I was recently involved in a debate with one of my friends. There wasn't really a conclusion to the debate (I was called an ecclesiastical liberal by the end, and told not to talk to the person anymore), but I spent so much time preparing my response that I felt I should share it with you.
The recent declarations concerning Pope Pius XII and Pope John Paul II prompted the discussion. For those who have not heard, Benedict XVI recently declared the heroic virtues of the two pontiffs. The person had stated that it was a bad thing that John Paul II had received this distinction, as it puts him a step closer to sainthood. The person stated that it would be a terrible thing if John Paul II became a saint, and that the two (he meant three) popes the person did not like were John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II. In response to this comment, I wrote what follows. Hopefully this will inform those who are interested, and perhaps change the minds of those who agree with this person. I have adjusted the tone of the response to make it more universal, less personal, if that's alright with everyone.
First, I assume you meant three popes instead of two, because you listed Blessed John XXIII, Paul VI, and John Paul II (I assume you skipped John Paul I because he did not reign long enough to do anything offensive). I am saddened that you feel that the day JPII becomes a saint (which may or may not ever happen) will be a bad one. The idea that any day a saint is made is a bad one worries me, since a canonization is an infallible declaration that someone is in heaven, and that we can pray through them so that they can intercede for us. It is one of the most beautiful aspects of our Catholic Faith.
But lets look at these popes which you despise.
John XXIII - became pope in 1958, following the death of Pius XII. He had not expected to become pope, and had actually purchased a return ticked for the train back to Venice, where he was a patriarch of that city. He was supposed to be a filler pope, a little bit older and more likely not to do anything with his pontificate. The hope was that a younger cardinal would be elected after his death. No one expected everything this filler pope brought about.
John was loved by all, famous for his infections personality. He visited prisons, declaring to the inmates, "You could not come to me, so I came to you." He opened Vatican II in October of 1962, after he had made some additions to the Roman Missal (like adding a invocation of St. Joseph in the Canon), what we know of as the 1962 Missal, used in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass.
The Second Vatican Council, whether you like it or not, is one of the most important events in the history of the Catholic Church in the 20th Century. The primary goal was to pick up where Vatican I had left off (it had been canceled prematurely due to Rome being annexed by Italy, towards the end of the Franco-Prussian War). The hope of this council, John stated, was to open the windows of the Church and let in some fresh air, so to speak. The problems of the council, some more innocent than others, were less the fault of Pope John, who had honorable and holy intentions for the council. His main fault was his faith in humanity. He loved people, and refused to see evil around him. This is clearly seen in his first encyclical, Ad Petri Cathedram. He died early on in the council, and apparently his last words were "stop the council." Only on his deathbed had the holy pope realized how he had been used.
He was beatified by John Paul II in 2000.
Paul VI - Pope Paul VI was the logical successor to John XXIII. He had been close to both Pope John and his predecessor Pius XII. He had worked with Pope Pius during World War II, and was made cardinal under Pope John. Paul would make his own mark on the Church. He reopened Vatican II (the council had been suspended with the death of John XXIII) and worked with the cardinals to write the documents, sometimes directly intervening (in Lumen Gentium, for example, Pope Paul had the cardinals attach a chapter about Mary under her new title as Mother of the Church). He wrote commentaries about the documents, and closed the council in 1965.
In addition to writing these commentaries, Pope Paul VI wrote several encyclicals, including Mysterium Fidei (which defended several Catholic traditions and doctrines concerning the Eucharist), Sacerdotalis Caelibatus (which defended priestly celibacy), Populorum Progressio (a social encyclical, which Pope Benedict XVI cites mostly in his recent social encyclical Caritas in Veritate), and Humanae Vitae (his most famous encyclical, where he defended the Church's position on marriage, abortion, and contraceptives, even against his "advisors"). He also worked on ecumenical relations with non-Catholic Christians, and indeed paved the way for the recent group Anglican conversions (but that's a topic for another day). In 1978, he became very sick while staying at Castle Gandolfo, the summer residence for popes. He died there, and was buried under St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.
The controversies surrounding Paul VI are surprising. During Vatican II, he ensured the Council remained not too liberal or conservative. His might be criticized for not coming down as hard as he could on those who dissented from his teachings, particularly that found in Humanae Vitae, although he was not afraid publicly reprimanding, or at least supporting correction of, dissenters. He suffered throughout his pontificate from people on both sides of the liberal/conservative coin pulling and ripping at him. He wanted so much to see the Church become a universal Church, not just one of Europe. In that it is clear he succeeded, because otherwise we would not be having this conversation.
John Paul II - Undeniably the most recognizable pontiff of the last 100 years, John Paul II was elected after the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, who reigned for a mere 33 days. John Paul II was a surprise choice, the first non-Italian pope since Pope Adrian VI. He had been at Vatican II and had worked with Paul VI on several matters. He reigned for almost 27 years, one of the longest pontificates in history. He delt with all sorts of issues, be it moral, dogmatic, liturgical, diplomatic, etc. He was the victim of an assassination attempt at the hands of communist agents in 1981 at an audience in St. Peter's square. He played a great role in the fall of communism, talking with world leaders and inspiring uprisings throughout the world, most notably the Solidarity movement in Poland. He traveled throughout the world, and worked with reuniting other Christian communities with the Catholic Church. He had promulgated under his pontificate a reissue of the Code of Canon Law and a universal Catechism of the Catholic Church. He defended the Church's teachings on moral issues, issuing the first officially moral theology encyclical, Veritatis Splendor, and one that dealt with life issues, Evangelicum Vitae.
His life and work is well known, and yet rarely fully examined. Few people, especially his critics, have read all of his work (there are so many, and they are so long!). He canonized 483 saints and beatified 1340 people (which has also been cited as a slight against him, as if many saints is a bad thing). As with Paul VI, he was criticized by liberals for his conservative views (particularly his firm stance on moral issues and Church doctrine) and ultra-conservatives for his apologies for past Church actions/inactions, his interaction with other religions, and his unwillingness to abandon Vatican II.
He was a very spiritual person, holding a special devotion to Mary and the Passion.
That sums up my summary of the popes you don't like. Do you see my point?