Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Hold The Halo

You could fall in love with Pope John Paul II at the drop of a miter. 

In 1978, when 58-year-old Karol Wojtyla slalomed onto the world stage as the first non-Italian pope since the Renaissance, everything about him captivated Catholics who felt adrift and conflicted.

The merry eyes. The sunny wit. The moral toughness honed during battles against Nazis and Communists. 

The former actor and factory worker was a skiing cardinal, a mountain-climbing poet, a kayaking philosopher, a singing author.

Twenty-six years later, the crowds at his funeral yelled “Santo subito!” Sainthood now!

Next Sunday, two days after the Kate and William show, another European spectacle will unfold: Pope Benedict XVI will preside over the beatification for the man he revered, the first time in a millennium that a pope has elevated his immediate predecessor and the swiftest ascension toward sainthood on record.

Hoping to get a P.R. boost by resurrecting John Paul’s magic, Benedict fast-tracked the process, waiving the usual five-year wait before starting.

But it won’t take away the indelible stain left by a global sex scandal that continues to sulfurously bubble as we celebrate Easter. 

The latest grotesquerie, amid a cascade of victims coming forward in Belgium, was a TV interview with the former bishop of Bruges, who serenely admitted abusing two nephews.

Sex with the first nephew, he said, started as “a game” when the boy was 5 and lasted 13 years. 

“I had the strong impression that my nephew didn’t mind at all,” 74-year-old Roger Vangheluwe said, smiling. 

“On the contrary. It was not brutal sex. I never used bodily, physical violence.” He said he abused the second boy for “merely over a year.”

He did not think any of this made him a pedophile.

Certainly, John Paul was admirable in many ways. 

After he became pope, he was a moral force in the fight against totalitarianism, touring his homeland and giving Poles the courage to resist the Soviet Union. 

When Lech Walesa signed an agreement with the Communists recognizing Solidarity, he used a pen etched with the face of John Paul.

After Communism collapsed, John Paul offered a stinging critique of capitalism, presciently warning big business to stop pursuing profits “at any price.”

“The excessive hoarding of riches by some denies them to the majority,” he said, “and thus the very wealth that is accumulated generates poverty.”

As progressive as he was on those issues, he was disturbingly regressive on social issues — contraception, women’s ordination, priests’ celibacy, divorce and remarriage. 

And certainly, John Paul forfeited his right to beatification when he failed to establish a legal standard to remove pedophiles from the priesthood, and simply turned away for many years.

Santo non subito! 

How can you be a saint if you fail to protect innocent children?

For years after the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legion of Christ, was formally accused of pedophilia in a Vatican proceeding, he remained John Paul’s pet. 

The ultra-orthodox Legion of Christ and Opus Dei were the shock troops in John Paul’s war on Jesuits and other progressive theologians.

There was another reason, according to Jason Berry, who has written two books on the abuse crisis and is the author of the forthcoming “Render Unto Rome: The Secret Life of Money in the Catholic Church.”

“For John Paul,” Berry told me just after returning from Good Friday services, “the priesthood had a romantic, chivalrous cast, and he could not bring himself to do a fearless investigation of the clerical culture itself.

“He was duped by Maciel, but he let himself be duped. When nine people accuse the guy of abusing them as kids, the least you can do is investigate.

“Cardinals and bishops had told him about the larger abuse crisis for years. And he was passive to an absolute fault. He failed in mountainous terms.”

Now the Vatican is like Wall Street, where companies give their most disgraced C.E.O.’s golden parachutes to make up for the stress of outside attack. 

Except the Vatican gives golden halos.

We are known by our heroes and those we choose to admire.

Pope Benedict has wanted to beatify John Paul, who shielded pedophiles, and Pope Pius XII, who remained silent about the Holocaust as it happened. 

Meanwhile, Dorothy Day hasn’t been beatified.

Not beatifying or canonizing John Paul would be hugely symbolic, a message far more powerful than the ad hoc apologies and payoffs to victims.

This pope has been better than the last on abuse, Berry said, but “he’s still surrounded by all these cardinals whose hands are dirty in this thing. 

There are still 16 bishops that were credibly accused who stepped down from public positions but still maintain their titles.

“The Vatican rushed into this beatification, but after they take down the stands, the problems will still be there.”