Every Pope a Saint? The Politics of Canonization

Yale Books Unbound

Michael Coogan—

On April 27, ornately robed clerics will celebrate the canonization of two recent popes, John XXIII and John Paul II. In the modern Roman Catholic Church until the last few decades, canonization­—declaring someone a saint—was rare and occurred only after a protracted process. Successive steps lead to canonization: first, one is declared “Servant of God,” then “Venerable,” then “Blessed,” and finally “Saint.” From the beginning of the fourteenth century to the mid-twentieth, only two popes were canonized and another three were declared “Blessed.” Not so any more: since the papacy of John Paul II a flurry of canonizations has been underway, not just for ordinary individuals deemed holy, but also for modern popes.

GWB LB DIGITAL 12:35 Statements with Pope John Paul II.
Pope John Paul II

Remarkably, all of the popes since the mid-twentieth century, except of course for those still alive, are on the path to canonization: Pius XII (1939–1958, declared Servant of God in 1990 and Venerable in 2009), John XXIII (1958–1963, declared Servant of God in 1965, Venerable in 1999, and Blessed in 2000), Paul VI (1963–1978, declared Servant of God in 1993 and Venerable in 2012), John Paul I (1978, declared Servant of God in 2003), and John Paul II (1978–2005, declared Servant of God in 2005, Venerable in 2009, and Blessed in 2011). Why this sudden, almost automatic rush to sainthood for recent popes?

Part of the answer lies in nineteenth-century realpolitik. For more than a thousand years, the pope was not just the spiritual head of the Roman Catholic Church, but also a monarch, the ruler of the Papal States in the central Italian peninsula. As sovereigns of this territory, popes engaged in diplomacy and war to maintain and expand their control. In the nineteenth century, however, the papal domain was virtually eliminated by the unification of Italy under Garibaldi and his successors, culminating with the capture of Rome by Italian forces in September 1870. All that was left of papal territory was tiny Vatican City. Only a few months before, when the fall of Rome was already inevitable, the First Vatican Council, at Pope Pius IX’s prompting, declared the doctrine of papal infallibility. If the popes could not be political sovereigns, it seems, they could at least have absolute spiritual authority, especially, as the official wording has it, when they say they are speaking infallibly on an issue of faith or morals.

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