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Is Canonization a Perk of Papal Election?

Recently the Vatican announced that the causes for canonization of Pius XII and John Paul II are moving along at a brisk pace. While John Paul II remains quite popular, the opposite is true for Pius XII. Many feel he did not do enough to stand up to the Nazis during World War II. And while Benedict XVI said in a visit to the Rome Synagogue today that Pius helped Jews “often in a hidden and discreet way,” many, including a rabbi who spoke before the pope today, do not feel that was sufficient.

Now I think there are certainly two sides to the Pius XII issue. I can see merits on both sides, and we probably don’t know the full story (and won’t until the Vatican Archives on his pontificate are opened—so why the hurry?). But it does seem to me that the proponents of the canonization of Pius XII want him declared a saint as a way of scoring a win against his detractors, to put a stamp of approval on everything he did during the war. And that’s not what canonization should be about.

A commenter to a blog post about this issue angrily said that canonization is not a popularity contest. But you know, it kind of is. Recall that all early saints were canonized by acclamation, and that it was previously always considered that a “cult” already should exist for anyone to be considered for official sainthood. (Now that word “cult” is not what we generally mean by it today; it’s a clumsy translation from the Latin cultus which means an existing veneration by large numbers of people.)

Previously canonization was seen as a response to a grassroots veneration of an individual. It was a way to sort of evaluate the “heroic witness” of someone who was already popular among the faithful and to say “It’s OK to put images of this person in churches, but not that person” as a way to channel existing devotion.

But lately the Vatican has been doing these two-fer arrangements: you can get advances for John Paul II, but you have to take Pius XII too. You can call John XXIII (wildly popular) “blessed,” but you have to do the same for Pius IX (wildly unpopular). Papal canonization has been unhitched from popular devotion and heroic virtue. Quick, what are the heroic virtues exemplified by Pius IX that a lay Christian could imitate? Stumped? Me too. Is there a big celebration and procession in your community in honor of Pius IX? No, of course not. And there is not one anywhere.

At the joint beatification ceremony for John XXIII and Pius IX, tens of thousands of cheering people filled St. Peter’s Square to honor John XXIII. The Pius IX contingent? Some dour relatives in the VIP section and a busload of people from his home town. The Vatican knew no one would turn out for a Pio Nono beatification, so they hitched him to John to get a crowd. Yes, that’s really where we are now.

Aside from the sidestepping the issues of heroic virtue and popular devotion, the prompt canonizations of recent popes has another troubling aspect, brought up by David Gibson in an excellent article in today’s New York Times: is it now assumed that every pope will be canonized?

Now nearly every recent pope is on the canonization track. John Paul II beatified Pius IX, the 19th-century pope who is a polarizing figure because of his belief in the power of the papacy and his views on Judaism. But like Benedict, John Paul did a little ticket-balancing. He simultaneously beatified the popular John XXIII, who convened the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in 1962. The canonization process for Paul VI, who followed John XXIII, is underway, and there is a campaign to beatify John Paul I, who reigned a mere 33 days before his death in 1978.

This is dangerous. I have no doubt that all these popes were good men and tried mightily to live the Gospel. I presume they are all experiencing the joy of heaven. But not every pope is a model for all Christians, and to assume that every pope will be declared a saint only sets us up for problems, because the Vatican will use the presumed sanctity of a living pope to quash discussion and to further centralize power.

I’d love for John XXIII to be declared a saint. But if that means we have to open the door to every recent pope and establish canonization as a papal right, then I’ll do without the title of “Saint” for John XXIII, thank you very much. I can still pray to him and have images of him in my home. I don’t need a decree from Rome for that. And somehow I think he would like that.

4 Responses to “Is Canonization a Perk of Papal Election?”

  1. Bravo – outstanding post.

  2. crystal says:

    I see what you mean now about popular acclamation – someone like Francis of Assisi might be a good example, with a goodness so obvious to so many.

  3. Ceile De says:

    I didn’t know deacons had a vote in the process.

  4. Deacon Eric says:

    I didn’t know deacons had a vote in the process.

    Really? That’s your response? That canonization is a bureaucratic process best left to bureaucrats, and no one else has any right to comment on it? We merely wait for Rome to hand down saints to us, and we take what we get?

    Unfortunately, your response shows a lack of understanding of the historical process of singling out Christian role models and the nature of the Communion of Saints. It’s not about authoritarianism; it’s about devotion, which cannot be commanded or enforced by edict.

    Here is the traditional stance: that everyone has a role in the honor of saints, not only deacons, but also lay people. That’s the way it’s always been. The authoritarian, leave-it-to-the-Vatican stance is the novelty, and I maintain it hasn’t been working so well lately.

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