Pope John XXIII: A Saint (1)

This is the first post of, well–I’m still undecided how many there will be–in which I shall provide excerpts from the writings of Pope John XXIII. I do not pretend to provide an exhaustive portrait of his magisterium, merely to provide statements of his which I think could use a dusting off. For, while Pope St. John XXIII is a much-adored pontiff, “a good pope” in the minds of most Catholics, I think much of his appeal is based on a superficial awareness–if not a studied ignorance–of many things he actually taught. In a word, Pope St. John XXIII is not nearly as “nice”–nor, for those of a more splenetic nature, as “evil”–as most people assume he is, the reigning assumption being that he was a doughy old man who wanted to Protestantize the Church and free Christians from the chains of conservative morality and traditionalism. The following details from his biography (linked above) should indicate, in broad strokes, how wrong his unreflective “fans” and “enemies” are:

In the seminary he taught history, patrology and apologetics. He was an elegant, profound, effective and sought-after preacher. These were the years of his deepening spiritual encounter with two saints who were outstanding pastors: St Charles Borromeo and St Francis de Sales.

Wait, that doughy old man knew the Fathers deeply? The jolly Modernist pope taught Catholic apologetics? The father of the Church’s demise was deeply bonded to two of the greatest Counter-Reformation saints? Yep. Turns out, Pope Teddy Bear has some claws, after all.

(You’ll forgive my bias, since St. Francis de Sales is my patron saint. Hint: see the background wallpaper of this blog.)

Lest I seem to be whitewashing my own views just in the interest of being “nice”, let me clarify my position on John XXIII as papal teacher and John XXIII as the engine for the Second Vatican Council. I accept Vatican II as a valid, ecumenical council of the Church, and therefore as being free from any claims that bind all the faithful to heresy. I do not think John XXIII wanted to Protestantize the Church, and I certainly do not think that V2 destroyed the Church.

At the same time, however, I think John XXIII was immensely naive about how fast the world, and Christendom, was changing, and by wedding the Church to such an unceasing evolutionary current, he subjected the stable, immovable Church to a shear stress which She may have never had to endure on so many levels at once. Whereas as previous councils had served to tackle and terminate particular threats hitting the Church in a perpendicular, “normal stress” fashion, the Second Vatican Council subjected the Church to pressures bearing against Her entire constitution in parallel (or “all at once,” you might say). Precisely because the bulk of the world is constantly shifting and drifting, the shear stress applied to the Church by coupling every aspect of her mission with worldly concerns never allows the Church to regain her composure. As long as the world keeps gyrating, the ideologically hyperlinked Church of Vatican II will have no choice but to keep doing the same.

As such, John XXIII’s attempts to gear an ecumenical council to a two-way, unending engagement–dare we say concordat?–with the contemporary world was all but doomed to fail. The nature of the world is too protean, and too contrarian, to be appeased by a “pastoral” outreach like John XXIII envisioned. On the other hand, the nature of the Church is inherently conservative, prudent, and discerning to be able to adapt to the protean flux of worldly evolution, without grave risk to her own members and authenticity. Vatican II was called to engage “the modern world,” but within a generation it was facing the postmodern world, which, logically, rendered “the modern council” a pre-modern artifact of stop-gap pastoralism. Lest the Church appear “out of date” or “timeless,” must we call yet another council? At what point does the contemporaneous pastoralism simply become extemporaneous adventurism? (Hint: very quickly.) Thus, whatever John XXIII thought “[his] council” would achieve, I think that by now even he would agree that it has failed in many respects. Unfortunately, however, the zeitgeist–the overweening animus–in the Church these days is that the Second Vatican Council must–SIMPLY MUST, by any means necessary–turn out to be a success. This conciliar monomania is, sadly, as much the legacy of John XXIII as the genuine fruits of the council. The point of my series about his magisterium is to help liberate his timeless wisdom from such myopic monomania.

Aside from being too jocund about the receptivity of “the modern world,” Pope John XXIII also seems to have been unaware how deep the clefts were between warring theological camps within the Church. Without actually defusing this internecine warfare, his council embedded the balkanizing dichotomy in the very fabric of the post-conciliar Church. I believe this ideological dichotomy is virtually personified in Pope Francis, the first entirely “conciliar pope”, which helps explain why he is so hard to pin down, and why the internecine lines within the Church are, despite the incessant Noise Machine of Nifty, Nice and New, actually deepening and fortifying under his reign. Pope Francis is the Second Vatican Council come of age, and I honestly don’t know what that portends for the Church (and in this instance, by “Church,” I mean my own children and grandchildren).

In any case, to return to Pope John XXIII: his seemingly manic desire to get the council up to speed and on the road led him to sacrifice prudence to expediency, and established unresolved theological conflict as a feature, not a bug, of post-conciliar Catholicism. Thus, thanks to the alchemy of a gerrymandering ecumenism, dispute has been transmogrified into dialogue, conversion into conversation, repentance into reflection, liberty into license, and worship into a workshop. By calling the entire Christian world to reassess and debate every single aspect of the Christian truth and mission, John XXIII created a sense–indeed, a persistent failure of nerve–that everything was up for grabs. At the same time, by insisting on early resolutions, John XXIII established a conciliar groove of shallow unity based on theological imprecision and official ambiguity (cf. also this testimony) which has plagued the Church to this day. In a word, in calling Vatican II I believe that John XXIII meant well as sincerely as I believe that he judged poorly.

Or, as one colleague put it:

baseball in the nuts

Someone’s bound to get hurt.

But enough of my prologue.

The following excerpts are taken from Pope St. John XXIII’s inaugural encyclical, Ad Petri cathedram (29 June 1959):

6. All the evils which poison men and nations and trouble so many hearts have a single cause and a single source: ignorance of the truth—and at times even more than ignorance, a contempt for truth and a reckless rejection of it. Thus arise all manner of errors, which enter the recesses of men’s hearts and the bloodstream of human society as would a plague. These errors turn everything upside down: they menace individuals and society itself.

7. And yet, God gave each of us an intellect capable of attaining natural truth. If we adhere to this truth, we adhere to God Himself, the author of truth, the lawgiver and ruler of our lives. But if we reject this truth, whether out of foolishness, neglect, or malice, we turn our backs on the highest good itself and on the very norm for right living. …

9. It is clear that We are discussing a serious matter, with which our eternal salvation is very intimately connected. Some men, as the Apostle of the Gentiles warns us, are “ever learning yet never attaining knowledge of the truth.” (5) They contend that the human mind can discover no truth that is certain or sure; they reject the truths revealed by God and necessary for our eternal salvation.

10. Such men have strayed pathetically far from the teaching of Christ and the views expressed by the Apostle when he said, “Let us all attain to the unity of the faith and of the deep knowledge of the son of God… that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine devised in the wickedness of men, in craftiness, according to the wiles of error.” [Eph. 4] …

14. And in this day of ours, as you well know, Venerable Brethren and beloved sons, we also have radio broadcasts, motion pictures, and television (which can enter easily into the home). All of these can provide inspiration and incentive for morality and goodness, even Christian virtue. Unfortunately, however, they can also entice men, especially the young, to loose morality and ignoble behavior, to treacherous error and perilous vice.

15. The weapons of truth, then, must be used in defense against these weapons of evil. We must strive zealously and relentlessly to ward off the impact of this great evil which every day insinuates itself more deeply.

16. We must fight immoral and false literature with literature that is wholesome and sincere. Radio broadcasts, motion pictures, and television shows which make error and vice attractive must be opposed by shows which defend truth and strive to preserve the integrity and safety of morals.

17. Some men, indeed do not attack the truth wilfully, but work in heedless disregard of it. They act as though God had given us intellects for some purpose other than the pursuit and attainment of truth. This mistaken sort of action leads directly to that absurd proposition: one religion is just as good as another, for there is no distinction here between truth and falsehood. “This attitude,” to quote Pope Leo [XIII], “is directed to the destruction of all religions, but particularly the Catholic faith, which cannot be placed on a level with other religions without serious injustice, since it alone is true.” (9) Moreover, to contend that there is nothing to choose between contradictories and among contraries [yet cf. CCC 1886ff.] can lead only to this fatal conclusion: a reluctance to accept any religion either in theory or practice.

18. How can God, who is truth, approve or tolerate the indifference, neglect, and sloth of those who attach no importance to matters on which our eternal salvation depends; who attach no importance to pursuit and attainment of necessary truths, or to the offering of that proper worship which is owed to God alone?

19. …  Our spirit will rest in peace and joy only when we have reached that truth which is taught in the gospels and which should be reduced to action in our lives. … 20. … For there is only one cause of discord, disagreement, and dissension: ignorance of the truth, or what is worse, rejection of the truth once it has been sought and found.

Stay tuned for more highlights from this strangely mummified pope. Why, it’s almost as if his convocation of the Second Vatican Council is the only thing that matters to most Catholics about his papacy. As we shall see, however, there is more to this jolly pope than his longstanding desire for a modern ecumenical council.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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16 Responses to Pope John XXIII: A Saint (1)

  1. B.C. Just a few responses to your provocative prologue (you are as incapable of being boring as Botticelli was incapable of painting ugly women);

    1. The CDF never responded to my objections to the Scandal entries in the Catechism;there was not even an acknowledgement that my complaints were received; C’est la vie.
    2. One of the, many, great points in Msgr Brunero Gherardini’s brief study of V2 was this observation; That it was a pastoral council that never defined Pastoral and so we see the consequences of the neglect (refusal?) to define in the action of a Bishop in one Diocese citing pastoral reasons for approving the Real Mass while the adjacent Diocese has an Ordinary that refuses the Real Mass due to Pastoral reasons.

    Pastoral; it means everything and it means nothing (I can almost hear Inspector Clouseau delivering such a line.

  2. Branch says:

    Thank you for this.

  3. drprice2 says:

    I’ll concede that the Council probably read the signs of the times correctly, if by that you mean the first half of the Sixties.

    But that world died in 1968. To constantly hearken back to those parts of V2 that have effectively “expired” is an exercise in nostalgia, reminiscent of Boomers who keep mooning over Camelot. That’s not leadership–it’s the ecclesial equivalent of a midlife crisis.

    And I recall a wise warning about the perils of a “self-referential Church.” Constantly talking about V2 definitely qualifies.

  4. drprice2 says:

    And the “shear-stress” metaphor is brilliant. Reminded me of this, in fact:

  5. Tony Jokin says:

    Very interesting analysis. Those quotes you shared are rarely heard and certainly paint a different picture from the one we see painted of St. John XXIII from both sides.

    On St. Francis De Sales, I think most people interpret him very differently. Actually, most people interpret nearly every saint of the past differently by explaining away anything they find incompatible with their activities. For an example, I was reading a book on St. Francis De Sales and ecumenism. The author was speaking of how St. Francis De Sales was in a way the founder of modern ecumenism. But then realizing that St. Francis De Sales actually wanted to convert all Protestants to Catholicism and looked at the errors and heresies very negatively, the author points out that St. Francis De Sales was just a victim of the mindset in the Church at the time. He goes on to imply that St. Francis De Sales would agree with and encourage modern ecumenism if he lived today. So obviously, that author doesn’t read St. Francis De Sales like what you would read him to be.

    I have also experienced the same regarding a favorite saint of mine, St. John Vianney. I have seen many who admire him but are quick to point out that he was going too far in his homilies and advise. Some try to paint him outright as having Jansenist tendencies. In the book “Saint John Vianney: The Cure de Ars today”, the author even claims that “Pope John Paul [I or II he doesn’t say] has remarked a residue of what he specifically calls Jansenism in Vianney’s tone”. All of this is in context of speaking of Vianney’s “rigorism” in homilies and spiritual activities. The author undoubtedly thinks of himself as a fan of St. John Vianney though.

    So I just wanted to say, it is not clear what modern persons mean when they say they love a particular saint. For all you know, they have explained away everything good that stands out about them and reduced them to some hippie liberal forward-thinking saint.

  6. Branch says:

    Tony, I’ve noticed that tendency to remake a saint with Ignatius of Loyola and modern fans of ‘Ignatian Spirituality’. In fact, I think Pope Francis did this in the America Magazine interview with the topic of “thinking with the Church”.

  7. A very adroit but chilling insight, Tony, thank you. This is why it’s always best to return to the original sources themselves, which is what I strive to do at this blog.

    The reason St. Francis was a great “ecumenist” is because he was firm on truth but gentle with persons, whereas modern ecumenism is light on truth and firm on feelings. He was a proselytizer through and through, and therefore a source of scandal were he alive today; because he showed that proselytism is not incompatible with charity and dialogue, he would generate a double scandal to the ecumaniacs.

  8. Don’t even get me started on the neo-Ignatian revisionism. Oh, wait… too late.*

    • A throwback to my truly snarky days of papal paranoia. 😉
  9. Yes, Dale, that footage seems pretty pertinent. I myself am most often reminded of the “Ozarks boat crash” (bikini warning… as well as a peals-of-laughter-from-puerile-Schadenfreude warning). 😉

  10. Branch says:

    “Don’t even get me started on the neo-Ignatian revisionism. Oh, wait… too late.*”

    Re: “the primacy of the mystical” as an essential key. This is precisely where the problem lies, I believe. Contrary to St. Ignatius who would always check the subjective and “mystical” against what the Church has established (“rules for thinking with the Church”), such that if someone thought, personally, subjectively, “mystically” that they were being led to X, though the Church had already declared not-X, then the question is resolved immediately: we submit to the Church.

    But neo-Ignatian spirituality has used the “mystical” against the Church. I fear this is a tendency in Francis, with his emphasis on not stifling the Spirit – an essential good point in theory though one that can easily be distorted.

    True Ignatian spirituality may be the most ‘dangerous’ of all because of its susceptibility to distortion but remains, of course, a positive gift of the Spirit to the Church and still an essential one today. It was a reply from God to the ‘subjectifying’ of the Church through Protestantism, a wondrous gift that led to authentic development. How sad to see it so distorted today.

  11. Tony Jokin says:


    I was thinking a bit more about this. I was wondering if you had written an article on the evolution of the meaning of the world “gentleness”. I have a hunch that the term was never meant to include what is perceived as gentle today.

    Nowadays, something like the reply of Pius X to the Jews on a separate state would probably be seen as insensitive and lacking any gentleness. I think the term gentleness today is perceived to include the idea of withholding the truth in order to not offend. So the “gentle” approach would be to simply attract through other means so that the person will embrace the rest of the truths in his own time.

    I think the older perceptions of the term “gentleness” excluded such activity because it considered the grave harm done in the meantime (till the person embraced the truth in his own time) toward society and oneself. So it was always considered a saintly thing to stand up for the truth and proclaim it to those who stubbornly or mistakenly act or hold ideas contrary to it.

    Today, there is a tendency to forget the grave harm of sin, error and heresy. So naturally, the term “gentleness” is extended to embrace even the idea of withholding the truth.

    The result of this is that every saint who seemed to encourage gentleness like St. Francis of Assisi, St. Francis de Sales or even St. Therese of the little flower are all seen as great saints for our time. No one bothers to realize that their notion of “gentleness” is incompatible with that which they perceive it as today. But regardless, they perceive these saints that way and then they evaluate other saints in that measure as well. Then they conclude on saints like St. Pius X or St. John Vianney, who have actions associated with their name that seem contrary to the perceived notion of gentleness of today, as lacking true gentleness and being a product of their time. In other words, they acknowledge that the term “gentleness” probably meant something different at the time but fail to realize that the old sense was actually accurate compared to the new. They do not acknowledge the fact that the new notion of “being gentle” has completely forgotten the very real harm done by sin, error and heresy.

    What are your thoughts?

  12. Branch:

    You’re right. Neo-Montanism (creeping pentecostalism) is a problem these days. Mystical is a longstanding fudge word (cf. Knox’s book, Enthusiasm).

  13. Tony:

    I only have a moment right now, but here’s something to ponder: gentleness is derived from gentlemanliness, and gentlemen are inherently rooted in an objective moral and social order.

    That’s the kernel of my thoughts on the corrosion of “gentleness” as you are raising the problem.

  14. Tony Jokin says:


    Definitely something for me to think about. In the meantime, I was reading some of the parts of the Summa pertaining to this subject and I noticed the following interesting one.

    (Article 6. Whether one ought to forbear from correcting someone, through fear lest he become worse?)

    In that it states “As stated above (Article 3) the correction of the wrongdoer is twofold. One, which belongs to prelates, and is directed to the common good, has coercive force.”

    So this is what I am thinking. In the most common reading of Dignitatis Humanae, there is the idea that the Church has laid down her right to use coercive power. There is of course a debate between us whether this laying down is something temporal as a compromise for the situation or an actual change of doctrine. But nevertheless, I think we both agree that the practice of the Church since Vatican II has been to refrain from being coercive at all by saying it is “contrary to human dignity”.

    Perhaps that is the problem then. The Church prelates who according to Article 3 seems to be the ones in charge of maintaining the common good by creating that fear of sinning through punishment have abandoned that duty for the most part. Today, there is simply no one doing that duty. The faithful cannot actually fix this situation that easily too by taking up that duty.

    It would seem that the faithful must start putting pressure on the prelates to correct themselves and start doing their duty.

    This brings me to another point. Perhaps we are in this phase where God has given us what we deserve. Because if there were sufficient men that identified this calamity, they would be raising their voices in pleas to their prelates to do their duty properly and the Church will correct herself. As it stands, most people are happy with this style and seem to demand it by condemning the prelates that are actually doing their duty as lacking mercy or gentleness. So maybe this is a way of saying “you complained against my Church and demanded her to be lenient? Here you go! See how that will work out for you”. Perhaps this is the punishment/chastisement as one FSSP priest put it sometime back.

  15. Pingback: “The Tale of Those Nasty Liberals Who Hijacked Poor Ol’ Vatican Two” | A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics

  16. Pingback: Was the Second Vatican Council “different”? (Part 1) | FideCogitActio : "Omnis per gratiam" fidescogitactio @ gmail . com

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