We have short memories; we take our recent history too easily for granted. Few people, it seems – at least among those who imply that the problems we still face as a Church were actually Pope John Paul’s fault – remember the state of the Catholic Church at the end of the reign of the unhappy Pope Paul VI, during which forces of disintegration were unleashed within the Church which brought it to the edge of losing all credibility as a defender of basic Christian orthodoxy.
This work of darkness was brought about, not by the Council itself, but by some of those, certainly, who had attended it. It was certainly not the work, as some still confidently claim, of a liberal pope: for if Pope Paul was such a convinced liberal, what about Humanae Vitae? What happened during his pontificate was clearly far from his intention. At a homily he preached in 1972, he is reported as saying, now famously, that he had “believed that after the Council would come a day of sunshine in the history of the Church. But instead there has come a day of clouds and storms, and of darkness … And how did this come about? We will confide to you the thought that … there has been a power, an adversary power. Let us call him by his name: the devil. It is as if from some mysterious crack… the smoke of Satan has entered the temple of God.”
He was speaking particularly about the liturgy: but just as disastrous was the unchallenged rise during his pontificate of the so-called “alternative magisterium” of Küng, Schillebeeckx and the rest of their malign brood. It was a time of great destruction; and to destroy is always easier than to rebuild. Recovering from the aftermath of the Council will take 100 years. But Pope John Paul began the fightback: he set the barque of Peter, and the Church with it, firmly back on course.
His greatest achievement, as I have already written in this column, was that he did more than any pope of the last century to defend and reassert beyond any doubt the stable and objective character of Catholic teaching. He saw off the alternative magisterium, not by suppressing individuals (though Küng, for instance, had his licence to teach Catholic doctrine removed) but by clear and unequivocal teaching: and as I wrote when the beatification was announced, as a result he made it possible for hundreds of thousands of non-Catholics like myself, tired of the uncertainties of secularised versions of Christianity, to come into full communion with the Holy See.
If you doubt me when I say that he made it possible for many to become Catholics, despite their own perception of the deep attractions of the Catholic tradition, consider the case of Malcolm Muggeridge. In Something Beautiful for God, an explanation of why he resisted becoming a Catholic, despite even the urging of Mother Teresa, he pointed to the circumstance
“…that the Church, for inscrutable reasons of its own, has decided to have a reformation just when the previous one – Luther’s – is finally running into the sand.
“I make no judgment about something which, as a non-member, is no concern of mine; but if I were a member, then I should be forced to say that, in my opinion, if men were to be stationed at the doors of churches with whips to drive worshippers away, or inside the religious orders specifically to discourage vocations, or among the clergy to spread alarm and despondency, they could not hope to be as effective in achieving these ends as are trends and policies seemingly now dominant within the Church.
“Feeling so, it would be preposterous to seek admission, more particularly as, if the ecumenical course is fully run, luminaries of the Church to which I nominally belong, like the former Bishop of Woolwich, for whom – putting it mildly – I have little regard, will in due course take their place in the Roman Catholic hierarchy among the heirs of St Peter.”
But then, Karol Wojtyla became pope. The old indiscriminate ecumenism was allowed quietly to run into the sands; the mists of uncertainty were blown away, and the Magisterium was revealed, still standing, firm on the rock of Peter; and within a very few years, Muggeridge became a Catholic at last. So did many others, including myself.
That is why I was elated at the news of his beatification: because of his re-establishment of the simple fact of the Church’s authority to declare the objective truth of Catholic doctrine (Veritatis Splendor, The Catechism of the Catholic Church and on and on), I had been enabled at last to come home, to escape finally from a Church in which there was absolutely no means of coming to a mind about anything, a Church which actually requires of its clergy no more than a formal acceptance of the creeds – not as declarations of beliefs held to be actually true, but as what the C of E sanctimoniously calls part of a “heritage of faith”. That is why I was at first so depressed by the hostility in some quarters, even within the Church, to the announcement of Sunday’s beatification. I had thought, in Pope John Paul’s final years, that we had moved beyond all that.
Simply remember. It wasn’t just that he recalled the Church to itself: he showed the power of the faith by his astonishing geopolitical achievement in finally giving the answer to Stalin’s contemptuous question “how many divisions has the pope?” This is how George Weigel summed up this part of his achievement:
In 1978, no one expected that the defining figure of the last quarter of the 20th century would be a Polish priest and bishop. Christianity was finished as a world-shaping force, according to the opinion-leaders of the time; it might endure as a vehicle of personal piety, but Christian conviction would play no role in shaping the 21st-century world. Yet within six months of his election, John Paul II had demonstrated the dramatic capacity of Christian conviction to create a revolution of conscience that, in turn, created a new and powerful form of politics – the politics that eventually led to the revolutions of 1989 and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe.
We know that he made mistakes: all popes do. But on any reasonable assessment, both in the Church and in the world his achievements were immensely more significant than his errors. His was a flawed greatness, perhaps; but it was greatness, nevertheless.
As I wrote when Sunday’s big event was first announced, however, Pope John Paul is being beatified not because of his greatness but because of his heroic sanctity. The five-year waiting period to begin the Cause was waived on account of what the Congregation for the Causes of Saints described as the “imposing fame for holiness” enjoyed by John Paul II during his lifetime. And on Sunday, that holiness (undisputed by any who really knew him, and affirmed most clearly by the present Holy Father, who knew him better than most) will be all that we need to remember.