During a canon law class in 1965 I noticed that the professor’s notes listed publications that were either “forbidden” or which we should approach with caution. On the list was The Nation. Somewhere I had also read that America had been founded over 100 years ago to offset the secular influence of The Nation.
I told my professor after class that I had been reading The Nation for years, that my father had always brought it home from his office office at The Trenton Times, along with Commonweal and America. I remembered that in the 1950s they had published Paul Blanchard’s unrelenting attacks on the Catholic church; but that times had changed. My canon law professor admitted his notes were out of date.
Founded in the last days of the Civil War, The Nation, particularly in the last few years, has been the conscience of liberals in the United States, not afraid to criticize Israeli policies, and fair-minded on most religious issues. The latest issue features a long book review essay by Jackson Lears on the three books by Sam Harris. The “Same Old New Atheism,” an analysis of the contemporary positivism that imagines that science has the answers for literally everything, is one of the best essays I have read in years.
But the focus of this essay is Jason Berry’s response to the beatification of Pope John Paul II. Jason, whom I have known since he graduated from Georgetown, is the journalist most responsible for the exposure of the sex abuse scandal in the church, beginning with a series in the National Catholic Reporter in 1984, culminating in his book Lead Us Not Into Temptation in 1992, and continued through his Vows of Silence, an expose of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the archconservative Mexico- based religious order known as the Legion of Christ. The Legion was based on papal loyalty, says Berry, and John Paul returned their devotion by giving it strong support during his papacy, since they shared his agenda—militant anticommunism, resistance to liberation theology. I remember watching a TV broadcast of a papal Mass in Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with the announcer pointing out that the young acolytes in surplices sharing the altar with the Pope were Legion seminarians.
The trouble is that Maciel was a fraud. In the 1990s Berry and another journalist Gerald Renner published the results of their investigation in the Hartford Courant based on interviews with two Spaniards and seven Mexicans whom Maciel had sexually abused when they were seminarians in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout John Paul’s papacy the victims besieged the Vatican with their evidence, and the pope ignored their pleas, partly, according to Berry, because Maciel was a great fund raiser and had showered Vatican officials with cash. After his recent death it was revealed that he also had several “wives” and conceived a number of children on the side. The whole Legion was put on hold.
Berry is too good a journalist to make the article a one-note bashing of the late pope. John Paul, he says, was one of history’s great popes. He visited 129 countries, more than all previous popes combined. He emphasized human rights as a political value. In the 1990s he made a famous series of apologies for the church’s anti-Semitism, racism, Galileo, the Inquisition, the Crusades, and its treatment of Indians. But, says, Berry, when he condemned the sexual abuse scandal, he blamed the press and bad advise from clinical experts.
Faced with this embarrassment, his proponents for beatification redefined the qualifications to not include his impact on history but rather the “way he lived the Christian virtues of faith, hope, and love.”
Berry does not say this, but it seems to me that there should be a correspondence between a leader’s personal prayer life of hope and love and how these virtues are manifested in his public responsibilities.
Berry does not quarrel with the reports that prayers to John Paul II effected the healing of a French nun with a neurological illness. “This is sure to draw derision from some corners,” he says, “but miracles are embedded in church history, and if the spirit of John Paul has healing power, we are the better for it. The agony of Catholicism, however, calls for another healing—that of truth brought to bear on ecclesial powers, robed in shame, dripping with hypocrisy.”
That last word, if applied uniquely to John Paul II, may be severe, especially considering his declining health over the last several years; but applied to a certain mind-set in the bureaucracy it might well fit.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.