Pius XII – santo presto?

Recently we discussed the impending expedited canonizations of the blessed popes John XXIII and John II, and the difficulties raised by the haste involved (not by any doubts regarding their sanctity). Two principal areas of concern were noted:that it might appear to be a case of popes looking after their own; and that their expedited canonizations might be part of an agenda to canonize Vatican II by canonizing the conciliar popes, which struck an atheist observer as a dubious strategy given the conflict that has riven the Church in the Council’s wake. Such an agenda gains a little more plausibility when we remember that Paul VI is also being considered for canonization. So it was with a mild sense of startlement that I read today the assertion that Pope Francis is considering canonizing Pope Pius XII, the last pre-conciliar pope, the bane of progressivist Catholics and often calumnied as “Hitler’s Pope” ( a charge historians are debunking with hearteningly increased frequency). The report cites an anonymous source in the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The import of the piece is that not only is Francis considering canonizing the Venerable Pius XII, but doing so in the same way as with Bl John XXIII: without the validation of any miracles, but as a pure act of papal authority, invoking “scientia certa (certainty in knowledge), thereby jumping over the step of beatification”.

Ven Pope Pius XII

The mixed feelings with which I read this article take some sorting through. One the one hand, it is cheering to see Pius XII being accorded the attention he deserves, given the calumny his reputation has endured over his policy towards the Nazi regime and its persecution and genocide of the Jewish peoples of Europe. History will prove, and is proving, that Pius XII charted a highly difficult path through the murkiest of waters during World War II, balancing his concern for the welfare of the Church (surely a primary responsibility of a pope) and the need to afford assistance to the victims of Nazi persecution. He was never going to please everyone. In the end he opted to refrain from public and explicit condemnation for fear of a backlash against the Church in Nazi-controlled Europe, including the Vatican itself (as actually happened in Holland after its bishops spoke out too explicitly, a victim of which was Edith Stein, now St Theresa Benedicta of the Cross). Instead he used the resources of the Church in Italy and elsewhere, especially convents, to hide thousands of Jews and help them to escape. He was a brave, prudent pope, who loved the Church dearly and manifested a pastor’s heart, and suffered from the misunderstanding (and deliberate misrepresentation) of his policy of public silence and private assistance. His encyclicals are exceptional, and in them we can see the birth of the modern style of papal encyclical. He is yet another of a remarkable series of holy popes in the last 150 years.

On the other hand, if true, this intended course of action suggests yet again an easily misconstrued preference for papal canonizations, reinforcing the sense that popes look after their own. In Pope Francis’ case it is probably completely unjustified, and the possibility that an action could be misrepresented is no adequate reason for not doing it. Of more concern is the haste. Not haste post mortem, since the normative 50 years have now elapsed since Pius XII’s death, but haste in the completing of the process, bypassing miracles and beatification to bring Pius XII straight to sainthood. Again, this is not to doubt either Pius XII’s sanctity nor the legitimacy of such an act of papal infallibility. Rather, more consideration should be given to the public perception of yet more corner-cutting for papal canonizations. If they are holy men (and I feel they are) their causes can withstand the rigorous process of investigation normally employed by the Vatican.

Of course, if Pope Francis does act to expedite Pius XII’s advance to sainthood, it will be for a reason. Would it be to balance the post-conciliar popes with a pre-conciliar one, one indeed whose policies many see as having been rebuffed by the Council? In other words would he be seeking to show a symbolic impartiality towards both progressive and traditionalist? Could it be to raise the controversy over Pius XII’s papal policy to fever-pitch (an example of that making of “noise” he commended to youth in Rio) so that it might also finally be dealt with by such an act of approbation? (Would the secular world be impressed by such an exercise of papal authority, given that it rejects such papal authority except when it suits them?)

Given Francis’ reluctance to call himself “Pope”, preferring “Bishop of Rome”, it would be a striking example of papal power. Whatever the pitfalls, problems and implications, one thing is sure enough: Pius XII is worthy to be raised to the altars of the Church. Surely all Catholics could agree with that.

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.