On Being a Pope and a Saint

It looks like former Popes are getting preferential treatment in becoming saints.  The religious reporter for The New York Times provided some interesting statistics.  Only five popes were canonized in the entire second millennium. Most of the dead popes recognized as saints were martyrs, canonized by acclaim in the first centuries of Christianity. Pius X, who died in 1914 and was canonized in 1954, was the first pope so honored in nearly 400 years.

“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….  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.”

Looking at the evidence through the lens of fair employment practice, the statistics alone make a blatant case for discrimination.  What is going on here?

The Times reporter suggests that in this age of mass communication, the pope has become the face of Catholicism.  As such has to be not only the most powerful of the bishops but the most holy.  The pope, in effect, represents the brand.  He has to be flawless.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, a theology professor at Notre Dame, offers another suggestion:  canonizations may be a defense against criticism of popes.  He observed “the church would do better to canonize more saintly lay people — parents and grandparents and regular holy folk ‘with whom the overwhelming majority of Catholics can identify.’”

“The only one of the recent batch of papal candidates for canonization who is at all credible is John XXIII,” added Father McBrien.  (See “Pope Quiz: Is Every Pontiff a Saint?”)

Both explanations are plausible and probably correct.  I would add that in an age where so many priests have been accused of molesting their charges and colluding in covering up the evidence, there may well be a strong felt need to emphasize the virtue and holiness of others in the church, to rectify the balance.  There may be bad priests and derelict bishops, so the logic of this argument goes, but at the very top the church is perfect.

If so, it has the opposite effect, however, creating a split between “regular holy folk” and the ultra holy.  As with all splits, it’s not just that the ordinary practitioners are left out, the point that troubles Father McBrien, but everyone is then presented with an unrealistic standard, an unobtainable ideal.

The article points out that there is another problem with this trend:  it neglects the real job of the pope.  The theologian Karl Rahner observed that “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.”