When does one ‘deserve’ canonization?

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

When Pope Paul VI announced in November 1965 the opening of the causes to canonize both of his immediate predecessors – John XXIII and Pius XII – he claimed that he was doing so in order that “history will be assured the patrimony of their spiritual legacy.” He insisted that the path to sainthood for both men would proceed for no reason other than “the cult of their holiness.”

This was another way of saying, presumably, that neither Pope would make it to the goal line as it were unless they truly deserved it, by virtue of their holy and virtuous lives. That John XXIII is set to cross that line in April 2014 while Pius XII’s cause remains the source of some controversy (or at the very least ambivalence even in Vatican circles) should not be taken to mean necessarily that the former was holier and more virtuous than the latter. We leave it to others to judge whether this was, in fact, the case.

Still, the disparate outcome to date of these two causes, begun at the same time by the same Pope in the era of Vatican II, reflects the persistence in certain Catholic circles, even at the highest levels, of a deep ambivalence about Pius XII: his wartime record, his temperament and the legacy of his long and historic but contested pontificate. Whether fair and justified or not, the ambivalence runs deeply and has a long history. In fact, even at the time when Paul VI announced both causes, he did so mindful that competing factions within ecclesiastical circles were pressuring him to advance the cause of one or the other of his immediate successors.

These factions, if we can call them that, were crudely characterized in The New York Times in November 1965 when it spoke of a “conservative” faction that was rallying around the “austere, distant and intellectual” Pius XII, while his successor, good Pope John XXIII, was described as “warmly human and simple,” and, thus, the favored candidate of so-called “progressives.” The more things change, the more they stay the same, perhaps?

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