Infallible Holiness

January 23, 2010 at 1:05 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments
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In his op-ed piece in the Times last Sunday, the religion journalist David Gibson highlighted something that had escaped my attention: all four of the previous popes –Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II–are now in the canonization pipeline. Is every pontiff a saint, he asks? 

Gibson begins by reviewing the recent controversy over the beatification of Pius XII, especially the harm it has done to Jewish-Catholic relations. He  goes on to question whether any pope should be made a saint, suggesting that to do so dilutes the meaning of sainthood. Following Notre Dame theologian Richard McBrien, Gibson suggests that more saintly lay-people ought to be canonized, not popes.

I sympathize with Gibson’s position, as I intimate in a previous blog recommending the beatification of the Grand Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri instead of Pius XII. But I have to tell you, David, that your proposal hasn’t got a prayer. The Vatican will go right on beatifying and canonizing previous heads of the Vatican as the sun is going to go on coming up in the morning.

So I offer an alternative proposal: why don’t we canonize all popes at the time of their election? The canonization process is lengthy and expensive and if the church is going to go ahead and proclaim the heroic virtue of all popes anyhow, why don’t we/they just do it right off and get it over with? All other considerations aside, such an approach would save the Vatican the embarrassment of announcing that the archives from the reign of a pope half a century ago aren’t yet in good enough order to be open to scholars.  

And would canonizing popes at the time of their election actually change very much? Bear in mind that the pope is already referred to as “Your Holiness.”  

Finally, automatic canonization would offer a new and thought-provoking experience for Catholics in the pew whose relationships with the saints up until now are limited or perhaps we could say diffused by the fact that those saints are dead.  Now we would know that the living breathing person we are speaking with or listening to actually is a saint. Consider the great certainty such an experience would afford us in this time of crisis and confusion.


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  1. Marian, somehow I knew that your “very serious reflection” would expose the intellectual underpinnings of this recent move. Your proposal would have given John Paul I a fighting chance at sainthood, too — my own feeling is that he’s closer than some of those who lasted longer. He did no harm.


  2. Marian – I like it. The other benefit would be that maybe we could think of many living people who are saints and start their process while they are still able to comment on the pros and cons. I would guess that Dorothy Day would object, for example. Cheers, Mary Anna


  3. My own view of saints changed forever when I learned that Bernard of Clairvaux preached the crusade against the Jews. How could a saint do that I thought. It was then that I figured out being a saint didn’t mean being perfect for at least the last part of one’s life. What a relief!


  4. Your claim that the Vatican is relying on “the archives are not quite ready” defense is inaccurate. That was the old–implausible–excuse. The new one is “the dog ate all the papal documents.”


  5. Dear Marian, Another reason to canonize popes right away is that they are the Vicar of Christ. Mary Gindhart, January 24, 2010


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