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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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.