We’ve been having a cultural conversation lately about what it means to support an artist’s work even if we condemn the actions of the artist. Is it possible, for instance, to like Woody Allen films, knowing what we know about his personal life? What about movies which Harvey Weinstein produced?
Last autumn’s revelations that Saint John Paul II may have been more complicit in the sex-abuse scandal than previously known casts an unfortunate pale over not only his papacy but his sainthood. How is it possible for a saint to have erred so egregiously? It raises questions about the hurried process of canonization, but even worse it tarnishes a beloved figure of the recent church.
With a living figure, there is an important element of accountability involved in rejecting their work; by ending our support for their art, we end our support for them in a very real way. But for someone who is already gone, their fate is sealed. We can, of course, diminish the honor of their legacy, and perhaps that is reason enough to demote JP2 from sainted status. We’ll always be left to wonder if there were other problems, or if his entire history should be viewed through the lens of someone willing to sweep aside a systemic atrocity, but his fate has ultimately already been decided; the balance sheet of the departed person is already closed.
The exercise of the 20th century was one in shades of gray: gone are the heroes and villains of our fairy tales. Even a saint, it seems, exists in a moral penumbra. So what does it even mean, if not total moral righteousness, to be a saint?