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Are popes being canonised just for doing their job?

Pope Paul VI, who banned Catholics from using contraception, is the latest pontiff to be put forward for sainthood.

Pope Paul VI meets with Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, at St Peters in 1966. Photograph: Getty Images.

It was announced yesterday that Pope Benedict XVI has put one of his predecessors, Paul VI, on the path to sainthood. The pontiff signed a decree stating that Paul, who was pope from 1963 until 1978, had lived a life of "heroic virtue" and would henceforth be known officially as "venerable". The next step, beatification, will come when (or if) a confirmed miracle is attributed to the late pope's intercession.

Are modern popes being advanced to sainthood simply for doing their jobs?  It's fair to say that   that being elected pope significantly increases the chances of being made a a saint after your death. Out of 265 popes in the official list, 78 - more than a quarter - have been canonised. A significant proportion of the saints recognised by the Catholic Church - perhaps five per cent - have occupied the throne of St Peter. Certainly, the total is vastly disproportionate when compared with the number of Catholics who have ever lived. 

But the "sainted" popes aren't evenly distributed throughout history. Most of the early bishops of Rome, from Peter until Felix IV in the sixth century, are regarded as saints. Thereafter, recognised sanctity is more intermittent, until by the ninth century it has become a rare honour indeed.  Gregory VII (1073-1085) was, with one exception, the last pope to be recognised as a full saint until Pius X in the Twentieth century - almost a millennium, it seems, of unholy pontiffs. Some were very unholy indeed: Alexander VI, for example, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia who is alleged to have turned the Vatican into a brothel and sexually abused his own daughter, and at the very least had an unfortunate habit of poisoning his political opponents. 

Recently, however, popes have discovered a passion for canonising their predecessors. Currently, 16 popes have been beatified, including two of Benedict XVI's four immediate predecessors: John XXIII and John Paul II.  Paul VI now joins Pius XII, who died in 1958, as a "venerable", while the short-lived John Paul I enjoys the lesser status of "Servant of God". Potentially, every pope to have reigned since before the start of the Second World War might be one day made a saint.

While John XIII and John Paul II both enjoyed worldwide popularity and were considered by many as living saints, other pontifical candidates for sainthood are more controversial. Pius IX, who has also been declared Venerable, has a reputation as the most reactionary pope of the 19th century.  It was he who propounded the doctrine of papal infallibility. Pius XII stands accused of making cowardly accommodations with Nazism and even of being personally anti-Semitic. He has articulate defenders, but to many he will always be "Hitler's Pope."

As for Paul VI, while his personal character may be beyond reproach his candidacy for sainthood is bound to be controversial for other reasons. Arguably, as pope he squandered the best opportunity the Catholic Church has ever had to come to terms with the modern world. John XIII reigned for less than five years but during that time set in motion the most far-reaching reform programme in centuries, symbolised by the great liberalising Second Vatican Council. Under his successor, reaction set in. His 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae reaffirmed, indeed strengthened, the long-standing Vatican opposition to artificial forms of birth control, insisting that "each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life".

In so doing, he went against the majority advice of a church commission set up to consider the matter a few years before. He also ensured an ongoing split between the institutional church and the majority of ordinary Catholics. In the west, some statistics suggest that up to 98 per cent of married Catholics have continued to use contraception regardless of the church's teaching. The main damage has been to the Vatican's reputation. In other parts of the world, the effects of Humanae Vitae have been more serious, with the ban on contraception helping to fuel a population boom and, especially in Africa, Vatican opposition to the use of condoms proving highly damaging to the fight against HIV.

Paul VI's sentiments are, though, well in tune with those of the present pontiff, who has this year led opposition in the USA to President Obama's birth control mandate. By putting Paul forward for sainthood, Benedict XVI is surely doing more than merely recognising his predecessor's personal holiness. It may be hard to argue with a pope, but it's even harder to argue with a saint.