Friday, May 6, 2011

Historian William Johnston on John Paul's Leadership Style: "Blind Spot" and "Acts of Personal Cruelty"

At several Catholic blog sites, Carolyn Disco has very helpfully linked in the past several days to a 6 April 2005 Australian National Radio "Religion Report" program, in which program host Stephen Crittenden discusses the legacy of John Paul II with British historian and Vaticanologist Peter Hebblethwaite and Melbourne professor of history William Johnston.  I would acknowledge the precise blog site or sites at which Carolyn has provided this link, but for the life of me, I can't track them down--though I did read and save the transcript of the Religion Report program to which Carolyn's helpful link pointed.  And I do remember that a comment posted by Carolyn Disco to some discussion(s) I was following contained this link.

And here's the segment of the program that will not leave my thoughts, now that I've read it: 

Stephen Crittenden: You say that there’s actually a disconnect between the Pope’s collective achievement and what you call a blind spot that this Pope had at a personal level, and you talk about acts of personal cruelty.

William Johnston: Well I call it a blind spot; I think that’s a kind way, it may have been deliberate. The example I was told from an eye witness when the American bishops had one of their joint visits to the Pope in the early ‘90s, he greeted each of them individually as they stood in a circle.

Stephen Crittenden: By name?

William Johnston: By name, he knew their names, their diocese and something about them. He went around the circle and charmed all of them. There was one man he wished to punish and each of the three times he came to that man, he was overheard to lean into him and say, ‘And what’s your name? What’s your diocese?’ He did that three times. Now that kind of humiliation among one’s peers smacks of Soviet governmental technique, and I think it was obviously deliberate, it’s cruel, it’s even vindictive and it’s now coming to light.

I find  John Paul's behavior as described here extremely troubling, given his role as a religious leader who claims to stand in persona Christi for the entire Catholic church.  And I have no reason to doubt that Johnston is speaking the truth here--or that he did receive this information from an eyewitness. 

I have no reason to doubt either Johnston's word or the word of his source, because John Paul's behavior in this story is consistent with his papal behavior in many other respects--including this eyewitness account from Dublin in 1979 by Irish writer Colm Tóibín, about which I posted some weeks back.  The coldness, the cruelty, the authoritarian bullying: these always seemed apparent to me from early in John Paul's papacy, and because I sensed--I saw--this side of him from very early after he was made pope, I have always been perplexed at the adulation so many of his followers continue to heap on him.  I cannot begin to imagine John XXIII or John Paul I or even Paul VI engaging in this kind of behavior.

I'm also not surprised to read this deeply troubling account, when I look at the cruelty of which many John Paul II generation Catholics appear to be capable, as they positively exult in the expulsion of yet another theologian and yet another dissident from the Catholic family.  I have great difficulty understanding how anyone reconciles expelling family members from a family and treating them as if they are dead with the most fundamental tenets of Catholicism.

Which is all about communitarian inclusion, about the fact that I cannot be myself if you are not at the table.  That I positively need you in order to complete myself.  And your walking away from the table due to my indifference or my cruelty actively implicates me.  It makes null and void all that I say about unique Catholic ownership of "the" truth and about how the Catholic celebration of the Eucharist is more real and valid than any non-Catholic eucharistic celebration.

And for all these reasons, I continue to shake my head at the choice of the current pope to move his predecessor so precipitously to the honors of the altar.  And I continue to wonder what this portends for the future of the church under Benedict's leadership.

Not much good, in my view: it portends not much good at all.  Unless one relishes the incorporation into Catholicism of those Soviet-style interrogation techniques to break the spirit of brother and sister Catholics one has decided to view as enemies to be expelled from the family's table.

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