Pope John Paul II's Legacy Includes Tragic Flaws

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The beatification of Pope John Paul II has sparked both celebration and controversy among Catholics in the U.S. and around the world. Host Liane Hansen talks with John Allen, senior correspondent of the National Catholic Reporter in Rome, about reactions to the beatification of Pope John Paul II and what it means for the popular pope's legacy.


The beatification of Pope John Paul II has sparked both celebration and controversy among Catholics in the U.S. and around the world. John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, has been keeping track of the range of reactions. He joins us from the BBC studio in Rome. Good morning to you.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Senior Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Liane.

HANSEN: Do Catholics believe that John Paul II is worthy of beatification and ultimately, sainthood?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think the overwhelming sentiment at the Catholic grassroots would appear to be that John Paul II was, indeed, a holy man who was worthy of being declared a saint. There was a recent poll in the States that found that 74 percent of Americans generally, and 90 percent of American Catholics, believe that John Paul deserves beatification.

HANSEN: Who's opposed to John Paul II's beatification?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think there are relatively few people who are overtly opposed to it, although there are some. And they would include some victims of priestly sexual abuse. The Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests put out a statement referring to the beatification as a callous PR juggernaut that is rubbing salt in the wounds of the victims of abuse.

There are a handful of Catholic theologians who have said that John Paul's fairly conservative policies as pope are not to their liking. But I think what is probably more common is just a degree of ambivalence. I think there are a lot of people who feel this was a palpably holy man, but that there are aspects of his record that need a more careful look, and perhaps a longer look, before a final judgment is reached.

HANSEN: You write that a swath of opinion inside and outside the church will draw the conclusion that the rush to declare John Paul II a saint is related to a desire to nail down his political legacy. Can you elaborate on that statement?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think whenever you have a pope declared a saint, there is always some confusion as to whether what's being beatified or canonized is a person or a papacy. And I think there are some - inside and outside the church - who believe that the Vatican is in a rush to declare John Paul a saint, in part, because they liked his policies as pope and want to see those policies continue.

Now, officially, what the Vatican will say is that to declare a pope a saint is not the same thing as saying that every policy choice of his pontificate was correct. Instead, it's saying that there was an integrity and a personal holiness that ran through his papacy despite whatever failures and judgment may have occurred.

HANSEN: You knew Pope John Paul II - very popular, as you say, but considered dogmatic in certain circles. Can you just tell us, what's your personal assessment of him?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, obviously, one can draw a lot of different conclusions about the policy choices that John Paul II made. But at a personal level, I don't think there's much doubt that this was a mensch, you know; this was a real man, you know, warts and all. I mean, he was a remarkable human being with, you know, a wicked intellect and a great sense of humor, and the kind of man that, if I can put this in American argot, you just felt good sitting down and having a beer with.

HANSEN: Do you think he would have considered himself worthy of beatification?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think, you know, John Paul, of course, had an acute sense of his own limitations. But you know, if the question is would he have had a problem, either with the fact that he is being beatified or how fast it's happening, I think the answer to that is no. It was John Paul II who overhauled the sainthood process in 1983 to make it faster, cheaper and simpler. I mean, he beatified and canonized more people, not only than any previous pope, but than all previous popes combined. I mean, he clearly wanted to trigger a kind of avalanche of halos.

So this whole business of fast-tracking sainthood isn't something that started with the sainthood cause of John Paul II. It started with the papacy of John Paul II.

HANSEN: John Allen is senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. He joined us from Rome. Thank you very much.

Mr. ALLEN: You bet, Liane.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to NPR News.

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