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Theological Notebook: NYT Op-Ed on Cleaning Up Canonization in the Catholic Church

I have to thank jucundushomo for giving me the heads-up on this New York Times op-ed that James Martin, S.J. turned in. Tim was right on target in knowing I'd be interested in that I have complained in times past that the official canonization process in the Catholic Church has gotten corrupted by being politicized. Certainly, I merely have to think back a few years to remember a group of rather desperate curial officials from Rome pushing through the beatification of Pope Pius IX as apparently some kind of "balance" to the (somehow also apparently) threatening beatification of Pope John XXIII. But whereas Pius is remembered in the Church more with a shake of the head (except, apparently, in the Roman curia) because of his high-anxiety attitude toward modernity and his 19th-century absolutist monarchical response to it, John XIII – who said Catholicism had nothing to fear from interaction with modernity, had much to teach it and to learn from it, and called the Second Vatican Council to that end – actually has a popular devotion within the Church, which is traditionally one of the characteristics of official "sainthood" in Catholicism. Mercifully, this kind of reduction of canonization to political partisanship is another one of those things that might be cleaned up by having a first-tier theologian like Benedict XVI in the papacy.

In many respects, this is a much more minor affair of the Church's, but I think at the same time it's still one worth paying attention to. Those we promote as models and heroes have an effect in our world, and I think this is all the more apparent in our media- and image-driven society, where far too many of those who become models for others are of a poor or shallow sort.

Op-Ed Contributor
Trials of the Saints

By JAMES MARTIN
Published: March 3, 2008

LAST month, while Americans celebrated the feast days of two secular saints, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, the Vatican issued a surprising new directive calling for greater rigor in its own saint-making process. Published by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the 45-page document called for “strict adherence” to existing rules, in response to some concerns that the canonization procedures had been watered down over the last two decades.

Such criticisms are only half correct: the Vatican’s rules are actually far more rigorous than many may suspect. Still, the church could increase its credibility even further in this department with a few additional benchmarks.

During his long pontificate, Pope John Paul II beatified 1,340 people and canonized almost 500 — more than all his predecessors combined since the current procedures were introduced in 1588. John Paul also waived the traditional five-year waiting period required before the process, or “cause,” could begin for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997.

The Vatican’s new document says that some procedures had become “problematic.” As a result, local bishops are now instructed to exercise “greater sobriety and rigor” in determining which saints-to-be they send for approval to Rome. Candidates should not be promoted by small interest groups; rather, their reputation for holiness must be “spontaneous and not artificially procured.” Officials vetting the cases must be impartial, and not omit negative aspects of a person’s life. And the examination of the miracles required for canonization must make use of “all clinical and technical means.”

While Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul may already be saints in the public mind, for example, the Vatican takes a longer view. Canonization has long been an arduous procedure, which includes gathering evidence for a life of heroic sanctity, interviewing contemporaries and examining a person’s writings for any hint of unorthodoxy. One medically certifiable miracle is required for beatification (when the person is declared “blessed”), and one more for canonization. Only then will the pope declare a person a saint and worthy of “public veneration.”

Even the standard for verifying miracles, arguably the aspect of the process that causes the most eye-rolling among agnostics and atheists, is famously strict. The Congregation draws on teams of doctors (not all of them Catholic) who assiduously rule out any other cause for a healing. Typically, the person cured will have prayed for the saint’s intercession. Any miracle must be instantaneous, permanent and medically verifiable. Those “cured” cannot simply have improved, cannot relapse and cannot have sought medical care (or at least must have given it up well before the miracle). Consequently, the verification process can take decades, as doctors monitor the stricken person’s progress.

Vatican standards for miracles are high not simply because the church is seeking irrefutable evidence of divine intervention, but because the church has much to lose if a miracle is later debunked. The Oxford historian Ruth Harris, for example, uncovered evidence of several early “healings” at the French shrine of Lourdes that were widely held to be miracles by the local populace, but which were rejected by exacting church officials worried about a rush to judgment.

The Vatican understands that any canonization procedures that seem rushed, biased or faulty would invite not only public derision, but also the suspicion of the faithful today and in centuries to come. Any whiff of fast-tracking could decrease respect for a new saint. That may be one reason Pope Benedict XVI did not accede to the wishes of the crowds at John Paul’s funeral in April 2005, who loudly called for “Santo subito!” — “Sainthood now!” Benedict’s implicit response was, “Not yet.”

But to combat ingrained and increasing skepticism, the church could go even further. First, officials could resolve that they will continue to adhere to the five-year waiting period, no matter how popular the candidate might be at death. Second, while the desire to recognize sanctity across the globe is laudable and serves as a reminder that holiness knows no boundaries, the church could avoid bumping up someone in line because the person hails from a country with relatively few saints.

Finally, the church could avoid favoring (or disfavoring) candidates out of any political implications. Archbishop Óscar Romero of San Salvador, who was murdered while celebrating mass in 1980 and who spoke out in defense of the embattled poor, seems to fit the classic definition of a martyr. Yet for many years his cause seemed to have stalled, probably because of his affinity for left-leaning “liberation theology,” which is highly unpopular in Rome.

Catholics should welcome the Vatican’s insistence on increased rigor in its saint-making guidelines. The redoubled commitment to an impartial judging of a saint’s life demonstrates that the church does not “create” saints as much as it simply recognizes them. Likewise, its renewed reminders that, for the church, miracles are serious scientific business, may make it more difficult for agnostics and atheists to disbelieve.

And easier for believers to believe.

James Martin is a Jesuit priest and the author of “My Life With the Saints.”
Tags: benedict xvi, catholicism, curia, ecclesiology, historical, jesuits, mysticism/spirituality, new york times, papacy, political, second vatican council, theological notebook, vatican
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