Monday, April 28, 2014

Popes, To Canonize or Not to Canonize?

Sunday, there was a dual canonization held at the Vatican with Pope Francis recognizing his predecessors Pope John Paul II and Pope John XXIII as saints. This was fairly groundbreaking in a number of ways though, perhaps, it is easy to miss it considering that breaking with the established rules and long-held traditions has become rather commonplace in the reign of Pope Francis. For one thing, at no other time in Christian history have there been two popes present for the canonization of two other popes; speaking of course of Pope Francis and “Pope Emeritus” Benedict XVI. That Pope Benedict XVI stepped down (abdicated, resigned or whatever one chooses to call it) was, in itself, something that had not been done in centuries and even then, was nothing like previous papal abdications had been because, it was almost as though it was only a partial-abdication or some sort of half-way measure. He is still known as Benedict XVI and not Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he still wears white, is still addressed as “Holiness” and still uses the keys of St Peter on his coat of arms. He is not exactly “the” Pope anymore but he certainly didn’t go back to being a cardinal. Furthermore, his replacement, Pope Francis, doesn’t seem terribly attached to the idea of being Pope himself. He prefers to call himself Bishop of Rome rather than Supreme Pontiff (does not add “PP” after his name, which he writes in Italian rather than the customary Latin), has been reticent to don the traditional garb of the Pope and while under Benedict XVI the Papal Tiara disappeared from the coat of arms (replacing it with a modified miter), but added a pallium at the bottom to signify his special position, Pope Francis has deleted both the tiara and the pallium. So, he was elected pope, accepted the office of pope but doesn’t want to call himself pope, doesn’t like dressing like a pope and doesn’t want to live in the palace of the popes. I suppose it makes sense to somebody.

Pope John XXIII
The canonizations themselves are also rather unusual, given how speedily they were carried out. Traditionally, it takes a very long time for someone to be canonized in the Catholic Church with some candidates not being recognized as saints for centuries; even martyrs. Yet, Pope John XXIII is declared a saint 51 years after his death and John Paul II a mere 9 years. What is also rather interesting is the fact that Pope John XXIII was beatified (declared ‘Blessed John XXIII’) alongside Pope Pius IX, yet he is being canonized alongside Pope John Paul II. So what happened to Pope Pius IX? A good question. Pope John XXIII was “fast-tracked” for canonization by Pope Francis because he opened the Second Vatican Council. In fact, his feast day is to be celebrated, not on the anniversary of his death as is traditional, but on the anniversary of the start of Vatican II. Aside from the streamlining for all canonizations enacted by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II (and John Paul II streamlined things considerably) this “fast-tracking” means that Pope John XXIII is being recognized as a saint with only one miracle attributed to his intercession rather than two as the rules of the day require. Some might ask exactly how opening a council is grounds for accelerated sainthood (and I would regard that as a valid question) but it still does not explain why John XXIII is given this favor and not Pius IX. After all, Pius IX opened the First Vatican Council and under considerably more stressful circumstances than the opening of the Second Vatican Council. If opening Vatican II was grounds for “fast-tracking” John XXIII, why is opening Vatican I not grounds for “fast-tracking” Pius IX? This gives the appearance that the council is more important than the pope/potential saint under discussion.

This stands out all the more when one considers the causes for canonization for former popes related to Vatican II. During and after Vatican II the Catholic Church has had four Pontiffs who have gone to their reward; John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II. Now consider that two of those have already been declared saints, Paul VI has been declared a “Servant of God” and last year had a miracle attributed to him, clearing the way for him to be beatified and John Paul I also has a cause underway, has also been named a “Servant of God” and has a miracle under examination by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. In other words, every single deceased Pope since Vatican II has been or is in the process of being declared a saint. This sudden flood of saintly pontiffs seems, rightly or wrongly, all the more out of the ordinary given that, during this period of history, the Catholic Church has diminished greatly, both in influence and in the number of clerics and adherents. Skillful leadership is not a requirement for saintliness but, again, it does seem rather odd that such a succession of saintly leaders would preside over such a decline in a religious organization. What qualities exactly have these men demonstrated that their pre-Vatican II predecessors did not that would warrant this? Were Pius XII, Pius XI or Benedict XV any less saintly?

Pope Pius IX
In any event, I do not want to stray too far from Pope Pius IX here because it does seem, to me at least, to be the most obvious question. John XXIII and Pius IX were beatified at the same time, why are they not being canonized at the same time? Why did Pope Francis choose to “fast-track” the one but not the other? Some might speculate that political considerations played a part and that is a perfectly valid argument. John XXIII is remembered as the “good” Pope while Pius IX is remembered as the Pope who said “no”. John XXIII is seen as the Pope who stopped using the plural “we” to refer to himself, who visited the sick and the imprisoned, who was friendly and jovial. Pius IX is seen as the Pope who maintained his rule over Rome by a French army, the last Pope to have people executed, the Pope who said “no” to modernity and whose funeral procession was attacked by an angry mob. That is the perception, and all of it is true but it does not give a complete picture of either man. Perceptions change after all and the perception of Pope Pius IX, perhaps most famous for his (masterful) “Syllabus of Errors” is perceived in a negative light mostly because all the errors he enumerated in that document have been embraced by the modern world and accepted as good things, even by many, if not most, in the Church itself. Oddly enough, one is more apt to find Catholics who will defend the (often contradictory) political maneuverings of Pius IX than any who will defend, without equivocation, his “Syllabus of Errors”. And, it should be pointed out, that syllabus contained nothing but a restatement of what the Catholic Church had always condemned anyway.

Certainly, one can make the argument that the canonization of Pius IX should be delayed because it might give people the wrong impression; the idea that such a step implies a ringing endorsement of his every action. Pius IX is, and certainly was even in his own time, a rather divisive figure. To some degree, he had only himself to blame for that, presenting himself as a reformer and an Italian patriot only to later (come to his senses and) become a reactionary and force Italians to choose between their country and their Church. That is a painful thing and most people do not want to have to make such a choice, which is invariably bad for the Church since history shows, from England to Germany, if forced to decide, the majority tend to choose their country. However, and this is my own opinion I must emphasize, it does not seem to me that his politics is really the issue. Yes, he was the last Pope to wage war, he was the last Pope to send people to the guillotine and today we know that the Popes are against all wars and oppose the death penalty. But it is not uncommon, in my experience, to find Catholics who will defend those actions, who will point out the context of the situation and the principles that motivated Pope Pius IX in his rule as the last “Pope-King”. What is far from common is to find anyone defending the “Syllabus of Errors” and I cannot help but think that, rather than his political decisions, it is the syllabus that causes Pius IX to be pushed aside by those in the Vatican today. Anyone who would defend the “Syllabus of Errors” is probably a hopelessly outdated reactionary, probably a monarchist and quite possibly mad (and probably has a portrait of Pius IX on his wall simply for being so ardently opposed to “progress” -not that we’re talking about anyone specific here).

Pope John Paul II
After all, even more “fast-tracked” that John XXIII is Pope John Paul II and the Vatican authorities have been quite clear that his canonization is in regard to his personal piety and is not to be taken as a statement on his pontificate as a whole. After all, there was the whole problem of the sexual-abuse scandal during the reign of John Paul II and the, frankly disgraceful, sheltering of clerics of questionable morality such as Bernard Cardinal Law who was found to have covered up reports of sexual abuse only to be reassigned to Rome beyond the reach of the American justice system. Why wasn’t something done to punish those responsible for these crimes in the Church? Why was nothing done to the deplorable Mexican priest Father Marcial Maciel (who was removed from active ministry but only after the election of Benedict XVI)? What about the case of the reprehensible Roger Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles? Famous for his homosexual outreach, a priest praised Cardinal Mahony for never “rebuking those gays and lesbians who are not celibate”. He himself even said a special mass for homosexual Catholics during “Gay Pride Week” in Los Angeles. Doesn’t that run counter to the official teaching of the Catholic Church? How is it that someone like Archbishop Lefebvre was excommunicated for disobedience but Cardinal Mahony was not (and today lives happily in retirement devoting his time to campaigning on behalf of illegal immigrants)? I bring these examples up not to disparage the late John Paul II in any way. I think he was a good man and a sincere Christian, he was an inspirational public figure but just not a very good administrator. However, if his reign can be set aside in preference to his personal piety, why can the same not be done for Pius IX? And given the fact that those questions have not been answered, it would seem at least prudent, for the sake of the good name of the Church if nothing else, to have delayed the canonization of John Paul II until they could be answered.

Pope Pius IX
Again, there is plenty of negative things that could be said about Pope Pius IX and his administration of the Catholic Church and his political decisions as ruler of the Papal States, but why is that grounds for delaying his canonization while all of the above does not stop the “fast-tracking” of Pope John Paul II? This is my opinion alone, as I have mentioned before, but I cannot help but think this involves the “Spirit of Vatican II” and that the primary impediment to the canonization of Pius IX is not his administration of the Church, his political decisions, the ghettos or the papal military but is rather best summarized by the Syllabus of Errors which so unequivocally condemned things like socialism, the separation of Church and state, communism, and perhaps most importantly these days, the idea that “The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with, progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” I don’t think they have a problem with his personal behavior, I don’t even think they have a problem with his willingness to fight to defend his rule over central Italy but I am beginning to have a hard time coming to any other conclusion than that they have a very big problem with his refusal to change or to even accept the mentality that the Church or the Pope should ever change. I could, of course, be wrong and I would be glad to hear explanations from any who care to comment on exactly why John XXIII and Pius IX were beatified together but have not been canonized together. Has there been an upswing in the personal piety of pontiffs since Vatican II or is there a prejudice against the more princely pontiffs of old? You tell me.


  1. I assume it is all due to the Church's desperation to regain 'credibility' in the eyes of the secular world. We now have a celebrity Pope who poses for 'selfies' (highly distasteful, to me anyway), makes soft noises regarding Marxism and Homosexuality and in general seems to want to appear to be all things to all men and women. All this smacks of the Vatican allowing itself to be judged by the standards of the world, whereas it should be the other way around. As a tonic, I recommend Nicolas Gomez Davila's aphorisms on Post-Vatican Catholicism:

  2. I think the more and more the Church tries to be "cool" with the modern secularists; who will never join the Church no matter how "cool" it seems, the less relevant as a religious body they will be.

    Luckily the Orthodox Catholic Church is still trying to keep to it's roots, even if they like to get too friendly with dictators like Putin.

  3. There is no comparison to cardinal roger Mahoney to any priest who sexually abuses anyone.

    Of course I come from this as a Protestant, but it seems to me that rather than being exclusive, he's trying to be inclusive and reach out to the oppressed. And isn't that what Christianity is abt?

    1. Don't let your support for the gay agenda blind you to the facts. You don't have to be a Catholic, just watch the news. Cardinal Mahony reassigned known child abusers, he covered up crimes committed in his area and he destroyed evidence the police wanted to bring abusive priests to justice. Just because you like his coddling of homosexuals, don't ignore what the authorities and the victims rights groups have long said about this man.

    2. I apologize. I didn't realuze that. Yes, that makes a difference to me and changes my opinion.

      As I said, I'm coming from this as a Protestant, and may not have all the facts.

  4. As an (ex)Seminarian, I can appreciate this piece for it's honesty. As a huge admirer of Blessed Pius IX, I have already begun a brief biography (hagiography) of the man, as well as his spirituality.

    The sentiments that you express are so on point and agreeable, that I question that you are not me, and that I am not a schizophrenic.


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