October 21, 2003

Saints R Us?

I think it was Macaulay who said that the Roman Catholic Church deserved great credit for, and owed its longevity to, its ability to handle and contain fanaticism. This rather oblique compliment belongs to a more serious age. What is so striking about the 'beatification' of the woman who styled herself 'Mother' Teresa is the abject surrender, on the part of the church, to the forces of showbiz, superstition, and populism.

-- Christopher Hitchens, Mommie Dearest

Given his avowed hostility toward religion ("I'm not neutral about religion," he states in this interview, "I'm hostile to it."), Catholics may be inclined to dismiss Christopher Hitchens' latest Slate column as the work of a hardened secularist seeking to augment his reputation as a self-styled professional contrarian. They should not do so.

Leaving aside his obvious antipathy toward the Church (which involves ignoring the scare quotes around beatification and sainthood and glossing over his grossly oversimplified account of the practice of indulgences), Hitchens makes an important point:

It used to be that a person could not even be nominated for 'beatification,' the first step to 'sainthood,' until five years after his or her death. This was to guard against local or popular enthusiasm in the promotion of dubious characters. The pope nominated MT a year after her death in 1997. It also used to be that an apparatus of inquiry was set in train, including the scrutiny of an advocatus diaboli or 'devil's advocate,' to test any extraordinary claims. The pope has abolished this office and has created more instant saints than all his predecessors combined as far back as the 16th century.

Why should the rules be changed in the case of Mother Teresa? What is five years, or 500 years, for that matter, when measured against eternity?

But the case of Mother Teresa is only the most obvious and publicized instance of a wider trend. As this CNN report notes, 473 saints have been canonized under John Paul II, "more than the combined 299 saints [canonized] by all the previous popes since 1588." There is something unseemly in this rush to canonization, and as a Catholic (albeit a lapsed one) I am quite frankly embarrassed by it. Does this new "Saints R Us" policy represent a response to the liberalism and secularism of our age? If so, I suspect it will have the same effect as the Church's 19th-century response to the liberalism and secularism of that age, which is to say that it may well do as much to undermine Church authority as did the promulgation of the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1870.

For more on Hitchens on Mother Teresa, see this post by Matthew Yglesias, whose statement that "there's nothing I love more than the smell of Mother Theresa-bashing in the morning" has generated some predictably heated commentary.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at October 21, 2003 09:47 PM

for you agnostic/post-Christian/atheist lot - you might as well move on to the next post...it will mean as much to you as, say, the average single A baseball boxscore does to me...

honestly, having too many saints in too short a time seems to me the least of the Church's problems these days, especially in the US and Western Europe.

i must admit, as a catholic convert who joined the Church after living in central Africa, that i am pleased that a great number of people have been canonized from outside of North America and Europe. the real strength of the Church will come from South America, Asia, and Africa, and there has been for far too long holy people from these regions have not received the attention they deserved.

what will pose a big problem in a few years will not be too many saints, but confrontations between "third world" Christian practices and belief (and unbelief) in the US and Europe. look at the Anglicans facing rupture! what will good-minded agnostics do with people in Africa who still have a sense of the supernatural?

on Mother Theresa, i stay silent. i know little about her other than the hype and Hitchens. CH lampooning Mother Theresa is nothing new. Neither is his lament about how Americans are too religious.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 21, 2003 11:18 PM

forgive the awful grammar of the last post - i taught three classes today, and am throughly worn out. secular types feel free to take the poor writing style as evidence of my credulity.

Posted by: better left nameless at October 21, 2003 11:20 PM

Can someone explain to me the many recent beatifications? Is there a stated reason for them? Is there an obvious "real" reason?

BLN, it's interesting that you identify one of the things for which this Pope has been widely praised--his inclusiveness--as the source of future problems. Can't we say that the need to articulate a Catholicism that reconciles "African" and "European" belief is a great opportunity for the Church? Not that it won't blow it...

Posted by: ogged at October 22, 2003 02:31 AM

The real reason behind at least many of the beatifications and santifications? Two words: Opus Dei.

Posted by: aa at October 22, 2003 08:50 AM

It's worth remembering that a "saint" for the Catholic Church is merely someone who will live in heaven after the Day of Judgment. Hopefully, almost all of us will be saints. Theologically, God desires that all become saints and gives all of us the means to become so, but we may reject that grace. The Church's declaring someone a Saint merely means that the Church has found signs from earthly life that the person in question accepted God's grace in a clear and convincing way.

So, although JPII may be lowering the Church's standards a bit, and I personally think declarations should be made rarely (out of respect for the fact that God knows for sure, we only know speculatively) -- nevertheless, if the evidence in those 473 cases was clear and convincing, he's not abusing his power. "Saints R Us" may be a bit harsh.

Posted by: pj at October 22, 2003 08:59 AM

in response to ogged -

I certainly believe that African and Asian influences on Catholicism in the US and western Europe will have a great impact, and I want them to happen as soon as possible! It will be a good opportunity to transcend a lot of cultural divisions. However, I think a lot of American Catholics will have mixed feelings about these influences, especially in regards to hot button issues (sexuality, women's roles, etc.)

Posted by: better left nameless at October 22, 2003 11:53 AM

The obvious reason for all of the saints is that the Catholic Church is recognizing people outside of Europe as being in Heaven. JPII is rapidly expanding the Church beyond its former European boundaries, and to do so he needs saints in all of those countries. What IA should worry about is whether, 20 years from now, her liberal, lapsed Catholic voice is even relevant to a new Church centered in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The Episcopal Church, USA is already finding out that America is not the center of the universe.

JPII is a real visionary who is building a truly universal Church. It will both Catholic and catholic. Look for Popes and Cardinals chosen from all over the world. As a practicing Christian, though not a Catholic, I pray for the Church's success.

Dick Patton

Posted by: at October 22, 2003 12:51 PM

There's little doubt in my mind that my liberal, lapsed voice is already utterly irrelevant to the Church hierarchy.

"The obvious reason for all of the saints is that the Catholic Church is recognizing people outside of Europe as being in Heaven."
This is by no means an innovation by John Paul II, though it is often presented as such in the media. As a matter of fact, the Church has argued for many centuries now that people outside of Europe can and do go to Heaven.

I wonder what percentage of the 473 saints canonized by JPII are nonwesterners? No doubt some of them were western missionaries who died outside of Europe.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at October 22, 2003 01:11 PM

Speaking as a member of the Episcopal Church, USA, I fully understand that America is not the center of the universe. In our church, there is no center in the way that Rome is the center of Catholicism. The Archbishop of Canterbury has moral authority but not absolute political power. Speaking as a convert from Catholocism, I find this refreshing.

I assume that Dick Patton is referring to the Episcopal Church's ordination of an openly gay bishop. Some American dioceses and other members of the Anglican Communion--particularly in Africa and Latin America, the same growth areas as the Catholic Church--are taking vigorous exception to this action. I'm a bit puzzled by this, as the world didn't end when Episcopaleans ordained women as priests. But, perhaps that's a topic for another day.

Posted by: Kevin Walzer at October 22, 2003 01:42 PM

Another way of expressing my point: Roughly 100 million people die each year. Pope JPII has canonized roughly 20 people per year. Given that we hope most of those 100 million are saints, it's not obvious that declaring 20 of them to be so is an unreasonable rate. If Christopher Hitchens thinks that Mother Teresa is the 'poster girl' for the underserving-saint campaign, he's not going to make much progress with Catholics.

IA - the Church has ALWAYS held that non-Europeans go to heaven. Indeed, Jesus and the other Middle Eastern Jews who led Christianity 2000 years ago would have been astounded at the claim that only Europeans can go to heaven.

Posted by: pj at October 22, 2003 02:57 PM

Old imperial rule wasn't usually nationalistic the way France's rule of its linguistic minorities is. Russia, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottomans ruled lots on non-Russians, etc., etc., without trying to change their nationality. So there was no Swedification during Swedish rule, except of the elite. Then when linguistic nationalism did come along, the pro-Finnish push was stronger than whatever Swedish-nationaist push there was in the other direction (partly because Russia and Sweden were contesting Finland during some of this period).

All this makes sense. What about the Anglo-Saxons, the Turks, the Hungarians, and the English in Ireland? Perhaps it was a more aggressive colonization in these cases, involving more violent subjugation of the defeated and larger population transfers. The fate of Gaulish in Roman Gaul is another question; it seems to have disappeared almost entirely. (Frankish was still barely alive alongside French around 1000 AD as I remember, and the French of 1200 has more recognizably Frankish vocabulary than modern French does.)

Posted by: Zizka at October 22, 2003 04:26 PM

zizka -

what does your post have to do with beefing up the saint stats?

Posted by: better left nameless at October 22, 2003 05:06 PM

Whoops! I inadvertently cut and pasted from a different thread. Post may be deleted, unless people really want to read that stuff. My real post was not of any importance.

Posted by: Zizka at October 22, 2003 06:08 PM

I confess myself a bit mystified by aa's mention of Opus Dei. I know who they are, of course, but other than the canonization of Josemaria Escriva, I fail to see what they have to do with anything.

How many of the 470-some saints canonized by Pope John Paul II are non-westerners? According to my count:
Vietnam: 117
Korea: 103
China: 84
Japan: 15
Sudan: 1
Lebanon: 1
Albania: 1

For non-European westerners:
Mexico: 28
Paraguay: 3
1 each: Ecuador, Chile, Canada, USA

I counted from listed place of birth, not death, to make sure they weren't missionaries. 322 saints born outside the western world: more than 2/3 of the total, and 35 other non-Europeans. Does this answer your question, IA?

Posted by: Jane at October 22, 2003 06:32 PM

The reason behind the relatively large number of canonizations is that the Pope desired to give the world examples of great sanctity in many different states of life. The most important requirement for sainthood has not been relaxed. It still requires the approval of two post-mortem miracles (the approval process is quite rigorous), or else that the person in question was martyred. Most of the Asians canonized were martyrs.

Posted by: Erin at October 24, 2003 07:52 PM

Can someone explain to me the many recent beatifications? Is there a stated reason for them? Is there an obvious "real" reason?

Serious struggles with the Proddies for the SouthEast Asian market. It was decided that the Catholic Church needed to get some brown saints to shore up the franchise.

Posted by: dsquared at October 27, 2003 06:30 AM

But surely if they were from Asia they wouldn't be brown but yellow?

Posted by: Jane at October 29, 2003 01:57 AM