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.

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.

Pope Paul VI meets with Michael Ramsey, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, at St Peters in 1966. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.