I’ve come across this Twitter thread more than once, but felt that I should say something in response this time. One of the goals of my new book (Confronting the Pope of Suspicion) was to defend the legacy of John Paul II. It was an implicit theme of the book, but perhaps too implicit, or, maybe, just plain unconvincing. I say this because several of the JP2 critics in this Twitter thread are readers of my book. The thread kicks off with this call for a reassessment of John Paul from Damian Thompson. Thompson is responding to Robert Mickens who wants American “conservatives” to stop their “attacks” against Pope Francis.
Thompson’s call for a reassessment seems to come from a sense that John Paul is at least partly to blame for the Church’s present papal crisis—a feeling that is shared by others in the thread—and beyond. In Nick Donnelly’s response below, John Paul receives at least a little blame for the Francis pontificate:
Bergoglio didn’t come out of nothing.
Certainly it is true that popes are responsible for the people that they appoint as bishops and cardinals, but it is also true that their choices are limited to the available options. And the point I make early in my book is that by 1978, the year John Paul became pope, good options for positions of Church leadership were already scarce. What is my evidence? It comes from vol. 17 of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, published in the same year. In its article on clerical vows (pp. 696–699) it refers to heretics in the Church as the “progressive majority.” And the term heretic here is no hyperbole. According to the article, the “progressive majority” now accepted homosexuality as natural and not sinful. It’s important to understand that the article did not criticize the progressive majority’s position. The encyclopedia, whose copyright is owned by the Catholic University of America, defends the “progressive majority’s” heretical opinion on homosexuality.
Is that the only evidence I muster? Not at all. If you’ve got the time, be sure to read Joseph Becker’s two-volume history of the Jesuits. (If you don’t have the time, you can read my much shorter book instead!) Becker focuses exclusively on the decade following Vatican II, 1965–1975. What happened during that decade? Traditional Catholic spirituality and theology were replaced by pop psychology. This was a global movement in the Jesuit order according to Becker. And what Becker’s history reveals was that, years before John Paul ever ascended to the papal throne, the Church was already drowning in a global clerical apostasy. At least the Jesuits were. But other sources like the New Catholic Encyclopedia demonstrate that the apostasy went well beyond the Jesuits. What was the nature of this apostasy? It rejected theology as a source of knowledge about human nature. John F. Haught summarizes this viewpoint in the foreword to Christ in Evolution by Ilia Delio:
[T]he intellectual and academic worlds are becoming increasingly hospitable to scientific naturalism, the belief that nature is all there is and that scientific method is the only reliable way to understand it.”
Natural Law Perversions
In natural law models of moral reasoning, how you understand human nature is the key to understanding the moral law. Theology taught us that man is endowed with an immortal soul and an eternal destiny. And that to secure that eternal destiny happily required the observance of God’s law. It was a law that included a clearly defined sexual morality:
9 Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, 10 thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.1Cor. 6: 9–10, NRSV
With the birth of psychology at the end of the nineteenth century, the Bible was no longer an unquestioned authority on sexual morality. Jung claimed that science had discovered a new dimension of human nature—the psyche. If natural moral law was to lead us to true morality, it would need to account for this previously undiscovered dimension of human nature. The problem was that the psyche introduced variability into human nature. The psychological needs of humanity varied from person to person. And human sexuality revealed this highly variable psyche in rather obvious ways—individuals manifested different sexual “orientations.” The conclusion of psychologists was that traditional Christian morality was psychologically harmful because it was too restrictive. It did not account for the natural variability in human nature.
I believe it is this psycho-empirical critique of Christian morality that JP2 is getting blamed for in the tweet below:
Here I think is the main point of Thomas’s tweet:
There becomes a strict focus on what it means to be human & the pastoral responses to this subjective experience.
I haven’t seen the evidence that John Paul ever embraced this psychological critique. Quite the contrary. Theologians who preached a psychology-inspired moral relativism got fired by JP2. And theology textbooks got condemned. One of these is the *CTSA’s Human Sexuality. It accepted the psychological critique of the Bible’s sexual morality and even criticized the defenders of traditional Church teaching. Yes, there were many theologians who remained faithful. They argued correctly that the Bible’s sexual morality couldn’t be wrong because it was divinely revealed—in other words, it came directly from God. Human Sexuality’s response?
A criticism leveled against the foregoing argument is that it is naive.Human Sexuality, p. 54
This was a wholesale rejection of divine revelation—in a word, apostasy. And as my book shows, they were not alone, for they belonged to the “progressive majority.”
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
One infuriating character trait of heretics, as history demonstrates, is that they never admit to their heresies. Instead, they glom onto any shred of orthodoxy they can find and claim it as their own. In the case of the dissenters of the twentieth century, they claimed to be champions of natural law. And indeed they did retain the form of it while gutting it of all religious content. Indeed, morality flowed from the facts of human nature, they claimed, but they rejected the facts taught by the Church and by Scripture, opting instead for the “facts” that science and psychology were offering. And they presented new “natural law” arguments that yielded quite unbiblical moral conclusions: Everything was “OKAY.” But what wasn’t okay was the Bible’s one-size-fits-all morality. Sr. Jeannine Gramick illustrates this new quite unnatural law for us:
For example, Catholic thinking dictates that we should use the evidence we find in the natural world to help us reach our conclusions. Many Catholics have reflected on the scientific evidence that homosexuality is a natural variant in human sexuality, and understand that lesbian and gay love is as natural as heterosexual love. Source: A Catholic case for same-sex marriage – The Washington Post
To add insult to injury, whom do the progressives credit as the authority for this new unnatural law? Human Sexuality gives the credit to Vatican II. It cites Gaudium et Spes 51 as the source of its natural law perversions (p.96) . But when you go back and check the source what do you find? GS 51 does indeed ground our sexual morality in the natural law. But not the psycho version of progressives. Instead it insists on the understanding of human nature that comes from revelation. Regarding the precepts of sexual morality, GS 51 states:
[T]heir true evaluation and full meaning can only be understood in reference to man’s eternal destiny.
In my opinion, both John Paul II and Vatican II are the innocent victims of guilt by association. But in the research for my new book, I discovered that many of the most orthodox fathers and doctors of the Church are also claimed by the heretics. So if you are going to blame John Paul and Vatican II for all the distortions of their writings, then be prepared to blame Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure also. And don’t forget St. Paul. If you believe the heretics and apostates who claim that their views simply come from the doctors and fathers of the Church, I’ve got a bridge to sell you.
Our Brightest Weapons from JP2
A final point. I think it can only redound to JP2’s credit that his works are cited so often in the battle against all the heresies of the present day. Enough said.
*Note on *C.T.S.A.
C.T.S.A. stands for the Catholic Theological Society of America. After their book Human Sexuality was condemned by two different popes, they should count it a miracle that they are still in existence. And I believe that Charles Curran is still a member even though he is no longer a Catholic theologian—by decree of John Paul II.
One thought on “Defending Pope John Paul II”
Jeffrey S Arrowood
As a moral theology teacher who has studied Saint Thomas Aquinas and Pope John Paul II, I agree with your analysis. The only thing I find objectionable about JPII is his expression of ecumenism that seemed very modernist. My theory is that his ecumenism was shaped by his life experience. He refused to persecute anyone for their religious beliefs because he knew what it was like to be persecuted. This led him to overemphasize tolerance. I have yet to find a thoughtful analysis to test my theory against, though.