Should popes be made saints?

Pope Benedict paid a visit to Rome’s main synagogue yesterday, where the canonization cause of Pope Pius XII — something of a sore spot in Catholic-Jewish relations these days — was almost guaranteed to come up. (Some in the Jewish community feel he didn’t do enough to combat the Holocaust, but others counter that he in fact worked tirelessly on behalf of the Jewish people — and was universally acclaimed for that work in the years immediately following the war.)

Over in the New York Times, David Gibson uses the occasion to question our distinctly modern-day practice of canonizing so many popes so quickly:

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.

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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.

Gibson argues that the role of the papacy underwent a shift in the modern era, with the advent of print media bringing the pope’s face to parts of the world where previously “Catholics would be hard pressed to name the pope and almost none would know what he looked like.” This, in turn, made the pope a “rallying point for those who wanted to see the world as standing against the church.”

Surely the papacy’s greater visibility means greater acclaim (or censure) for the man sitting in the chair — but wouldn’t this be true for all prospective saints lately? Without the advent of the Internet age, would we have known about, say, the Mother Teresas, or the martyrs of totalitarian regimes, or the various lay men and women who have also been put on the track to sainthood in recent years?

In other words, is the Internet speeding up the canonization process for so many — popes included — simply because their causes are becoming more clear to greater numbers than ever before, or is this “rush” to canonize so many popes lately more problematic?

Either way, we’d do well to remember that the papacy doesn’t automatically bestow sainthood:

As the German theologian Karl Rahner put it, if a pope turns out to be a wonderful Christian, that’s “a happy coincidence,” just as when the president of the chess club is also a great player. It is not necessarily relevant, however, to the health of the chess club — or the church.

A quick glance at the truly awful popes the Church has survived through the years should make that pretty clear.

[Image: Tom Hanson / AP file]



  • Margaret Cabaniss

    Margaret Cabaniss is the former managing editor of Crisis Magazine. She joined Crisis in 2002 after graduating from the University of the South with a degree in English Literature and currently lives in Baltimore, Maryland. She now blogs at

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