God Save Us From Great Men

Pope John Paul II will be officially made a saint on Sunday, along with Pope John XXIII.  As I mentioned in my last post, I have reservations about the legacy of John Paul II.  I think he drove a stake into the Catholic intellectual Golden Age of the middle 20th Century (which, in turn, came after a 200 year or so period of intellectual stasis and fossilization) when he and Benedict XVI nee Josef Ratzinger cracked down on "dissident" Catholic thinkers like Hans Kung and the Liberation Theology crowd.  I think he failed to understand (or really try to understand) many of his flock in the West were coming from, and so set the institutional Church against its own members, such as women and gays and lesbians.  He also failed totally to properly address the priest sex abuse crisis, leaving a horrible mess for Benedict (and Francis, and probably Francis's successor) to attempt to clean up.

As I think about these problems, I think there is a more fundamental problem with John Paul and his pontificate.  And it is a problem that I think he shares with the current President of the United States, Barack Obama.  I've thought about this before in the context of Obama, and have even named it the Obama Problem.  But it applies to John Paul as well, and maybe is even more true in John Paul's case.

What is the Obama/John Paul Problem?  Think for the moment about the life of Karol Wojtyla prior to October 16, 1978--the day he was elected Pope.  He is a person born in a nondescript town in Poland, who loses his parents by the time he is in his twenties.  Nevertheless, he is able to go to the most prestigious university in Poland, before his studies are interrupted by the catastrophe of the Nazi invasion and occupation of Poland.  He manages to study for the priesthood in secret, risking death.  After the war, and despite the communist take-over, he manages to become a priest and begin a meteoric rise in the Church.  He would become a bishop at 38, Archbishop of Krakow at 43, and a Cardinal at 47, all insanely young ages for the various offices.  As Archbishop and Cardinal he rallied the Polish Church to oppose the communist regime, at a time when such efforts were seen as either fruitless or actively dangerous (as the Czechoslovakian experience showed).  And then, of course, he gets elected Pope after an unbroken 500 year string of Italians sitting in the Chair of Peter.

The sequence of events that led to Karol Wojtyla becoming Pope John Paul II is so implausible, so ludicrous, that it boggles the mind.
And it leads to the conclusion that it must be product of forces beyond the control.  Some might call it fate or karma.  John Paul, I am sure, saw it as the hand of God, and I believe he viewed himself as on a unique mission from God.  But unlike the run-of-the-mill delusional narcissist, John Paul's belief could to be said to be rational, in light of his history.  Why wouldn't he think he had a special purpose?

It's the same with Obama.  An interracial child with an absent father growing up in Kansas, and then Hawaii, goes on to be the first non-white EIC of the Harvard Law Review, becomes a Senator, beats a member of one of the two great political dynasties of the last fifty years, and then becomes the President of the United States.  It's not hard to believe your own hype--it's impossible.

The problem is that this sense of your own destiny has no limiting principle.  Once you believe that your life is part of some greater destiny, then everything is seen through that lens.  Whatever it is that you are doing, whatever it is that you think is the correct course of action, you will see it as part of this grand narrative that arcs toward you being right and being successful.  After all, you have been spectacularly right and spectacularly successful so far.  What you are doing is right because you are doing it.

For me, the biggest example of John Paul's belief in his own place in God's plan was his refusal to resign toward the end of his pontificate when he became so sick and debilitated.  It was widely reported that he had been approached about the possibility of resigning, and it is equally widely reported that he refused because he believed that his public suffering would be a conduit for God to make a statement about the role of suffering in human life.  Or something like that.

What is clear is that the last 5 to 7 years of John Paul's pontificate, while he was sick, were a disaster for the Church.  He could not lead, and so the bureaucracy took over.  No one knows what a healthy, vibrant John Paul would have done about the explosion of the sex abuse crisis here in America, but the sick John Paul did nothing, and the bureaucracy of the Vatican chose the victimizers over the victims and provided a refuge for the disgraced Cardinal Law.  It was so clear that it was a disaster that Benedict, at the first signs of physical and/or mental weakness, broke 800 years of tradition and stepped down.  He knew he couldn't go down the same path as John Paul.

John Paul should have known better.  I think John Paul did know better, and if he were asked to give advice to someone else, I think he would have told his advisee to step down.  But John Paul couldn't do that, because he believed too much in the idea that he had a special destiny, and that everything he did was infused with special significance.  It blinded him to his responsibilities to the Church.  It was selfish.

John Paul is a cautionary tale about the dangers of Great Men (and Women).  Like a classic Greek tragedy, the thing that makes you great will also make you fail.  The greater you are, the more it appears that greatness is part of a birthright, and the closer you are to a fall.

John Paul was not perfect man--no one is.  He was, I think, a good man, despite his flaws.  Unfortunately, though, he was also a great man.


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