3

Is the Church Canonizing the Council?

VaticanIIThe announcement that the Church will beatify Pope Paul VI in October has led some observers to declare that Rome is intent on “canonizing” the Second Vatican Council by raising the Popes responsible for that assembly to the honor of the altars.  Pope John XXIII who convened the Council was made a saint last month along with John Paul II who was present at the Council and supported its implementation; while the pontiff now set to be beatified in October presided over the Council’s conclusion and shaped its reform program.

This is a tempting interpretation of the recent activity of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints–the Church agency charged with recognizing new saints–but likely to be off base.

In the first place, it is axiomatic that the Church canonizes saints, not pontificates or governance programs.  As the veteran Italian Vatican correspondent Andrea Tornielli observed after the canonization of John XXIII and John Paul II, “Whoever was expecting [the] event to be an exaltation of the historic role held by the two Popes who were raised to the altars this morning, will have been disappointed.”

Extolling the virtues of the new saints, Pope Francis praised the Christian focus of their lives, and not their “attempts to reaffirm identities, mythical visions of Popes ending wars or breaking down walls and that sense of an increasingly self-referential nostalgia felt by those who have put faith in a cage,” wrote Tornielli.

The Church is not canonizing recent popes because they have implemented better reform programs, but because they have arguably led holier lives devoted to prayer and spirituality.  This has more to do with the First Vatican Council, opened in 1869, than the Second Vatican Council, which reshaped our generation’s experience of the Faith.

The conclusion that the trend of making popes into saints has to do with Vatican II fails to account for the fact that the first modern pope to be canonized is St. Pius X, who predated Vatican II by sixty years.  Pius XII, who also predates Vatican II, has been declared Venerable.  And Pius IX, the Pope who presided over the First Vatican Council, has been declared a Blessed.  What is really going on with these saintly popes?

To understand the question, it helps to look at the earliest years of the papacy.  For the first 300 years of church history, every single pope was sainted; and 52 of the first 54 pontiffs are venerated this way.  Accordingly, making popes saints was the norm–at the beginning.

After the first millennium, that changed for various reasons.  In the early years, there were many persecutions and the earliest popes were martyrs.  After the Middle Ages, the papacy became a bastion of earthly power and there was a lot of corruption.

But of the last ten popes who have died, seven are in some stage of canonization.  Three of these popes are already saints, two have been recognized as venerable, and one other has been beatified, which seems much closer to the early norm in the Church.

It is no coincidence that the streak changes with Bl. Pius IX, the pope who opened the First Vatican Council.  This Council recognized the dogma of papal infallibility.  The Council was closed down when Italy overran the Papal States, relegating subsequent popes to being “prisoners of the Vatican” and, more importantly, stripped of earthly power and confined to being Supreme Pontiffs over spiritual and moral concerns only.

In my view, that is the principal reason we are seeing so many modern papal saints.  History and Vatican I have pushed the Holy Fathers to be holy fathers once again.


Carlos X. is the author of the Super Martyrio Blog, which tracks the canonization cause of the Blessed Óscar A. Romero, whom Carlos met when he was growing up in El Salvador.  Carlos is an attorney who serves on the Board of Directors of the St. Thomas More Society of Orange County, California.
  • Shawn McElhinney

    The first 35 popes were recognized as saints as were 48 of the first 50 popes (through Anastasius II in 498). From there, 22 of the second batch of 50 popes (through Valentine in 827: seven of those were subsequent to Anastasius II through to and including Gregory the Great in 604 with a further 9 in the seventh century through to and including Sergius I) were recognized as saints. From there, 4 popes of the eighth century (placing Leo III in the following century where 16 of his 21 years were) and 5 in the ninth century round out the sainted popes of the first millennium. (Interesting fact: though they were numerically fewer than the centuries previously, the sainted popes of the eighth century covered 62 years while the sainted ninth century popes covered 32 years – 31 of those years being prior to 868.) A couple factors account for the declining over time of popes recognized as saints including (i) increasing mingling of the church with the state, (ii) more stringent approaches taken to saint making, and (iii) civilization in general going into a periodic decline.

    While the occasional saint or blessed would show up amongst the popes of the 11th-18th centuries, the first two reasons I noted above are the main reasons why. And after the two sainted and two blessed eleventh century, no other century after that time (save the thirteenth) would have more than 2 popes either sainted or beatified in them with the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries joining the tenth century as the only centuries without at least one sainred or blessed pope in it. And whatever arguments that can be made for the politics behind some of those actions (i.e. Gregory VII, Urban I, Celestine V, Pius V: yes a political angle was hardly absent those choices any more than with the choices of the modern era), the gradual divesting of temporal power in recent centuries has created a climate where the popes became more like the popes of the early centuries before the acquisition of temporal power. A reforming of the saintmaking process that made it more steeamlined rather than cumbersome and overly juridic as it had become more and more throughout the second milennium also has played a role in recent developments.

    In short, the historical record of the popes substantiates the hypothesis Kevin outlines above.

  • Shawn McElhinney

    The first 35 popes were recognized as saints as were 48 of the first 50 popes (through Anastasius II in 498). From there, 22 of the second batch of 50 popes (through Valentine in 827: seven of those were subsequent to Anastasius II through to and including Gregory the Great in 604 with a further 9 in the seventh century through to and including Sergius I) were recognized as saints. From there, 4 popes of the eighth century (placing Leo III in the following century where 16 of his 21 years were) and 5 in the ninth century round out the sainted popes of the first millennium. (Interesting fact: though they were numerically fewer than the centuries previously, the sainted popes of the eighth century covered 62 years while the sainted ninth century popes covered 32 years – 31 of those years being prior to 868.) A couple factors account for the declining over time of popes recognized as saints including (i) increasing mingling of the church with the state, (ii) more stringent approaches taken to saint making, and (iii) civilization in general going into a periodic decline.

    While the occasional saint or blessed would show up amongst the popes of the 11th-18th centuries, the first two reasons I noted above are the main reasons why. And after the two sainted and two blessed eleventh century, no other century after that time (save the thirteenth) would have more than 2 popes either sainted or beatified in them with the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries joining the tenth century as the only centuries without at least one sainred or blessed pope in it. And whatever arguments that can be made for the politics behind some of those actions (i.e. Gregory VII, Urban I, Celestine V, Pius V: yes a political angle was hardly absent those choices any more than with the choices of the modern era), the gradual divesting of temporal power in recent centuries has created a climate where the popes became more like the popes of the early centuries before the acquisition of temporal power. A reforming of the saintmaking process that made it more steeamlined rather than cumbersome and overly juridic as it had become more and more throughout the second milennium also has played a role in recent developments.

    In short, the historical record of the popes substantiates the hypothesis Carlos X outlines above.

  • Shawn McElhinney

    Moderator, please delete the guest comment from 3 hours ago…I thought I was logged into Disqus when I wrote it but apparently was not.