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.
Belief, disbelief and beyond belief
David Young
Show Hide image

The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide