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It’s time for the Catholic Church to stop the canonization of popes

A Pope John Paul II statue stands at the Sanctuary of Mother of God in Wardegowo village, Poland, on Feb. 17. (Kacper Pempel/Reuters)

If the Catholic Church wants to see the growth in discernment that Pope Francis has called for in response to the sex abuse crisis, the institution must stop canonizing popes.

Proclaiming the sainthood of the men who are elected bishops of Rome by the conclave of cardinals is at the same time old and recent. Of the first 48 popes who died before the year 500, 47 are saints; half of them were martyrs. The canonization of popes who reigned in the following 15 centuries is rare.

The real change began in the 19th century with the “Romanization” or “papalization” of Catholicism and especially with the First Vatican Council (1869-1870) and its proclamation of papal primacy and infallibility. This produced a more pope-centered way of governing the church but also a devotion to the person of the pope.

The increased inclination to canonize popes accelerated under John Paul II, who canonized an enormous number of saints (including many members of the laity, women and married people). He also shortened the waiting period from 50 years after the death of the candidate before the canonization process is open to five years. He waived the period for Mother Teresa of Kolkata. When John Paul II died in April 2005, Benedict XVI set aside that waiting period for him as well.

From 2000-2019, there have been beatifications and canonizations for the three post-Vatican-II popes (John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II). The process for the canonization of John Paul I, who was pope for only 33 days, is already underway.

During the last century, beginning with Pius X and not counting Benedict XVI and Francis, there have been eight popes. Half of them are already saints. The last three popes have been made saints almost in sequence.

The trend inaugurated in the 20th century has to stop.

One reason is that canonization of the popes means canonization of the papacy by popes in the Vatican. The canonization process (technically, it is a trial) used to be less controlled by the Vatican, but during the Counter-Reformation in the 17th century the Roman Curia became much more in charge. It was a time when canonization of popes was an exception.

Now the papacy is canonizing itself absent an extended, churchwide discernment on the wisdom of canonizing the pope. It can be seen as a way to shield the papacy from moral and historical judgment, something like boosting the claims made by Vatican I about the papacy.

The second reason is the role church politics play in deciding whether to canonize a pope.

The history of the post-Vatican II period is instructive. The proposal of Vatican II to canonize John XXIII, who died during Vatican II on June 3, 1963, in the council and through the council (an ancient way to proclaim canonizations) triggered a series of countermeasures by conservative Catholics. A series of counterbalances were produced — someone to pair the “progressive” John XXIII with, both for his beatification (he was beatified with Pius IX in 2000) and his canonization (he was canonized with John Paul II in 2014).

In the 19th century, the elevation of popes with primacy and infallibility was a political act against secular modernity. Now the canonization of popes by popes has become part of Catholic internal politics, and it is not helping the unity of the church.

The third reason has to do with the clerical sex abuse crisis. How the papacy handled clerical sexual abuses is a controversial issue in the church today and will be in the future.

Recently there have been calls to de-canonize John Paul II because of his handling of the abuses committed by clergy and because of his theology on women and sexuality. Even though I was never convinced of the wisdom of canonizing John Paul II, I am still against de-canonizing him. As for the popes hastily canonized during the last few decades, the choice to de-canonize John Paul II would sound as political as the choice to canonize him immediately after his death.

Almost four centuries ago, between 1628 and 1634, Pope Urban VIII decided that a 50-year period had to elapse after the death of the candidate before his or her canonization. It was Urban’s reaction against a time when many new devotions to new saints were continually born.

It is necessary to rediscover the wisdom of that old norm, especially regarding the beatification and canonization of popes. It is also necessary in order to scale back the mystique of the papacy in contemporary Catholicism. But it has to do also with the fact that the church needs a long process of discovering facts surrounding the role of the papacy and of the Roman Curia in the sexual abuse crisis, the biggest scandal in modern church history.

Massimo Faggioli is a professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia.