Atheists say the darnedest things: on canonising popes and councils

In the past week, Ian Slade of London wrote a letter to the Editor of The Times. He wrote:

In the past, centuries elapsed between Pope Saints – St Pius V, died 1572, and St Pius X, died 1914. Now we are to believe that every pope since 1958 (1939 if one counts Pius XII) was of exalted sanctity. John XXIII, imminent canonisation; Paul VI, imminent beatification; John Paul I, case (sic) opened; John Paul II, imminent canonisation.

As an atheist I cannot comment on the medievalism of miracles or their holiness. However, it does seem odd to laud those under whose guidance the practice of the faith, numbers of clergy and moral authority of the Catholic Church have all but collapsed.

First, let’s get the pedantry out of the way otherwise it will only distract from the primary focus. The first sentence of his second paragraph is both casuistical and unclear (though these often go together).  He avows he will make no comment on the “medievalism of miracles”, but surely this casting of miracles as medieval is itself a clear and highly prejudicial comment? And as to his use of “holiness”, syntactically he seems to use it in reference to “miracles”, but this would be an unusual usage. Normally atheists question the veracity of miracles, not their holiness. In light of his first paragraph, it seems more likely that he was using “holiness” in reference to the popes in question. It would make more sense to me; and it highlights the importance of good grammar and syntax.

However, our primary focus should be on his substantive point: why recognise with such high honour those under whom the Church has declined in such dramatic fashion? It is a question deserving of an answer. Mr Slade has a point.

First, as a point of fact, the Church did not decline under all these popes. Without resorting to statistical analysis, it would be generally accepted that the first half of the 20th century was, by most measures, a time of growth for the Church. Especially in countries in which Catholicism was something of an outsider, such as Britain, America and even Australia, Mass attendance grew steadily, as did vocations to priestly and religious life, missionary activity and charitable outreach. The revival after the Modernist crisis and the emergence of the liturgical movement revealed a vigour in the life of the Church that is often sadly discounted. Some might argue that in some of these areas of vitality were sown the seeds of later malaise, but that is another story.

Secondly, it is not quite so outré to believe that every pope since 1939 (or even earlier) has been of remarkable holiness. They were all men of remarkable gifts and character, selfless in the service of the Church and striking in their freedom from vice. They were good and devout men. They were not all necessarily free from the odd imprudent decision or strategic error; and maybe some addressed some problems without recognizing the greater gravity of others. Yet sanctity is not measured by success according to empirical measures, nor does it attempt to ascribe near perfection to a person, nor does it require that a person never make a mistake.

Holiness is the perfection of human charity (love in action, not love as a sentiment) through cooperation with the grace of Christ without which we cannot become holy. This perfection is articulated in and augmented by devotion to doing God’s will and acknowledging his glory, and by serving our neighbour (cf CCC #2013). The holy person is one whose life is entirely oriented to God, and to God through service of others; that holy person thinks of himself or herself last.

Unlike, say, some of the Renaissance popes, the popes of the last century seem indeed to have been men who clearly lived in devoted service of God and His Church. They may have made some mistakes in matters of prudential government; but they were not selfish or self-aggrandizing men. They were men of God, though with feet of clay.

That said, certainly one could say that from Paul VI’s pontificate the Church has suffered a great decline by most measures, such as Mass attendance, vocations, marriages etc. Paul VI especially reigned over a particularly disastrous period in the Church’s history. He promoted liturgical reforms that went far beyond the mandate of the Vatican Council, reforms ostensibly aimed at allowing the people to be more involved and to make the Mass more easily understood; yet the people’s response has been to abandon Mass attendance en masse. He presided over changes in the life of the Church, especially in religious and priestly life, aimed at a greater openness to the world; yet millions of Catholics, and tens of thousands of priests and religious, embraced the world and left the bosom of the Church. The pontificates of Bl John Paul II and Benedict XVI did much to stem the decline, and in latter years even begin to reverse it, but even they had their own small imprudences.

In all, despite their personal qualities, there seems little mark them out for such honour in the current context. It was a general rule that a cause for canonisation would not be introduced until 50 years has passed since the subject’s death. Yet that rule is increasingly honoured in its breach. With Mother Teresa one could see a compelling argument both for her holiness, and for the witness value her life, and her canonisation, would offer the Church and the world. But one reason for the rule was to allow an authentic cultus to emerge from possible emotive hype. So John Paul II, a man of evident holiness and whose last years were a poignant yet powerful testimony to the role of the Cross in the life of a Christian and to the value of human life in general, has found himself approved for sainthood less than 10 years after his death. With Bl John XXIII another rule has been broken, quite legally, by Pope Francis, namely the requirement for a second miracle.

In fact, all this haste for papal canonisation and beatification is centred on the popes who have presided over the conciliar Church (there is no rush to canonise Pius XII, though he is no less worthy in many ways). Given the point that Mr Slade pointed out in his letter, that these popes have presided over a Church that entered freefall from 1962, one might argue that these popes more than any others should have their causes put in the slow lane rather than the fast one. We are yet to see where the post-conciliar turmoil will finally bring us. We pray that we will finally land on tranquil and fruitful shores. At that point it would seem fitting to consider honouring the popes who brought us to such shores. Until then their reputations are too easily compromised, rightly or wrongly, by association with the general failure of the conciliar reforms. The greater the time since their deaths, the greater the chance of reasoned and reasonable assessment of their sanctity, free from the post-conciliar context that would confuse such an assessment.

However, perhaps this exactly the point. Perhaps in the push to canonise the conciliar popes there is an attempt to associate the compromised conciliar reforms with the good personal reputations of the conciliar popes. If all the conciliar popes are holy, then the conciliar reforms they allowed must be good too. Is it not possible that some might see this as an attempt to counteract the increasingly negative repute of the conciliar reforms with the positive personal repute of the conciliar popes? In other words, does this not allow the whole process to be seen as a conciliar public relations exercise? Cynical, perhaps; unrealistic, not necessarily.

For one, I think the popes of the last century and more are very fine men and Christians, worthy in life and selfless in their service of the Church. I could quite easily accept that they are all in heaven and intercede for us even now before Christ the Lord. However, this haste to canonise them, especially the conciliar popes, is almost unseemly; and the breaking of the 50-year rule, and the requirement of the second miracle in John XXIII’s case, begs the question, why is such corner-cutting haste necessary? What earthly end does it serve?

It is not unreasonable to see in this haste an attempt to bolster the standing of the post-conciliar reforms which, as Mr Slade demonstrated, are seen by so many within and without the Church as having demonstrably failed to achieve their objectives. By canonising the conciliar popes they could by implication canonise the conciliar reforms. This would be a grave disservice both to the pope, by tying their causes to the fortunes of the conciliar reforms; and to the reforms themselves by making it more difficult to assess them in the cool and calm air of dispassionate reason – to question them would be seen as questioning these popes, who after all, would be saints! If this, in fact, the case then the Church’s agony will continue longer, and needlessly. It would be such a shame.

3 thoughts on “Atheists say the darnedest things: on canonising popes and councils

  1. Undeniable, Overwhelming and Disturbing Heresies John Paul II’s “pontificate” has been the most fruitless, worthless, and destructive “pontificate” in history. The previous information proves that John Paul II is a blatant heretic and an enemy of the True Faith. Follow John Paul II and the Vatican II “reforms” at the risk of your eternal salvation.

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    1. Yours is an extreme view with which I cannot agree, though I do agree that many things that happened in the wake of the Council were injurious to faith. But Blessed John Paul II steadied the ship of Peter in the midst of the most severe storms, for which he deserves credit.

      Pax.

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