Daily Archives: January 17, 2010

David Gibson and Papal Saints

I had not heard of David Gibson before this artice from the New York Times (“Pope Quiz: Is Every Pontiff a Saint?”) turned up on my iGoogle page. I discover that he has been a regular blogger on Beliefnet and is now at PolticsDaily.com. He has also written a book on Pope Benedict (has anyone read it?) and once worked for Vatican Radio. Interestingly, he is a convert to Catholicism. His profile at Politics Daily tells us that this came about due to “a longer-than-expected sojourn in Rome in the 1980s”, and is currently writing a book about conversion. You can watch him in a short video interview about Pope Benedict here. He seems to admire Benedict, and has described him (in a blog entry on the new look of L’Osservatore Romano) saying that

Pope Benedict isn’t quite the stick-in-the-mud that many people think. Yes, he’s an 82-year-old German theology professor who plays classical music on his baby grand and doesn’t know how to work a computer. But he also knows that as pope he needs to reach out to everyone, especially young people, and he’s willing to let others who know popular culture better than he engage youth on their own terrain.

So he seems friendly to the Papacy, even if not given to hagiography. That attitude relates to the NYT article refered to above, which asks the question “Should any pope be made a saint?” He writes:

The church counts less than a third of all 264 dead popes as saints, and most were canonized by popular acclaim in the first centuries of Christianity, often because they were martyrs. Only five were canonized in the entire second millennium, and when Pius X, who died in 1914, was made a saint in 1954 — by Pius XII — he was the first pope so honored in nearly 400 years.

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.

His verdict is that the pope is elected to be

a leader to govern the church. As the German theologian Karl Rahner put it, if a pope turns out to be a wonderful Christian, that’s “a happy coincidence.”

A priest once commented to me that perhaps the reason why such a large proportion of the modern popes have been acclaimed saints in comparison with their predecessors is precisely that once upon a time popes were elected not so much to “govern the Church” as to govern the Papal States, and that the loss of this temporal authority has in fact freed up the papacy to serve its spiritual purpose – and therefore been much more fertile ground for sanctity. An interesting observation, when one considers just how few of the popes who were also governors of the Papal States were ever acclaimed as saints.

In any case, it really isn’t up to us to decide who is and who is not acclaimed a saint. The canonisation process aside (which admittedly is an expensive and time consuming one, meaning that any candidate needs a good backer from the word go to get up and running) the ultimate conclusion regarding an individual’s sainthood is placed in the hands of God (hence the requirement for attested miracles). It is the Church’s job to recognise saints, not make them. If in recent times our popes have also been saints, well, that’s a blessing that we recognise and for which we give thanks to God.

I agree with Gibson that we should avoid the automatic assumption that just because someone is pope he is also a saint. But one can forgive people for wanting to think that this or the other of deceased pope was a saint, and wanting to have the canonisation process begun in order to test this conviction. There is nothing at all to say that Pius XII, for instance, will ever get beyond the “venerable” stage, nor is there anything to say that even Pope John Paul II will prove to be a saint. What we really need to guard against is the assumption that everyone whose cause is being considered by the Congregation for Causes of Saints will automatically become a saint eventually.

I for one believe that it is far more important that we recognise Pope John Paul II – and one day his successor gloriously reigning – a “Doctor of the Church”. Personally, I think there would be much benefit in the Church altering the rule that in order to be proclaimed a “Doctor of the Church”, they first have to be canonised. I don’t see the necessary connection between sainthood and right teaching. It appears to me quite possible that a Christian theologian may have been a great, influential, right and dependable teacher of the faith and yet not have attained full sanctity at the time of their death. Thus, it seems more important to me that Newman and, one day, Ratzinger are recognised as Doctors of the Church than that they are recognised as saints. The former is something that we can judge – the latter is up to God.


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