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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Relax – there’s new evidence that mindfulness actually works

The relaxation therapy could prevent relapses in sufferers of depression, according to a new study.

If there’s one thing that can be said of buzzwords, it’s that they almost always fall by the wayside in the end. Yet in the field of mental health, one buzzword has survived the best efforts of critics and naysayers – “mindfulness”.

First coined by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the term mindfulness was initially characterised as a state of mind that would enable someone to pay “attention on purpose” to the present moment. Modern secular society seems to have embraced it as a form of meditation. Everything from exercise to breathing now has an associated mindfulness manual attached.

However, not everyone is convinced. For example, the recent phenomenon of adult colouring books – devised to promote mindfulness and serve as a form of therapeutic escapism – has been criticised by therapists as over-hyped and not necessarily helpful.

Meanwhile, sceptics have pointed out an alleged bias in the publishing of positive findings from trials using mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. Researchers at McGill University in Canada “found that scientists reported positive findings 60 per cent more often than is statistically likely” after analysing 124 different published trials involving mindfulness as a form of mental health therapy. In some cases, the practice has even had a reverse effect, inducing anxiety, pain or panic.

However, a new study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry seems to demonstrate that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) can be a potent treatment in preventing and managing relapse into major depression. Led by the University of Oxford, the study’s researchers conducted the largest meta-analysis (an analysis of various different studies) to date on the therapy’s impact on recurrent depression.

The particular form of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy that was used aimed to equip patients with the skills required to successfully recognise and repel the thoughts and feelings they most commonly associated with the state of depression, in order to prevent any future relapse.

According to the study, “the MBCT course consists of guided mindfulness practices, group discussion and other cognitive behavioural exercises. Participants receiving MBCT typically attended eight 2-2.5 hour group sessions alongside daily home practice.”

Using anonymous patient data from nine randomised trials involving 1,258 participants, researchers found that 38 per cent of those who received mindfulness-based therapy experienced a depressive relapse, in comparison to 49 per cent of patients who didn’t receive treatment. The patient data covered age, sex and level of education – key inclusions, as the meta-analysis was able to show no significant influence by these factors on the therapy’s performance.

The most prominent form of remedy currently available for mental health patients is anti-depressant medication. Four of the nine randomised trials comparatively assessed the impact of therapy alongside medication, to deduce if a combination of therapy with varying doses of medication was more beneficial than medication alone. The patients from the study who received mindfulness therapy along with continued, reduced or discontinued medication were less likely to fall back into depression than patients on maintenance anti-depressants alone. This helps legitimise mindfulness as an option in combating depression’s debilitating effects and reinforces its efficacy, whether it is taken up with or without anti-depressants.

Willem Kuyken, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the Oxford Mindfulness Centre and lead author of the study, called the results “very heartening”. “While MBCT is not a panacea, it does clearly offer those with a substantial history of depression a new approach to learning skills to stay well in the long-term.

“It offers people a safe and empowering treatment choice alongside other mainstay approaches such as cognitive-behavioural therapy and maintenance antidepressants. We need to do more research, however, to get recovery rates closer to 100 per cent and to help prevent the first onset of depression, earlier in life. These are programmes of work we are pursuing at the University of Oxford and with our collaborators around the world."

Though the findings will certainly reinvigorate confidence in mindfulness, Richard Byng from the University of Plymouth and one of the co-authors said, “clinicians need to be cautiously optimistic when tapering off antidepressant medication, and treat each patient as an individual who may or may not benefit from both MBCT and other effective treatments."