John XXIII: a "Good Pope"?

Pope John XXIII was called the "Good Pope" for his benevolence as a man, but was he actually a good pope in his office as the Supreme Pontiff?

This article "Was the 'Good Pope' a Good Pope?" was published in the September 2000 issue of The Angelus magazine. We offer here the introduction of this article written by SSPX priest, Fr. Michel Simoulin, former rector at the Econe seminary from 1988 to 1997.

Introduction of Fr. Michel Simoulin's article

The list of books, studies, and articles extolling 
the “goodness” of Pope John XXIII is too long 
to be made here. The culminating point of this 
eulogizing—and it seems definitive—was the 
promulgation of the decree (December 29, 1989) concerning the “heroic” virtues of the Servant of God, Pope John XXIII.

This would seem to put an end to all discussion. However, other studies or articles published pointing out the defects or weaknesses of the same Pope cannot be overlooked.[1]

The very “address of homage” directed to Pope John Paul II by the Prefect of the Congregation of the Causes of Saints (December 20, 1989) is astonishing. In fact, if the virtues that are praised in Pope Pius IX are noble Christian virtues, i.e., his indefatigable pastoral zeal, intense life of prayer, and profound interior life, those of Pope John XXIII are strangely new, even unknown, to ascetical or mystical theology:

This Pontiff promoted ecumenism, was preoccupied with fostering fraternal relations with the Orthodox of the Orient whom he had known a long time in Bulgaria and at Istanbul, engaging in more intense relations with the Anglicans and with the kaleidoscopic world of Protestant churches.

He endeavored in every way to lay the foundation for a new attitude for the Catholic Church toward the Jewish world, being resolutely amenable to dialogue and collaboration. On June 4, 1960, he created the Secretariat for the Unity of Christians.

He promulgated two significant encyclicals, Mater et Magistra (May 20, 1961) on social evolution in light of Christian doctrine and Pacem in Terris (April, 11, 1963) on peace among all nations. He visited hospitals and prisons and was always close at hand with charity for the suffering and the poor of the Church and the world."[2]

If we suspend his dedication to the corporal works of mercy, all the other virtues of Pope John XXIII are, therefore, ecumenical virtues.

It is allowed even now to examine the “goodness” of Pope John, which is alleged to have been his sanctity. It is not a question of denying the possibility that he is today in the glory of God, but as for being beatified, it is a question of his being proposed for the veneration and emulation of Catholics. What is at stake is knowing whether in truth it is licit for us to imitate the “goodness” of Pope John XXIII. This “goodness” has been summarized by the same Pope Angelo Roncalli in his six famous sayings which we find expressed, more or less clearly, in his Journal of a Soul and in his discourses and writings, especially in the documents of his pontificate.

We intend to demonstrate that these sayings of Pope John XXIII are nothing but sophisms. They sound good, but they’re really not. They are well-correlated among themselves as to constitute that which is usually referred to as the “goodness” of Pope John. He nurtured these opinions throughout his whole life, in spite of the admonitions and even condemnations of popes which contradict them, from Popes Pius VI to Pius XII. Among them is even Pope Pius IX who was beatified with him.

Furthermore, these ideas of Pope John XXIII have been the daily bread of the Church as it was reformed by the Second Vatican Council, very often referred to as “Pope John’s Council.”  The Council was a reflection of his own attitudes, the first and most important of which was his “opening up” to the “modern” world.

In order to identify these sophisms, Italian author G. Alberigo writes that it is enough to read the allocution Gaudet Mater Ecclesia made by Pope John at the opening of the Second Vatican Council on October 11, 1962.[3]

The opening speech of the Second Vatican Council constitutes an act of considerable historical significance, definitely the most important of the Pontificate of John XXIII, probably one of the most compelling of the Catholic Church in the contemporary age."[4]

In fact, with his speech of 35 minutes to open the Council, Pope John XXIII gave to it its “authentic charter” by defining its spirit. The words of the “good pope” are incredibly vehement in rebuking every pessimism and denouncing the men and prelates attached to the Church’s past which he characterized as “prophets of gloom.” It was his plan to neutralize them in his opening speech.

Pope John with a determined hand stripped them of the banner of the Council and entrusted it to the forces ready to open themselves to novelty, to rejuvenating the Church, to attempting a radical aggiornamento [i.e., updating—Ed.] of evangelization and an open dialogue with the world without constraints.[5]

The tone of the speech is surprisingly strong in affirming the necessity of turning over a new leaf. Pope John XXIII advocated total acceptance of the “new order” which was then being established with “new conditions and forms of life introduced into the modern world” and the “wonderful progress of the discovery of the human genius” in order to launch a dialogue between the Church and the world that would ensure the unity of the “whole Christian family,” indeed of the “human race,” a unity that would seem to be “the great mystery that Jesus Christ invoked from the Heavenly Father with His ardent prayer at the approach of His sacrifice.

This, therefore, was the “fresh air” Pope John XXIII expected to breeze through the Catholic Church by opening wide her windows, by opening the doors to all those who had separated themselves from her or whom his predecessors had previously condemned: the Orthodox, the Protestants, the Jews, the freemasons, the communists, the liberals, the Sillonists, and the modernists.

In anticipation of our deeper treatment, we can summarize the sophisms of “Good Pope John” by saying that, for him, it was necessary to read the “signs of the times,” to recognize that the world had changed for the better, that it was necessary for the Church to conform to the “modern” world while always searching for what united humankind, to employ mercy rather than severity, and to adopt the language of men of the day. In doing these, the Church would re-establish among all people the unity willed by Christ.

Let us start to examine the individual sophisms. Our treatment will be first to expose each of the six of them and reply with what the Church had said up until that time in a section of excerpts subtitled, “On the Contrary.” The treatment will be concluded with some philosophical observations or common-sense principles.

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1 For example “Nichita Roncalli Controvita di un Papa” of Franco Bellegrandi, Eiles, 1994, may be seen. Also, many studies published by SiSiNoNo [Italian edition] may be consulted (January 1976, September 1984, July 1987, February 1997, May 1998, April 1998).

2 L’Osservatore Romano, 20-21. XII, 1999.

3 Acta Apostolicae Sedis, November 26, 1962, pp.786-795.

4 G. Alberigo, “Formazione, contenuto e fortuna dell’allocuzione” in Fede, Tradizione, Pofezia, Padeia Editrice, Brescia, 1984, pp.1987-222.

5 Carlo Falconi, “Vu et entendu au Concile,” ed. of Rocher, 1964, p.121.