MAKING SAINTS How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn't, and Why By Kenneth L. Woodward Simon and Schuster. 461 pp. $24.95

ONE OF THE worldly blessings of the Second Vatican Council -- the 1962-65 gathering of Catholicism's hierarchy in Rome -- was that journalists began covering the Vatican as if it were city hall. A pope wasn't that different from a Mayor Daley: Party regulars elected him, patronage was dispensed, obey-or-else authority was wielded, rivalries among underlings flourished and secrecy was next to godliness.

It was during Vatican II that Kenneth Woodward came to Newsweek as its religion editor. Since then, his reporting -- fair, thorough and forcefully written -- has earned him an international following among people who want religion to be treated as a major beat, and let the impieties fall where they may. Woodward's professional graces, and a few of his personal ones, are on large display in this investigation of the politics, economics and deal-making in the production of saints.

Woodward, raking less muck than information, looks at the process of who makes saints, how and why. Much of the action -- and inaction -- occurs in the sanctum of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the 401-year-old office that is run by a conservative cardinal who entered the seminary at age 11. Saint-making takes place elsewhere, too -- in the home towns of the holy and pious that benefit economically when a local hero is canonized or in the religious orders that can always use a morale boost when a founder or member is declared a saint.

Whether in Rome or home, Woodward reports that the making of saints "is an inherently ecclesial process . . . To 'canonize' means to declare that a person is worthy of a universal public cult. Canonization takes place through a solemn papal declaration that a person is, for certain, with God. Because of that certainty, the faithful can, with confidence, pray to the saint to intercede with God on their behalf."

Woodward, a Catholic and a Notre Dame graduate, writes as a true believer, which means he accepts a theology that puts God in the business of having saints "intercede" and then dispense favors to praying humans. Devout believer A, B or C prays to Saint X, Y or Z, and he or she, quicker than AT&T or a fax machine, gets the request to God, who is on round-the-clock duty, and from on high, says yes. To skeptics like me, Woodward asks: "Who are we to say that God no longer responds to prayer addressed to saints? Ask anyone who has ever prayed for a desperately ill friend." I wouldn't mock anyone's faith, but what if someone decided to pray to St. Francis of Assisi to do something about the 40,000 people who die everyday from hunger. These 40,000 people are presumably all children of God and as "desperately ill" as mortals can be, but it doesn't seem as if God is listening to St. Francis. Or if the prayers are being heard, the answer is no, i.e., let 'em die.

I digress on this point because I'm not sure what journalistic good is accomplished when Woodward interjects with his professions of faith. If he wants to bend his knee, and perhaps ask his favorite saint to give the Notre Dame football team another winning season -- a chaplain prays with the lads before the game -- Woodward should fold his hands and pray as hard and long as he can. But tell it to his spiritual director, not readers looking for some this-worldly reporting and analysis.

Woodward, fortunately, offers a full altar of the latter. On the heavenly scoreboard, he notes that male saints outnumber females two to one. In the past 10 centuries, only 76 lay people have been canonized, against 303 priests, nuns and brothers. On the question of why no happily married saints have been marching in, Woodward has a plausible theory: "The history of Roman Catholicism exhibits a profound ambivalence toward human sexuality. Throughout that history, the church has placed a higher value on virginity than on marriage, even though marriage has the status of a sacrament while virginity does not. The roots of this ambivalence go back to the New Testament, but it has been commonplace to blame the writings of the church fathers of the third, fourth and fifth centuries for establishing a tradition of associating sexuality with sin. To a great extent, the blame is justified."

Try as he might, Woodward didn't have a prayer when poking into the finances of saint-making: "Vatican officials would sooner talk about sex than money." A balance sheet for a canonization "has never been published." Looking elsewhere, Woodward learned that the canonization of Mother Elizabeth Bayley Seton cost more than $250,000, from the introduction of the "cause" in 1929 to her canonization in 1975. That included a Vatican charge of $7,500 for the rental of 15,000 seats for the canonization ceremonies, and $12,000 for printing souvenir prayer booklets.

The high cost of holiness comes in proving it: salaries for cause pushers, travel expenses to and from Rome to make the case to the Vatican, the printing expenses of testimony about a proposed saint's life. Doctors brought in to verify or refute medical claims about miracles are paid $400 per case, a sum, Woodward notes, equal "to what a first-class doctor in Rome charges patients for two office visits."

A requirement for canonization is miracle-working. A saint must be shown to have powers that prove he can bring about, say, inexplicable medical cures. Of late, the Vatican has been toying with the idea of allowing "moral miracles" -- a saint's power to bring about rare spiritual transformation. An example of this amazing grace is in the thousands of testimonials claiming that Matt Talbot, a Dublin dockworker who overcame alcoholism and became an ascetic until his death in 1925, has interceded with God to help drunks get on the wagon and stay on.

The Rev. Dermot Martin, who is promoting Talbot's cause in Rome, is meeting skepticism from the congregation. Woodward surmises that the "problem is that alcoholism is a matter of perseverance -- of willpower -- rather than physical cure. 'Suppose we call them miracles,' one of the congregation's highest officials told Martin. 'And suppose we invite one of these recovering alcoholics to the beatification ceremony. And suppose that night he gets carried away by all the attention and goes out and gets drunk. Where is the miracle?"

Familiar with both Rome and the lives of such Christian rarities as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, John Henry Newman and others, Woodward argues reasonably that the Vatican's saint-makers are a decidedly unimaginative and untrusting lot. He is gentle with them, realizing the difficulties they have understanding the holiness of a Day or a Merton: "The safer, the more conventional a Catholic thinker is, the more likely is he or she to be canonized."

A fair conclusion is that the system of saint-making smells, and it isn't the odor of sanctity we're getting. A dose of secular honesty, such as Woodward provides, may clear the air. Colman McCarthy is a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.