Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Is Pope John XXIII incorrupt?

The body of Bl. John XXIII, reputed by some to be incorrupt

Pope John XXIII is an enigmatic figure in the Church, as so much of the upheaval of the post-conciliar period hinges on his brief pontificate (1958-1963). For Traditionalists, he (along with his successor Paul VI) hold peculiar places; we certainly honor the office of the papacy and render it obedience, but from a prudential point of view, these two popes seem to have made some very disastrous changes in the Church that have led to the destruction of the sacred liturgy, doctrinal confusion, a plummet in vocations and the loss of innumerable souls. They are not exactly the models of other saintly popes, men like St. Pius V and St. Pius X, whose influence on the papacy and the Church was a solidifying rather than weakening and a return to discipline rather than a relaxation of it.

Then how could it be that the body of Bl. John XXIII is claimed to be incorrupt? If what John did was so destructive for the Church, why would God bless him with incorruptibility, which is usually (but not always) taken as a sign of eniment sanctity? How could one who put the Church on a path of destruction of her Tradition be considered a saint? Certainly the man might have been personally holy, and if he is a beata, then of course he is going to be in heaven, But of course, personal sanctity is not all that beatification/canonization is about, especially if one is a pope. There is also the element of whether or not one is a good role model and has fulfilled one's office or state in life faithfully, which with John XXIII is a whole different story.

But what about John's alleged incorruptibility? Is John XXIII really incorrupt?

Though conservative Catholics and popular Catholic media outlets have repeatedly asserted the incorruptibility of John XXIII's body, this seems to be a simplification of the facts. First off, if we take his beatification by John Paul II in September of 2000. It has been often pointed out that with the new Code of Canon Law (1983), most of the old criteria for determining sanctity were removed, and thus saints are pretty much made or not made by the will of the pontiff. The beatification of John XXIII can be seen as an arbitrary action by a pontiff wishing to give tacit approval of the reforms he instituted. This is not unseemly to suggest either; popes have frequently beatified or canonized saints for varying motives - no historian seriously doubts that the benefit of having a martyr for the faith in the Church/State disputes of the 12th century was partially involved in the quick canonization of St. Thomas Becket. I think something similar happened with Pope John - besides questions of his sanctity, his beatification lends credence to the vision of the Church he proposed for Catholics to adopt.

Following Pope Johnn's beatification ceremony, the body of John was removed for veneration of the faithful and found to be, in the words of the Vatican, "remarkably well preserved." That was all. But the faithful immediately started declaring his incorruptibility, and certain clerical popularizers spread this "fact" abroad, until it became almost axiomatic that Pope John XXIII was incorrupt. This is not unlike the automatic and spontaneous adding of "the Great" to the late John Paul II before any research into his cause has even gone forward. But what are the facts regarding this supposed miracle?

It is true that the body was, and is, in a remarkable state of preservation. This has never been denied. But true incorruptibility is a preservation of the body that is unexplainable by any other natural means. If there is any natural explanation to the occurence, then by definition, a mircale is ruled out. Incorruptibility requires the lack of any natural means of explaining the phenomenon. Were any natural means used to preserve the body of John XXIII?

Absolutely, and this is common knowledge. Professor's Valdoni and Mazzoni were the personal physicians of John XXIII. Upon John's death, the two doctors contacted a colleague, one Dr. Gennaro Goglia, assistant Professor at the Institute of Anatomy of the Faculty of Medicine at the University of the Sacred Heart in Rome, to come assist with the preparation of the pope's body for burial and veneration by the faithful. The two doctors had already spoken with John XXIII on the matter, and the latter had given them a written document leaving them in charge of preserving his mortal remains. This was all documented in two interviews with these doctors in the Italian Famiglia Cristiana and the French bulletin La Contre-Réforme Catholique, both published in 2001 when the controversy over Pope John's incorruptibility was at it's height.

As soon as the pope died, Dr. Goglia was contacted and came to the Vatican where he injected a preservative into the body of the late pope. Dr. Goglia, now in his eighties, told the Italian weekly Famiglia Cristiana in a 2001 interview: “We put the bottle containing the liquid on the tripod. We made a small cut in the right wrist and inserted the needle there. I was afraid that the blood would exit through the tube or that the liquid could cause the skin to rupture …. At 5 a.m. on June 4 the operation ended. The liquid had reached all the capillaries, blocking the process of decomposition. We then injected some liters of the liquid into the Pope’s stomach, destroyed by cancer, in order to kill the bacteria there.” In addition to this, John XXIII was sealed in an airtight coffin (a triple-seal casket in a marble tomb), which would of course reduce the rate of decomposition considerably. The Vatican says as much. "It’s more common than you might think. The body of the Holy Father was well protected. Oxygen couldn’t get into the coffin and any in there would have been used up very quickly," explained Vincenzo Pascali, from the University of Rome. Father Ciro Benedettini of the Vatican Information Services (VIS) said, "That the body is well preserved needs no comment or hypotheses concerning supernatural causes."

The Zenit news agency itself also denies any miracle surrounding the preservation of Pope John XXIII's remains. It reported that when John XXIII died on June 3, 1963, "the technicians of the Institute of Legal Medicine of Rome injected formaldehyde into his body, to allow the body’s exposition for the faithful, before its burial. The practice has been applied to the Popes who have died since the mid-20th century."

So what was the motive behind this embalming? Their appears to be nothing sinister. Some sedevecantists have claimed the John XXIII intentionally ordered this process for the explicit purpose of appearing incorrupt, but this does not seem to be substantiated. The facts seem to suggest that this was just the procedure at the time and nothing was thought of it. As we've seen, the Vatican strenuously denies any miraculous or supernatural cause to the pope's "remarkably well state of preservation."

Then why do the rumors of the incorrupt body of "Good Pope John" continue to circulate? Because the modern Catholic establishment has a lot invested in the person of Bl. Pope John XXIII. If his sanctity is called into question, then his doctrinal and canonical reforms may be called into question (more so than they already have); if that were to happen, then the entire current apparatus of the Church as it has existed in most places since the 1960's will be called into question. And that is simply not permissible; therefore, John XXIII must be incorrupt, and so he will probably remain.

I don't deny that Pope John was probably personally holy; otherwise I don't think he would have been declared a beata. But it does not follow that he is therefore incorruptible, nor is it a blanket approval of all his innovations.


Anonymous said...

No mention of HOW LONG this presevative is expected to last. How long will this preservative last before his body starts to rot in its glass spectacle? If any one has the slightest ideas pray tell. Thank you kindly in advance and God bless us and protect us of good will.

Anonymous said...

I saw the body of John XXIII in 2004 and he looked
To me to be more beautiful dead than when he was alive,although I never saw him in person, he looked
beatific dead. I think he is incorrupt
but what difference does it make, he will soon be canonized a saint!