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John Paul the Great?

by Christopher A. Ferrara

In the final days of the pontificate of John Paul II there is no shortage of lay commentators who wish to proclaim him John Paul the Great. For example, there were repeated references to "John Paul the Great" during EWTN’s coverage of World Youth Day. Yet when it comes to explaining the reasons for this accolade, one always hears of praise for such things as the Pope’s prominence on the world scene, his advocacy of peace, justice and brotherhood among the members of all cultures and religions, and his putative role in the "fall of communism," which of course has given way to the rise of amoral consumerism and even more abortions than before. What one never hears in this regard is precisely what it is that John Paul II has done for the cause of the one true Church, whose earthly head he is.

Now, if lay Catholics are going to express the opinion that John Paul can be called "the Great", then other lay Catholics surely have the right to demur. For what is the measure of the greatness of a Pope if not the condition of the Church over which he presides, the Church of which he alone serves as universal custodian and defender by the will of God?

What is the condition of the Church after 24 years of this pontificate? Can the current condition of the Church - the ruin of the Roman liturgy, the pandemic homosexual priest scandal, the widespread rejection by nominal Catholics in the pew of any Church teaching with which they disagree - really justify the appellation "Great" in respect to John Paul II? Is it not more fitting to admit that history will record the past 24 years, and indeed the entire post-conciliar epoch, as nothing short of a debacle for Roman Catholicism?

Consider simply the state of the Church in Poland, where the Archbishop of Warsaw has just been forced (by international press coverage, not the Vatican) to "retire" because of his homosexual predation of priests and seminarians, about which the Pope did nothing despite years of complaints to the Vatican.

This is the Pope’s home country, where one would expect to find a sterling example of the state of Catholicism today. As I write this column, the Pope is in the midst of his ninth pastoral visit to Poland. BBC reports what we already suspect, now that Poland has been "liberated" due to the "fall of communism": "Polish Catholicism has clearly become more diluted under democratic government and a free market economy, and official Church statistics reveal that only 10% of Polish believers fully identify with Church teaching. However, the Pope remains immensely popular in Poland. About 80% of the population are practising Roman Catholics, while many non-Catholics also have pictures of him on their walls." (BBC report, August 17, 2002)

In short, while the Pope is a very popular figure, and even non-believers like to have pictures of him on their walls, the teaching of the Church the Pope heads is almost universally disobeyed by the Pope’s subjects in one respect or another. Polish Catholics, along with Catholics the world over, dissent from the Church’s infallible teaching that contraception and abortion (legal in certain cases in Poland) are mortal sins, and from other teachings (on homosexuality, women’s "ordination" and so forth) they find disagreeable. Poland, like every other civilized nation, is now experiencing zero population growth due to the plague of contraception.

And here the question must be asked: What has happened to the Church’s teaching that hell is the consequence for mortal sins, and that those who call themselves Catholics, but willfully reject the Church’s teaching on faith and morals, can expect to end up in hell if they do not repent? If the Pope will not tell even his own people the terrible truth about the way they are living, then who will? And if this truth has been almost completely obscured over the past forty years, if the great majority of Catholics today have embraced objective mortal sin without receiving any warning of the eternal consequences, are we doing our Pope any favors by canonizing him while he is still alive?

Perhaps those who extol John Paul the Great should follow the lead of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who, in surveying the effects of this Pope’s near-total failure to govern his Church over the past 24 years, referred to the example of Saint Catherine of Siena: "She was brave enough to tell the Pope off when he needed telling off. She did her duty. We must too." Even more courageously, Bishop Bruskewitz cited, and gave to John Paul II, a copy of the famous letter of St. Bernard of Clairvaux to the Pope of his day, warning that if the Pope were sent to hell, it would be because he had failed to remove wayward bishops.

In short, all the flatterers who claim to love the Pope should consider whether they are showing him true love by anointing him John Paul the Great - instead of praying that he will take arms against the Church’s troubles and put his own house in order rather than continuing his endless travels in pursuit of the mirage of world peace and brotherhood. Surely the greatness of a Pope lies not in his popularity among people who do not even follow the Church’s teaching, but in what the Pope has done with the priceless goods that God has entrusted to him for safekeeping.

To say this is not to be "more Catholic than the Pope," as the papal flatterers demagogically declare. It is merely to follow the example of St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Saint Catherine of Siena - and now Bishop Bruskewitz. If only more Catholics would tell the Pope what he needs to hear, instead of chanting mindlessly and endlessly "John-Paul-II-WE-LOVE-YOU!!" For when this Pope has passed from the scene and all the cheers have faded, what will be left behind?