Popes Making Popes Saints

Paul VI, Saint Peter's.jpg

Richard Kalvar/Magnum Photos

Bernini’s baldacchino, Saint Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City, 1978

On September 3, 2000, Pope John Paul II beatified Pope Pius IX. (Beatification is the third and penultimate rung on the ladder to sainthood—it certifies that a genuine miracle was worked through a dead person’s intercession, establishes a liturgical feast day for that person, and authorizes church prayer to him or her.) Pius IX was a polarizing figure. He wrested from the Vatican Council a declaration of his own infallibility; he condemned such modern heresies as democratic government; he took a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, from his family—on the grounds that Edgardo’s Christian nurse had baptized him as an infant, making him belong to the church, not to his infidel parents.

Promoting such a man was a touchy matter for Pope John Paul—but he helped ease Pius into the ranks of the blessed by simultaneously beatifying the popular Pope John XXIII. Though liberals of all sorts disliked Pius IX, only hardened Curial types and sedevacantists—“throne-empty” believers, who hold that John XXIII was not a legitimate pope—hated John for changing the church with the Second Vatican Council. Otherwise, “good Pope John” was loved by most Catholics and many non-Catholics—Lyndon Johnson gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The mutterings over Pius were practically drowned out by the cheers for John.

Now Pope Francis has come up with another ablutionary pairing. He is canonizing John Paul II in record time (Benedict XVI had already waived the normal five-years-after-death period to allow the beatifying process to begin.) Though John Paul II is not as hotly resented by liberals as Pius IX, he is still subject to deep criticism. He presided over the church during its worldwide pedophile scandal, and he gave the handling of that problem to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the head of the Congregation on the Doctrine of the Faith—the very man who, succeeding him, would waive the time-lapse needed to begin his predecessor’s canonization. (Who can think that a saint in heaven ever protected a predatory priest?) John Paul had treated as “irreversible” his stands on matters such as homosexuality, married priests, and women priests. He is a symbol, for some people, of things that need remedy in the church.

But—not to worry—the “good Pope John” is again being pressed into service. He was beatified to take the sting out of Pius IX’s promotion. He is now being canonized to make a joint heavenly pair with John Paul II. To rush John XXIII forward, Pope Francis is even waiving the normal requirement of a second miracle for canonization. John XXIII is the feel-good pope in a time of turmoil, even though he is being used to sanction the turmoil caused by John Paul II.

The Vatican no doubt feels that combining a liberal hero with a conservative hero shows how big a tent its sacred baldacchino is; the holy institution transcends earthly politics. Besides, the modern canonization process is supposed to have inoculated sainthood from politics, basing it on objective evidence, provided by documents, interrogation, medical examinations, scientific certification—all Enlightenment techniques used to sanction a pre-Enlightenment concept. But, after all this lengthy preparation, only the pope can declare that a supernatural miracle happened—and to say who worked it, the particular address in heaven to which prayers for it had been sent. The pope knows the address, and certifies its reception by the right party. That is knowing a whole lot.

Modern popes have been chary of invoking the suspect “charism,” or divine gift, of infallibility, a power Pius IX wrested from his captive Vatican Council. It is a power used only once in the technical sense, in Pius XII’s 1950 definition of a non-controversial doctrine (Mary’s assumption into heaven). But, in place of infallibility, recent popes have found many ways of describing their acts as almost-infallible, irreversible, universal. That is where the canonization process comes in so handily. It gives the pope a kind of back-door infallibility. He says definitively that a person is in heaven, and can work miracles, and worked particular ones (or, for John XXIII, a single one).

This familiarity with unearthly traffic resembles the popes’ power (rarely brought up now) to say who can get out of purgatory with a plenary indulgence. If he has such power to know unearthly things, what earthly knowledge can be denied him? No wonder John Paul II canonized and beatified people by the hundreds (far more than any other pope). Each stamp of entry into heaven above authenticates the pope’s power of the stamp here below. And each time a pope canonizes a pope he is completing a circuit of reciprocal authentications. Is it surprising that so many popes have been canonized?

This is not like the early church’s prayers with and for and to the dead—voiced long before there was a pope to certify what prayer was or was not allowed. The idea that all believers, alive and dead, are members of the mystical body of Christ was given expression around the burial place of martyrs. Chesterton called tradition “a democracy of the dead”—by which ancestors still vote with us. That was the Christian community’s sense of a continuing oneness in all its members. Instead of that, we now have a cumbrous, officially monitored, and extremely expensive way of getting a person declared a saint who can be prayed to at Mass. Another reason for popes’ canonizations is that the costs are all “in house.”


Religious orders, like popes, have a pecuniary advantage in getting their founders made saints—as Opus Dei’s founder, Josemaria Escriva, was canonized by John Paul II. A religious order can mobilize great resources—for canvassing, certifying, lobbying in Rome—from its houses, members, and benefactors. The expense of time, energy, and cash is well worth it if the founder is canonized. The founder-saint’s feast day, sites or shrines, and relics—all of these promote the order, its works, its recruiting of new members, and further fund-raising.

There is a kind of sad humor in the effort some good-hearted people are making to promote the canonization of the social activist, pacifist, and founder of The Catholic Worker Dorothy Day, using methods of subsidized glorification that mock her own values and concerns. In the same way, it is a bit sad to see Pope Francis, who has been doing wonderful things in his short time at the Vatican, play the old game of self-certification at the top of a saint-making factory. Many hope he will make needed changes in the church. But in promoting John Paul II he is exalting a man who fought every one of those changes.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in