The Difficulty of Canonizing Popes

COMMENTARY: Should popes be canonized? Has something gone wrong if one isn’t?

Pope John Paul I celebrates Mass.
Pope John Paul I celebrates Mass. (photo: © L'Osservatore Romano)

The latest to join saints-a-marching is Pope John Paul I, who moves a major step toward sainthood with the decree of his heroic virtues approved Wednesday. The decree, granted by Pope Francis, means that the Church, after thorough investigation, judges the candidate worthy of beatification and canonization. The subsequent requirement for a miracle or miracles is considered divine confirmation of the ecclesial judgment.

Candidates for sainthood are styled “Venerable” after the declaration of heroic virtues. Thus Venerable John Paul I joins Venerable Pius XII in awaiting a miracle for beatification.

While the early martyr-popes were quickly venerated as saints, the canonization of popes is not the norm. To the contrary, there were periods where many of them were far from exemplary Christian disciples.

The elevation of Pope Pius X to the altars in the 1950s was something of a novelty, after a gap of several centuries.

Pope St. Pius V, who died in 1572, was beatified in 1672 and canonized in 1712, was the last to be beatified before St. Pius X, who died in 1914, was beatified in 1951 and canonized in 1954. Thus some 279 years passed between papal beatifications. The two Pian popes, the fifth and the 10th, themselves died 342 years apart.

Two years after the canonization of Pius X, Pope Innocent XI, who died in 1689, was beatified in 1956, 267 years after his death.

Things began to speed up in the third millennium.

The Great Jubilee of 2000, under the prodigious saint-maker Pope St. John Paul II, added two more. Pope Pius IX was beatified Sept. 3, 122 years after his death. Pope St. John XXIII was beatified in the same ceremony, 37 years after his death.

Pope St. John Paul II himself was beatified in 2011 and canonized in 2014, both the fastest beatification and fastest canonization under official procedures for the causes of saints, as opposed to the more spontaneous declarations that endured into the medieval period. Pope St. John XXIII was doubled up for the second time, canonized with John Paul II. In October 2014, just months after the twin papal canonizations, Pope Paul VI was beatified, 36 years after his death.

Since Blessed Pius IX in the 19th century, all of his successors have been declared at least “Venerable,” save for Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI. Pope Pius XII and all his deceased successors have been declared “Venerable.”

Is this the new default, where popes are put on the road to canonization? Sanctity does not come with any office, and being pope does not automatically qualify one for holiness, though presumably the cardinals who elect a new pope would take holiness of life into consideration.

Putting popes on the road to canonization as a matter of course does invite questions about those — Leo XIII and Pius XI — for whom there is no cause. Were they lacking somehow in heroic virtue?

On the other hand, since the 19th century, thanks to mass-media communications, the pope is ever more present in the life of the universal Church. For more than a century now, the typical Catholic knows more about the pope in Rome than his own bishop. The greater familiarity with the popes means that their example of holiness reaches far more people and that genuine devotion can take root.

That there have been a long series of popes whose personal holiness is not in doubt should be celebrated. It has been the distinctive characteristic of the papacy in our time.

The difficulty with canonizing popes is that it is impossible to separate the holiness of the man with the conduct of the pontificate.

In the case of Venerable John Paul I, it is not an issue, as the 33-day pontificate was too short to have any effect. It was his death that was significant, as it opened the cardinals to the possibility of electing the successor that Paul VI had in mind — Cardinal Karol Wojtyła of Krakow — immediately, and not at some future conclave.

But for other popes, does canonization mean putting a heavenly seal on the pontificate? Does it seek to neutralize historical criticism of the decisions made?

Not necessarily. St. Pius V remains one of the most consequential of popes, and historians are not shy about offering criticism. His decision to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth I of England in 1570 is generally thought to have made a bad situation worse. So canonization does not mean immunity from the prosecutors of history.

St. John Paul II was aware of this issue and addressed it directly in his homily at the Mass for the beatification of Pius IX and John XXIII.

“In beatifying one of her sons, the Church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made, but rather points to him as someone to be imitated and venerated because of his virtues, in praise of the divine grace which shines resplendently in him,” the Holy Father said on that occasion.

In the same homily, John Paul acknowledged that Pius IX was “much loved, but also hated and slandered.”

Indeed, even more than a century after his death, Pius IX remained such a figure of sufficient controversy that John Paul beatified him alongside John XXIII, aiming rather obviously to provide something for everyone.

“By divine design, their beatification links these two Popes who lived in very different historical contexts but, beyond appearances, share many human and spiritual similarities,” John Paul said at the beatification, arguing that linking the two was not an ecclesiastical balancing act, appearances to the contrary.

Pope John's deep veneration for Pius IX, to whose beatification he looked forward, is well-known,” John Paul added. “During a spiritual retreat in 1959, he wrote in his diary: ‘I always think of Pius IX of holy and glorious memory, and by imitating him in his sacrifices, I would like to be worthy to celebrate his canonization.’”

The historical question returned with particular force in the cause of Pius XII. Would beatification constitute a definitive refutation of those who criticized his wartime record?

Pope Benedict XVI made very strong and public arguments in defense of Pius XII, but when it came time to declare him “Venerable” in December 2009, Benedict XVI signed the decree of heroic virtues for John Paul II on the same day. The double-up strategy was employed again.

When it came time for John Paul II to be canonized, Pope Francis also sought to double up, even though there was no controversy over John Paul’s canonization. There was no other papal candidate ready, though, to twin with John Paul, so Francis waived the requirement for a miracle in order that John XXIII could be canonized at the same time.

The decisions made by John Paul II, Benedict XVI and Francis all illustrate that popes do in fact understand that sainthood causes are understood in part as historical judgments.

Pope Francis himself has spoken positively about the causes of both Pius XII and John Paul I. If the decision is taken to beatify the former after proof of a miracle, it would be a good bet that the twinning strategy would be deployed a fourth time, with both Pius XII and John Paul I going to the altars together.

Father Raymond J. de Souza is the

editor in chief of Convivium magazine.