The Better Pope?

Ross Douthat’s column in this Sunday’s New York Times is definitely a thought-provoking one. He notes that, whereas Pope Benedict is repeatedly pummeled by the press, John Paul II was generally well-liked, or at least respected — but that doesn’t mean that he was necessarily the better pope:

The last pope was a great man, but he was also a weak administrator, a poor delegator, and sometimes a dreadful judge of character.

The church’s dilatory response to the sex abuse scandals was a testament to these weaknesses. So was John Paul’s friendship with the Rev. Marcial Maciel Degollado, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ. The last pope loved him and defended him. But we know now that Father Maciel was a sexually voracious sociopath. And thanks to a recent exposé by The National Catholic Reporter’s Jason Berry, we know the secret of Maciel’s Vatican success: He was an extraordinary fund-raiser, and those funds often flowed to members of John Paul’s inner circle.

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily

Email subscribe inline (#4)

Only one churchman comes out of Berry’s story looking good: Joseph Ratzinger. . . .

In the 1990s, it was Ratzinger who pushed for a full investigation of Hans Hermann Groer, the Vienna cardinal accused of pedophilia, only to have his efforts blocked in the Vatican. It was Ratzinger who persuaded John Paul, in 2001, to centralize the church’s haphazard system for handling sex abuse allegations in his office. It was Ratzinger who re-opened the long-dormant investigation into Maciel’s conduct in 2004, just days after John Paul II had honored the Legionaries in a Vatican ceremony. It was Ratzinger, as Pope Benedict, who banished Maciel to a monastery and ordered a comprehensive inquiry into his order.

So the high-flying John Paul let scandals spread beneath his feet, and the uncharismatic Ratzinger was left to clean them up.

In many ways, I think John Paul was probably the right pope at the right time. He is quite literally the spiritual father to a generation of young Catholics, and it could be said that his papacy made it possible for us to have a Pope Benedict now — bringing the Church from the confusion of the post-Vatican II days into a new steadiness and vibrancy in the new millenium.

I don’t think it detracts from any of that to simultaneously acknowledge the ways in which his papacy may have fallen short, though. While we could speculate as to why he didn’t deal more decisively with Father Maciel or the abuse scandal — his ill health, perhaps, or maybe even his own personal holiness making it difficult to recognize evil in others — Benedict clearly deserves the credit for finally taking those issues seriously (credit which, unfortunately, he seems destined not to get).

What do people think: Is Douthat too hard on JPII? Not hard enough? Should history remember Benedict as “the better pope”?



  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

Editor's picks

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...