What should we think of the impending canonisation of Pope John Paul II? I met someone shortly after the pope’s death who said that if John Paul II was canonised, he would become a sede-vacantist. I hope he was simply letting off steam; but his words point to a real problem that cannot be solved simply by ignoring it.
Of course I am happy to acknowledge all the great qualities of the late pontiff, and not only his natural ones such as linguistic talent and ‘stage-presence’, but also his supernatural ones. We perhaps do not reflect enough, for example, on the courage that must have been required every time he came into St Peter’s Square, or any other public place, after the assassination attempt. There can be no doubt, either, of his personal love for Jesus Christ, his devotion to prayer and to duty usque ad mortem, his piety to our Lady and his boldness in speaking unwelcome truths to the world’s rulers, especially about abortion.
Yet there are also the facts that have disconcerted many. What would St Pius X have made, we ask, of the Assisi prayer meetings? What of the late pope’s participation, according to the Osservatore Romano itself, in a pagan ceremony in Africa? What of the kissing of the Koran, and the public prayer to St John the Baptist to bless Islam? These and similar questions led to the drawing up of an international ‘Statement of Reservations’ before the beatification in 2011.
Perhaps the Old Testament figure of Jephthah can aid us in our perplexity. In the book of Judges, chapter 11, he vows before going into battle that if God grants him victory he will sacrifice the first living thing that comes out of his house on his returns. He does win, his daughter is the first living thing to come out of the house, and he reluctantly fulfils his vow. Hardly saint-like material, we might think. St Thomas Aquinas quotes St Jerome’s assessment: ‘he was foolish in making his vow and impious in fulfilling it’. Yet, turning to the New Testament, we find Jephthah canonised by the Holy Ghost in the 11th chapter of Hebrews.
To reconcile these biblical passages, some have proposed that Jephthah received a special inspiration from God to act as he did. Cornelius a Lapide thinks it unnecessary to posit this. What Jephthah did, he tells us, was certainly wrong, but he was a soldier with a simple mentality who believed it necessary to fulfil the vow once he had made it. Sacrificing his daughter was grave matter, but not a mortal sin, as he lacked a clear perception of the wrongness of the action. It was, in fact, compatible with a real determination to do the will of God cost what it may.
I wonder if it would be impertinent to draw an analogy with Karol Wojtyla. Certainly he did not have the rustic simplicity of a Jephthah to mislead him. But he had, I think, something else that prevented him from seeing certain things as they are: a false theology of religions. He genuinely believed that Christ and the Holy Spirit were operating through non-Christian religions to bring about the sanctification of those who pursued them in good faith. This was a serious error, yet it was in his case compatible with a great purity of heart and a desire to do the will of God. It will be for this purity of intention that he will be canonised, as Jephthah has been.