Thursday, April 07, 2005

History: let's make it up!

Of late the old, tired canards about how it's too bad JPII wasn't more like John XXIII and how he reversed or suppressed parts of the Council have been flying. Saturday, for instance, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune said the following in its editorial on the passing of the holy father:But a man raised under the tyranny of Nazi and Soviet invaders did not liberalize the church. Indeed, he insisted on bishops who were theological clones of himself. Orthodoxy was compelled, and the generous spirit of John XXIII snuffed out.I replied with a letter to the editor, which was published as follows on Tuesday:
    Contrary to the opinion of the April 2 editorial on Pope John Paul II, he was certainly just as generous as Pope John XXIII. Those with their own agendas have developed views of both popes which simply do not accord with reality, and this is certainly exemplified in this instance.

    Like his later successor, John believed strongly in the traditional teachings of the church; I challenge anyone to offer an example of him disagreeing with the views John Paul would hold on any of the contentious moral issues of our day.

Then, I come across some of Andrew Sullivan's thoughts on JPII. In one post, he writes,
    I'm surprised that hard data on the damage the late Pope did to the Catholic church has not been readily available in the mainstream media. But here are some interesting statistics. Since 1975, the number of priestly ordinations in the U.S. declined from 771 a year to 533 last year. (In 2000, the number hit a low of 442.) When you adjust for population growth, in 1975, 771 newly ordained priests faced a Catholic population of 49 million; today, 533 emerge for a total of 64 million Catholics. Essentially, per Catholic, we saw a 50 percent drop in vocations under this Pope. No wonder that in 1975, 702 parishes had no priest; and today, over 3,000 are without a pastor. That's quite an indictment. Globally, the picture is a little brighter, but still not encouraging. The number of parishes without priests went from 23 percent of all parishes in 1975 to 25 percent in 2000. In the U.S., weekly church attendance has slowly but innexorably declined to well below 50 percent of all Catholics. The decline in religious orders has been particularly steep: down by over 30 percent. And all this understates the crisis facing the American church, because almost half the current priesthood is over 60 - and their replacements are in shorter and shorter supply. This is the legacy of John Paul II: a church that may soon have no-one to run it. John Paul the Great? Puhlease.
So the vocations shortage and the decline in mass attendance is the pope's fault, simply because it happened while he was pope? Come on. As I tire of telling those who blame the late 60's mass exodus from the priesthood on Vatican II, correlation and causation are not the same thing. (I wonder how Sullivan would avoid making that conclusion, considering his love for his erroneous image of the Council.) If Andrew were serious about making his point, he'd offer data indicating that the decline in vocations and mass attendance was due to JPII and his ideas. But he doesn't, and he can't, because there is no such data.

We get more of the same in this The New Republic article by Sullivan (free registration required).

    Wojtyla leveraged this new stardom to reassert a far older idea of the papacy--as the central, unaccountable force in the Church. The Second Vatican Council had opened authority up, placing the hierarchy on a more equal footing with the lay faithful in understanding the tenets of faith. It had also led to all sorts of chaotic improvisation and confusion. Wojtyla shut this process down--the good alongside the bad. He didn't reverse the Council (it was beyond his will or power). But he ignored and suppressed it in critical areas. National churches were given little leeway. Dissent within the Church was forbidden. The Pope silenced even debate of issues that were not of fundamental doctrinal importance, such as the prudential, managerial questions of whether priests could marry or whether women could become priests. These, he asserted, were eternal arrangements that were beyond discussion, even if maintaining them had led to a crisis in the Church's very existence in some countries.
Where to begin? First, the papacy is the highest authority in the Church, as it always has been. Is the pope accountable? Absolutely: to the Church's Founder, Jesus Christ. But that's not what Sullivan means, of course. And we see that in his reference to how Vatican II placed "the hierarchy on a more equal footing with the lay faithful in understanding the tenets of faith." Umm.... citation, Andrew? Which of the Council's sixteen documents indicate this, Mr. Sullivan? Once more, we have unproven, undocumented, vague references to the Council, which those who have actually studied the Council and its texts know do not exist. And of course, we get reference to JPII's ignoring and suppressing of the Council. Come on. Anyone who knows anything about Karol Wojtyla knows that he was a thorough supporter of the Council, knows that he initiated a series of diocesan synods in Krakow to implement the Council, and knows that he wrote a book (Sources of Renewal) explaining the Council for those who were studying the documents. But Sullivan seeks to document this alleged suppression:

1. National churches were given little leeway.

Interesting... as this piece and his blog entries indicate, Sullivan's (professed) major beef with JPII is the clergy sex abuse scandals; he complains that the Pope failed to intervene in the Church in the U.S. Hmm... so is it too little leeway, or too much, Andrew?

2. Dissent in the Church was forbidden.

Yes -- horror of horrors -- JPII required that members of the Catholic Church accept the teachings of the Catholic Church. Unbelieveable, isn't it?

3. The Pope silenced even debate of issues that were not of fundamental doctrinal importance, such as the prudential, managerial questions of whether priests could marry or whether women could become priests.

First, debate on the issue of clerical celibacy has not been quashed... plenty of people discuss it, without threat of retribution. Second, Mr. Sullivan should know that celibacy and priestesses are apples and oranges: the former is a practice (and a venerable one which serves an excellent purpose), while the latter is a doctrine. Now, the Church has long taught that it cannot ordain women, but the persistence of some has shaken the faith of many Catholics. So it was only right that JPII in his role has chief shepherd and pastor bring an end to a discussion which was metaphysically-certain to be fruitless.

Then we get this:

    This man so hostile to intellectual debate was, paradoxically, an intellectual, although an idiosyncratic one. His faith was a strange mixture of esoteric phenomenological reflections and medieval attachments to various saints, miracles, and practices.
Can someone explain the meaning of "esoteric phenomenological reflections" to me? I have no idea what that means. I know what phenomenology is, and I know how JPII employed it, but did his faith consist of "esoteric phenomenological reflections"? Unless Sullivan has redefined these terms, the answer is "no".

Later, we read,

    On matters of human sexuality and the "culture of life," he moved Catholic teaching away from prudential balance to eternal absolutes--that life is equally sacred, whether it is a nanosecond after conception or decades into a persistent vegetative state. The distinctions made by Catholics in the past--between, say, a naturally aborted embryo and a third-trimester baby, or between "ordinary" and "extraordinary" means for maintaining life--were downplayed.
First off, JPII's teaching on sexuality and life issues is nothing but an elaboration of previous magisterial teaching; there has been no less prudential balance with him. And what exactly is wrong with actually believing in the dignity of every human life, regardless of age or condition? Although he doesn't intend it, the implication of Mr. Sullivan's criticism is that some human beings don't have dignity, and that's a very, very dangerous road to go down.

Second, the Church has never said that a miscarried embryonic human and a third-trimester embryonic human are essentially different; Andrew's reference is to a phantom.

Finally, JPII continued to affirm the distinction between ordinary and extraordinary means of life-support; Mr. Sullivan simply does not understand that food and water are not life-support.

There are certainly grounds for criticizing JPII on certain matters, but those matters do not pertain to phantoms from the past, conceived in the fertile imaginations of those who somehow cannot accept that the teachings of John Paul II are not his private misguided opinions but are the teachings of the Church founded by Jesus Christ: One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

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