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The television version of Hilary Mantel’s novel Wolf Hall is the latest account to challenge St Thomas More’s reputation as a courageous defender of the rights of conscience. Was he, in truth, a liberal icon, a religious fanatic or something in between?
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Popes John XXIII (1958-1963) and John Paul II (1978-2005) will be canonised together today. As a cradle Catholic whose life has spanned the papacies from Popes Pius XII to Francis, I am concerned with the speed of both of these canonisations and the relatively new practice of modern popes proposing the canonisations of their recent predecessors. If many popes are canonised during my lifetime, is there perhaps a danger of this implying that there was something wrong with the very few who were not canonised.
For most saints since the Middle Ages, there has been a much longer post-mortem waiting period and more searching investigations into the candidates’ personal imperfections and sanctity. It is only nine years since John Paul II died. Both Popes who are to be canonised on 27 April were great and holy men who had tremendous impacts on the Church and society.
John XXIII called the great reforming Second Vatican Council and John Paul II was the great liberator of Poland from communism. However, they were both the subjects of some controversy during their lifetimes. Conservatives felt that the calling of the Council by John XXIII was a mistake and progressives that the rowing back of the Vatican II reforms by John XXIII was damaging to the Church. In a way, could the dual canonisations be regarded perhaps by some as a Vatican political fix?
The election of the charismatic John Paul II was greeted with much excitement but this was dented over time by his autocratic centralisation of power within the Roman curia, rowing back on episcopal collegiality and limitation of the powers of bishops’ conferences, investigation of theologians without any due process, and failure to deal with episcopal cover-ups during the paedophile crisis. On the other hand, there were many fine examples of John Paul II condemning war, seeking peace, and developing church teaching on capital punishment.
For me and many other Catholics, the Vatican II decrees strengthened my faith and brought into the Catholic Church many people of other faiths and none. However, some aspects of the encyclical Humanae Vitae under John XXIII’s successor Paul VI, who rejected the commission findings on birth control that he had set up, have caused an ongoing crisis of confidence in the authority of the Church, the draining away of some priests, and so-called cafeteria Catholicism. I pray that Francis, Bishop of Rome, will take us back to the reforms of Vatican II.
Michael Phelan is ain Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire