Thursday, May 1, 2014

Stop canonizing popes!: an appeal for a moratorium on pope-saints

Last Sunday, the sun rose and set on another day given to enrolling the names of two more popes into the calendar of saints. For those of you privy to inter-Catholic debates on the legacy of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II (two "founding fathers" of the Second Vatican Council), you might know that they weren't received across the board. A few friends of mine were surely disappointed that no one was struck by lightning that day, or that the ground beneath Saint Peter's Square didn't split open and consume the whole lot of papolators assembled there to an agonizing death. Other friends in the opposing camp were upset that the rest of the world failed to share their schoolgirl-like enthusiasm for the new honors bestowed on the two newly sainted pontiffs; even John Paul II's own countrymen largely met the festivities with a shrug, or so the HuffPo reports. Regardless of whatever the media says, there's a deeper phenomenon that I've searched and searched for reference to, and it seems no one has ever thought to talk about: that, together with Saint Pius X, the Catholic Church has canonized more popes as saints from the 20th century than any other era in Christian history since the 800's AD. Further, with other modern popes Pius XII and Paul VI being "venerable" (the latter also getting beatified this October), and John Paul I being a "servant of God", over half of all the popes who ever reigned in the 20th century are either saints or are on their way to becoming one; this hasn't been seen since the 600's. What does this mean? There can only be one conclusion: that the hierarchy wants us to believe that they've given us a holier crop of popes than any other generation since the age of Gregory the Great. I don't know about you, but this stretches my inner medievalist's suspension of disbelief when it comes to the successors of Peter.
Let's step back and assess what this all means. The word "saint" has evolved in meaning over the ages; for example, in the earliest days it was sometimes a catch-all word for Christians in general (Acts 9:32 or Romans 15:25-26, for example); but for our purposes, a saint is someone whom the Church has recognized to be in heaven, and therefore actively interceding with God on behalf of believers on earth. How do we know someone's in heaven? In the ancient Church, the only way you knew for sure was if the person in question was outright martyred, or died explicitly for professing faith in Jesus Christ. Those who died for the sake of the kingdom would receive crowns in the heavenly city. But then Constantine brought an end to persecution in Rome, and over time, the Church, flush with victory, effectively ran out of new saints to canonize (with some notable exceptions). They had to expand the definition to include a new class of faithful: "confessors", those believers who hadn't died violently, but endured lifelong suffering in defense of the faith. Eventually, this too proved too restrictive, so now a saint can be any Christian who was known to live a life of heroic virtue.
The early Christians recognized saints mainly by popular acclaim. Given the Romans' love of a good show with gratuitous (unstaged) violence, this method was reliable enough for the stringent requirements of the age. ("Were you at the Circus Maximus last week?" "Yeah, I totally saw that rhino gore poor Lucius to death as he kept screaming 'Jesus!'" "Sounds like a saint to me.") The causes for confessors and heroically virtuous folk a few centuries later needed more substance, so local bishops took charge of the responsibility of examining their lives and alleged miracles, lest their flock would start praying to "Saint" Hilarius from down the street merely because he was such a nice guy that he had to be in heaven. The last crucial stage of development came around the turn of the second millennium. As the calendar of saints grew more and more cluttered, and more bishops turned to the popes in Rome for advice or authority to give a favored saint a universal, rather than merely a local or national cult of followers, the popes eventually reserved the right to all canonizations for themselves. Walter of Pontoise, a Benedictine abbot, was the last saint in western Christendom to be canonized by someone other than the pope (the Archbishop of Rouen canonized Walter in 1153; two decades later, Pope Alexander III censured bishops for canonizing an unworthy man, saying, "You shall not therefore presume to honour him in the future; for, even if miracles were worked through him, it is not lawful for you to venerate him as a saint without the authority of the Catholic Church.").
Saint Pius V, as painted by El Greco
Contrary to what we would expect from human nature, the popes didn't abuse the sole right to proclaim saints by stacking the calendar with the names of all their predecessors. In fact, the rate of pope-saints continued to decline until, by the end of the Middle Ages, seeing the "St." prefixed before a pope's name was a rare sight: only about 1 in 30 successive popes earned the distinction. This might be expected through the darkest days of the Papacy, such as the pornocracy or the Borgias, but even the firebrands of the Counter-Reformation only ever produced Saint Pius V (whose feast is today as of my writing this post, and which prompted the topic in my mind to begin with). Nearly four hundred years passed between Pius V's death and that of the next pope-saint in the line, Pius X.
From here onward, we see a pivotal change in the way popes are treated by the faithful. Before, popes were princes as much as the other crowned heads of Europe. They wielded true political power, but few ordinary Catholics wept when the French revolutionary invaded the Papal States and took Pius VI prisoner; he died in captivity, and to this day is seldom remarked by even the most zealous Catholic historians. Likewise, few Catholics in Rome itself felt sorry for Pius IX when, in 1870, the Italian army seized the city, permanently dissolved the Papal States, and the pope proclaimed himself "a prisoner of the Vatican". But perhaps the loss of the temporal state was what the popes needed in order to find a place in the hearts of believers. Freed from the need to worry about redrawing borders, signing off on trade policy, or collecting taxes, perhaps the popes suddenly found themselves with much more time in the day to celebrate Mass or write books. Where before the popes were an entity from beyond the Alps whose name most peasants didn't even know, the gifts of photography, radio, television, air travel, and instant communication allowed them to become subjects of conversation around the dinner table. Combine that with the fact that an entire generation of devout believers knew no pope other than the long-reigning John Paul II by the time of his death, and it's no wonder that the streets resounded with the cries of "santo subito!" at his funeral.
But is the ever-expanding cult of popes a good thing? Does the Church really need to set aside holy days for every pope of the modern era? What makes the recent popes so much holier than all their predecessors back to the 7th century? I listen to the new dynamic duo's fanclub and their stories about how one or the other once kissed them as a baby or such, and remain perplexed. Returning to the requirements of sainthood; being either a martyr, a confessor, or having lived with heroic virtue; I still don't see where John XXIII fits. Since Francis even waived the second miracle requirement, it seems like he was canonized for being a fat, jovial Italian guy. If that's all it takes, I move for canonizing everyone who's ever graced the label of a jar of spaghetti sauce. John Paul II is a more complex case. Surely, I recognize that he achieved many great things and positively changed the lives of countless more people than I could ever imagine, but I thought that the infamous Koran-kissing picture, not to mention John Paul's full knowledge of the scope of the sex abuse crisis that has ravaged the Church's credibility for over a full decade and seeming refusal to do anything about it, would be more than enough for Rome to put the brakes on canonization, at least until everyone could forget about them. Perhaps, thanks to media-master Francis, they did.
Yes, this exists....
Now, in October, Rome will subject us to the beatification of Paul VI, the pope responsible for the near-total annihilation of the Church's liturgy, the rites surrounding all the sacraments, and really, every way that Catholicism was expressed before he took the chair. This convinced me, at least, that populism isn't the driving force behind the trend to canonize every pope in living memory, since no one, neither traditional, conservative, or progressive, even likes Paul VI. I'm forced to conclude that these men have been, or will be canonized, primarily because they happen to be popes. Pious discourse throughout many Catholic blogosphere sites such as would have us believe that, rather than the result of carefully planned, high-stakes political bargaining as those who shrugged at the loss of the Papal States would have probably taken as a matter of course, each new pope is now the personal choice of the Holy Ghost. It stands to reason, then, that our modern popes are saints by default, for who else but a saint would the Holy Ghost ever allow to take the chair of Peter?
History, common sense, and probably even theology shows this to be ridiculous. We know that papal elections are subject to the folly of human ambition, or else the Protestant Reformers would never have been able to use such painfully and obviously fallen specimens as Alexander VI and Julius II as a beating stick in their tracts. It seems equally obvious to me that, with the Church hemorrhaging in record numbers due largely to the actions (or inaction) of the popes in question, the canonization process too has, at least at this time, been reduced to a political tool. Who, exactly, will be at Saint Peter's Square to celebrate the day Pope Saint Paul VI's cult is imposed upon the universal Church? The pope presiding that day will appear to be no more than one of the Roman emperors, deifying his predecessor to appease the Praetorian Guard (or in this case, cardinals) and shore up legitimacy for himself as an ideological successor.
Therefore, I motion for a moratorium on all papal canonizations; better yet, that all attempts to canonize popes in future, save perhaps for martyrs, be banned forever. Some of my trad friends may ask, "but what about Pius XII/Pius IX/Leo XIII/[insert favorite pre-Vatican II pope here]?" My answer: they are popes who frequently invoked the Church's authority to support their words. They'll be remembered by historians and theologians regardless of how many people pray to them or fashion statues in their likeness. Instead, save the honors of canonization for those great Catholics who would otherwise likely be forgotten in the passing of time. If I could make a first suggestion, allow me to propose a cause be started for that great architect of the Gothic revival, Augustus Welby Pugin. Unlike a pope, whom I could scarcely aspire to emulate in any tangible way whatsoever (even one with all the humble pretensions of a Francis), I know Pugin as a layman, not too unlike myself, a man full of passions and ambitions directed toward glorifying God. He was an architect, a builder in wood and stone, much like the carpenter Christ. He died young, a favorite trope among the saints. And his canonization would perhaps spark an interest among the people of England to look back to their pre-Reformation past.
Or that could be mostly wishful thinking from a Gothicist; but if it is, then the notion that canonizing yet more popes will pave the way for more lay Catholics to aspire sainthood is truly a pipe dream.


  1. Truly an interesting read! (As usual.)

  2. And insightful, and even funny, article.

  3. That would be wonderful. We (in the school where I work) are just about to go to Mass in a chapel designed by Pugin - and I think, the only church built by him with no changes in the architectural design: a saint indeed. Has anyone ever written a "hagiographical" study of Pugin ? I remember reading an essay about his piety and use of the Divine Office.