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Can Disobedience Be a Sign of Respect?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 02, 2009

 Krakow's Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, the longtime secretary to the Pope John Paul II, has offered an explanation for his refusal to burn the personal papers of the late Pontiff. If the reports are accurate, the cardinal wants us to keep in mind that in a previous case, a Pope's aide was sharply criticized for destroying the pontifical papers. 

Maybe so. Maybe Cardinal Dziwisz would have been open to criticism if he had burned his old boss's papers. But there is another possibility. And that possibility has been vividly illustrated this week, with the news that the cause for beatification of John Paul II has run into a snag precisely because an old friend, Dr. Wanda Poltawska, didn't burn her extensive correspondence with the Pope.

So these things can cut in two directions. Who's right?

In my opinion, Dr. Poltawska is right to keep her correspondence with the Pope, but Cardinal Dziwisz is wrong to preserve the pontifical papers. 

Am I contradicting myself? I don't think so.

Dr. Poltawska thinks that the world should know more about her old friend, and I agree. Moreover, it is an established principle that letters belong to the people who receive them. These letters belong to her, and if she chooses to publish some of them (as she intends to do), that is her prerogative.

So she has the legal right to preserve and to publish the letters. But should she? She is in a better position to make that judgment than anyone else. The late Pontiff knew what he was doing when he committed his thoughts to writing and sent them to her; he trusted her. Would he approve of their publication now? I don't know. But the people in the best position to answer that question would be his old friends-- such as Wanda Poltawska.

The documents in the possession of Cardinal Dziwisz, on the other hand, are Pope John Paul's private papers: his personal property. They came into the hands of Cardinal Dziwisz because the cardinal was named, in the Pope's will, as the executor. Thus the Polish cardinal has the right to those papers insofar as he is acting as an agent for John Paul II. 

So what would the late Pope want done with those papers? In this case we have a very clear answer. In that same last will and testament, John Paul II directed his executor to burn them.  If he isn't acting on the Pope's orders, Cardinal Dziwisz shouldn't have the papers. If he is acting on the Pope's orders, then he should burn them.


Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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