In today’s paper, there is an article by me, written to mark the canonisation of Pope John Paul this Sunday, and I would like to take this opportunity of saying a little more to explain why I wrote in it that 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.
It isn’t as though this was a new phenomenon, unknown before his time: it was, after all, perhaps the main reason why Anglicans in particular, certainly from the time of the Oxford movement on, had coverted to Catholicism. But that reason had virtually disappeared during the pontificate of Pope Paul VI. Not, I am certain, by Pope Paul’s own fault: but certainly because of much that had happened at that period to the Catholic Church, particularly through the huge influence of what people like Hans Kung called the “alternative magisterium”, one symptom of which was an indifferentist ecumenism which has now more or less disappeared (and of which Kung is still one of the few remaining fanatical supporters).
If you doubt me when I say that Pope John Paul made it possible for many to become Catholics, who had held back despite their own perception of the deep attractions of the Catholic tradition, consider the case of Malcolm Muggeridge. In Something Beautiful for God, he gives an explanation of why he resisted becoming a Catholic, despite even the urging of Mother Teresa that he should. 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”, he continues, “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”, he continued, “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. Of what happened then I have written in my piece in today’s paper: and as a result of it all, and within a very few years, Muggeridge became a Catholic at last. So did many others, including, as I have said, myself.
That is why I was elated at the original announcements, first of his beatification and then of the canonisation which will take place on Sunday: because of his re-establishment of the simple fact of the Church’s mandate to declare the objective truth of Catholic doctrine, I had been enabled at last to come home, to make my escape finally from a Church which requires of its clergy (I remember it vividly from my own ordination) 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 called 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 John Paul’s beatification.
We have short memories; we take our recent history too easily for granted. Few people, it seems – at least among those—and they still exist—who imply that the problems we still face as a Church were actually Pope John Paul’s fault, remember the forlorn 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.
Some traditionalists look back and say that that was because Pope Paul was himself a liberal Pope; but that is simply nonsense: this was after all the Pope of Humanae Vitae, the Pope who both promulgated it and then tenaciously defended it. We remember Pope John Paul’s great courage; but Pope Paul, too, was immensely courageous. It was, however, simply beyond his strength to drive “the smoke of Satan” from the sanctuary: That immense task was the greatest achievement (among many) of Pope John Paul II — the pontiff I shall with huge personal gratitude be able think of, after Sunday’s canonisation, as “Saint John Paul the Great”.
The Catholic Herald comment guidelines
•Do not make personal attacks on writers or fellow commenters – respond only to their arguments.