The thorny question of sainthood

Each week, Symposium Magazine invites an author to guest-blog. This week’s featured piece is History Versus Hagiography by Robert Ventresca.

One of the most vexing dimensions of the public controversies over the wartime activities of Pius XII and Giovanni Palatucci are the respective causes to have these contested historical figures declared saints of the Catholic Church. In fact, the cases of both men are well beyond the initial stage of inquiry and certification, such that, while controversy swirls around the various claims and counter-claims of what they did (or did not do) during the Holocaust, both bear the ponderous title of “Servant of God.”

Indeed, Pius XII’s candidacy is much further along the path to sainthood. A decisive step came in December 2009, when Benedict XVI approved a declaration acknowledging “the heroic virtues of the Servant of God Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli).” It was a simple decree, issued without any fanfare, perhaps to avoid generating intense media scrutiny on what the Vatican knows to be a hugely contentious issue and a source of contention in Jewish-Catholic relations. It was an important step all the same insofar as it put the wartime Pope one step closer to sainthood. Lofty heights indeed.

Of course, he may never get there. And, if the recent claims are substantiated that Giovanni Palatucci was anything but a righteous rescuer of Jews during the Holocaust, neither will he. As a papal biographer, I am asked repeatedly for my opinion on Pius XII’s case. My standard answer, which I have borrowed from one-too-many a politician, is that a judgment on the canonization cause is above my pay-grade.

With this, I don’t mean to be evasive — not entirely. The simple fact is that, as a historian trained in his craft at a major, secular research university in North America, I have neither the technical competence nor the professional interest to speak authoritatively about the canonization cause. But maybe I should. After all, to the extent that the canonization process purports to count on “historical criticism” to ascertain the “authenticity and credibility” of the historical bases of the cause, then such work clearly is the proper purview of the historian. What were to happen if the historian were to find that the assumptions, methods and documentary record compiled in the course of investigating these causes fell short of the standards of professional historical scholarship? In other words, how would the theological judgment of their validity be affected by the proper work of historical criticism?

I will address those questions in my next post.

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