New York Times and its op-ed articles. And that's pretty scary.


* A third aside, I would also note that being declared a saint by the Church doesn't mean that a specific saint never taught or held anything heretical. St. Thomas Aquinas very famously argued against the Immaculate Conception. Despite this error, the Church canonized St. Thomas and called for his veneration as a theologian because despite some major failings in his conclusions, his work in theology for the far greater part is worthy of study and imitation. Being declared a saint doesn't mean that the saint in question is free from errors or was "impeccable."

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