A game of miracles: how saints are made

Pope John Paul II, the charismatic anti-communist who became a religious autocrat, is being fast-tracked to sainthood by the Catholic Church. So what is going on inside the Vatican under the new leadership of Francis?

Politics has always shaped the rules on how and when can be made saints. Photograph: Owen Franken / Corbis

My favourite pope of all time is Benedict XIV, who reigned from 1740 to 1758. He was much admired by Protestants for his encouragement of science. Voltaire dedicated a book to him, which would be rather like Richard Dawkins dedicating his next volume to the Archbishop of Canterbury. Benedict would stroll around Rome chatting to strangers, surprising them with his liberal use of slang. He reduced the number of books placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books and curbed the Spanish Inquisition. He also drastically tightened the rules on canonisation. He declared that nobody should be considered for sainthood until after a lapse of 100 years. He evidently, and sensibly, realised that premature decisions about a person’s claims to sainthood can be hostages to fortune.

Benedict XIV, unsurprisingly, has never been considered for sainthood. But he has no doubt been turning in his grave following the announcement, just eight years after his death, that Pope John Paul II is to be canonised, probably in December. What signals does this send to the faithful, and the world beyond, about the doctrinal and political direction of the Catholic Church?

John Paul courageously confronted communism and is justly credited with helping to topple the Soviet-backed regime in his native Poland. He was a man of prayer but also the pope in charge when details of the scourge of clerical sexual abuse started to filter in to the Vatican. Throughout his pontificate he failed to acknowledge that there was a problem, or to do anything about it. He suggested that it was the work of the devil. He honoured bishops who had covered up sexual crimes by priests in their dioceses, and he even insisted on the innocence of the later disgraced serial rapist Father Marcial Maciel.

Moreover, John Paul was the pope who continued to ban the use of condoms, even by Aids-infected couples. He condemned homosexuality and outlawed discussion of women priests and a married priesthood. He quashed liberation theology in Latin America, downgraded the authority of bishops and endorsed the harsh treatment of theologians who dared to raise questions on such matters as religious pluralism. Above all, he did his best in his nearly 27-year reign to undo the reforms instigated by his predecessor John XXIII in the Second Vatican Council.

It has been suggested that John XXIII, the architect of that council, will be canonised at the same time as the Polish pope. Some have seen this as a gesture of balance. The conservatives who run the Catholic Church, however, see the joint canonisation more as a way of saying that Vatican II was a good thing; yet it is John Paul II’s correctives and interpretation of it that prevail.

A theological point needs explanation at the outset. There are four stages to full sainthood and these typically, in the past, took hundreds of years. Anybody seriously considered for the honour is first of all named “Servant of God”; next comes the status “Venerable”, which means that a full-blown “process” is in hand towards beatification, including the scrutiny of miracles associated with prayers to the said individual. Beatification (bestowing the title “Blessed”) gives official sanction to local veneration of a dead individual in token of having lived a life of “heroic sanctity”.

Canonisation (bestowing the official title “Saint”) declares that an individual is worthy of universal veneration – the highest postmortem honour in the Catholic Church.

Official saints are models to be emulated and celebrated. They are up there in the highest echelons of paradise, together with the Virgin Mary, Michael the Archangel and Saints Peter and Paul. The elevation to sainthood is sanctioned by an infallible decree of the pope: it cannot be in error. There’s no going back. Every word, deed and (in the case of popes) ecclesial policy is sanctified.

In the course of the past three centuries there has been only one sainted pope so far – Pius X (1903-14), canonised 40 years after his death by Pius XII. Many in the Church regret his elevation to sainthood. Pius X transformed the Church of the 20th century. His manipulation of canon (church) law ensured an impetus for centralisation, and a bolstering of papal power, unknown in the previous 1,900 years in Christendom. For instance, he insisted that henceforth only the pope could nominate new bishops. Previously the selection process allowed for local discretion and even involved the laity. He made seminaries into spiritual boot camps, he silenced any form of debate and he persecuted “modernists” in the Church, meaning any priests with liberal leanings. All this was done to ensure the unity and survival of a Catholic Church faced by an array of perceived threats, including relativism, socialism and secularism.

As the century unfolded, Pius X’s initiatives appeared well founded; it might be argued that nothing less than a militant Catholic Church could have withstood the tide of communism and Nazism. At the same time, critics have noted how the popes of this period cosied up to such fascistic figures as Mussolini, Salazar and Franco.

Pius XII, the wartime pope, canonised Pius X in 1954, thus endorsing his predecessor’s highly centralised and autocratic papacy. It was revealed in subsequent years that Pius X had sanctioned a network to spy on priests the world over, introducing, according to one senior cardinal, “a sort of Freemasonry in the Church, something unheard of in ecclesiastical history”. Worse still, it was discovered that this “saintly” man had advocated punching liberal-minded priests “with fists”. It is now recognised by all but the most reactionary Catholics that Pius X was an authoritarian bully. His most enthusiastic devotees form the so-called Society of Pius X, which included the Holocaust denier Bishop Richard Williamson.

It was this militant, citadel Church that John XXIII (1958-63) did his best to dismantle by initiating the Second Vatican Council. If ever there was a pope of saintliness, it was Pope John: the first to attempt to end the enmity against the Jewish faith; the pope who called for engagement with the modern world and collegiality of authority, who stressed love over Church legalism. Before the end of the Council a large number of bishops called for his instant beatification. The new pope, Paul VI, who had been Pius XII’s closest aide, was having none of it. In 1965 he placed John in a two-legged race towards sainthood with Pius XII, dead only seven years, who represented the pre-Vatican II Church and the policies of Pius X. Paul’s decision sparked the spate of candidates for beatification that forms a veritable Dead Papal Saints Society in the making.

John Paul II, who followed Paul, beatified John XXIII, but as if determined to provide an antidote to John’s liberalism he also beatified Pius IX – the epileptic pope who denounced newspapers and liberalism in equal measure and made a dogma of infallibility in 1870. Pius IX was also guilty of kidnapping the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara to raise him as a Catholic and of keeping him in his Vatican apartment despite the international outrage. It is said that Pius IX was in fact John Paul’s hasty substitute for Pius XII, whose path towards sainthood had been disrupted by controversies over his failure to speak out against the Shoah. Benedict XVI nevertheless made Pius XII a venerable, and dropped strong hints about imminent beatification.

The significance of the recent proliferation of papal candidates for sainthood can be grasped against the background of history. There have been 266 popes to date, of whom 78 have been made saints. Of the 48 popes from Saint Peter onwards – reputedly from 32AD until the death of St Felix III in 492 – all were regarded as saints in subsequent ages with the exception of Liberius (352-366). Thereafter, roughly 30 popes became venerated as saints in the remainder of the first millennium. However, saint-making in the early Church did not involve a formal process, or the “testing” of miracles allegedly performed by individuals after death. It arose typically from the formation, sometimes gradual, sometimes immediate, of popular veneration: visits to their tombs, preoccupation with their relics and so on. The idea of sainthood grew out of the glorification of martyrs, who, it was believed, went straight to paradise. Six out of the seven popes between the end of the papacy of St Hyginus in 140 and that of St Calixtus in 222 were martyred.

Despite the many pope-saints of the first millennium only five popes were canonised across the entire span of the second millennium: the Alsace-born reformer Leo IX (1049-54); Gregory VII (1073-85), the “bright flame” who cleansed the Church; Celestine V, a virtual hermit who abdicated in 1294; Pius V (1566-72), an ascetic who presided over the enactment of the decrees of the Council of Trent (prompting the modern processes for sainthood and beatification); and Pius X. Thus, only two popes have achieved sainthood since the Counter-Reformation in the 16th century (John Paul will be the third), and only four more have been beatified. But a queue of others awaits glory in the celestial wings, a self-selecting, incestuous hall of papal fame. There is a symbiotic, self-serving principle crucially involved in this, glaringly apparent in the case of Pius XII’s espousal of his old boss and his approval of Pius X’s policies.

During his pontificate John Paul II performed more than 1,500 beatifications and canonisations, more than all the other popes put together since the modern protocols for such honours began in the 17th century. He was keen to beatify and canonise indigenous candidates in each country he visited as a display of holy theatre. That required speeding up the system. He did this first by eliminating the ancient office of devil’s advocate. The office was created by Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) as a safeguard: to take a sceptical view of the candidate’s record, question all claims for holiness and scrutinise the miracles associated with those claims. Under that “prosecutor’s” critical eye, people were encouraged to come forward with objections.

The result of John Paul’s dismissal of the devil’s advocate role was to eliminate the least criticism as calumny. This immediately became obvious in the case of Pius XII. Historians who had dared to point out his failure to condemn the German invasion of Poland and the destruction of the Jews were excoriated by the Vatican’s appointed promoter of the campaign to beatify Pius XII. Their historical and biographical accounts were characterised as “unjustifiable and calumnious attacks against this great and saintly man”. My own research on Pius XII’s life uncovered a catalogue of unsaintly behaviour – he tried to ban black troops from Rome after the 1944 liberation; he took rejuvenating injections in the 1950s; he demanded that his office workers take phone calls from him on their knees; his gardeners were told to hide behind the bushes when he walked in the Vatican gardens. His defenders judged bringing such material to light as “sliming” him. When I dared to point out in my biography The Pope in Winter (2004) that John Paul II was slowing up because of his Parkinson’s disease, a Catholic reviewer in the Telegraph doubted my faculties.

John Paul’s next tactic to speed up saintmaking was to reduce the number of miracles required, thus reducing the unprecedented pressures on the “miracle police” in Rome (the tribunal of doctors known as the Consulta Medica) whose job it is to judge the difference between a real and a bogus miracle. The thinking behind the miracle requirement is that a member of the faithful prays to a candidate for sainthood for a miracle – perhaps the healing of a friend’s cancer. The candidate (presumably in heaven now) asks God for this favour. Then God, to show the world that the candidate is indeed in heaven and worthy of veneration, suspends the laws of nature to heal that person. Any self-respecting medical scientist knows, however, that the absence of a medical explanation for a phenomenon does not necessarily preclude the discovery of one at a later stage. Meanwhile, a constituency of self-respecting theologians finds this manipulation of the Godhead more than faintly ridiculous.

The recent miracle associated with John Paul II’s path to sainthood involves a woman in Costa Rica who has recovered from an aneurysm in the brain. A previous miracle claim involved the spontaneous recovery in 2005 of a 44-year-old French nun, Little Sister Marie Simon-Pierre Normand, diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. In both cases the patients’ doctors, and the Vatican miracle police, declared a miracle. Without the complete details (which are still a secret), it is impossible to comment.

In the case of the miracle that supported the beatification of Cardinal Newman in 2010, however, there are indications that the Vatican’s standards of explanation are not rigorous. The miracle occurred to Jack Sullivan, a trainee deacon suffering from stenosis of the spine, a not uncommon complaint that can be treated with surgery. He prayed to Newman after having an operation for the stenosis, and the pain cleared up more quickly than Sullivan or his doctor expected. I managed to acquire the full gamut of his medical notes and showed them to two top specialists in Europe. Their verdict was that his “healing” was not unusual. One rule, not revised to date, is that if an illness is believed cured after an operation for it, the miracle should be disallowed. It was clear that, by sanctioning this “miracle”, Benedict XVI had allowed a great lowering of the Vatican’s self-imposed standards in the interest of haste.

The speedy apotheosis of John Paul II tells the faithful that the conduct of his papacy, including his management of the paedophile priest crisis, was beyond reproach. It tells them that his doctrinal utterances on life and sexual issues are to be followed to the letter. It also tells bishops and priests across the world that his model of a highly centralised church is correct, despite the attempted reforms of Vatican II. But the most depressing fact for Catholic liberals is that Pope Francis, just a few months in to his papacy, is endorsing John Paul’s vision of the Church.

How are Catholics, and the world, to take it? The majority of sexually active Catholics in developed countries do not respect John Paul’s pronouncements on contraception, sex outside marriage, homosexuality, divorce and remarriage – all deemed mortal sins deserving of hell unless confessed. Yet it is calculated that in the United States, for example, only 2 per cent of Catholics go to confession regularly. A split has opened up between papal authority and lay practice.

The canonisation of John Paul will attract millions of devotees to Rome; 2.4 billion watched his beatification on television two years ago. The media coverage for the event in December will be even greater. He was a charismatic figure in his lifetime and his canonisation will be an object of fascination for the whole world. Yet, as with his foreign trips and his mass rallies of the faithful, the impact will be enormous but brief. At the great World Youth Day over which he presided in Rome in 2000, when hundreds of thousands of youngsters created a city of tents, the cleaners were obliged to clear up drifts of condoms the morning after. Catholic commentators have noted that papal visits to foreign countries give a momentary boost to the religious feel-good factor but seldom result in a long-term return to the pews.

The great African saint Augustine of Hippo wrote that the true voice of the Church is the response that the worldwide faithful give back to the Roman centre. Catholics refuse to accept that contraception and homosexuality are intrinsically evil; they are scandalised by the Church’s insistence, promulgated during John Paul II’s pontificate, that condoms cause HIV/Aids. Women who aspired to the priesthood, priests who wished to marry, bishops whose authority was downgraded, have John Paul to thank for their frustrations.

John Paul has earned his place in the pantheon of heroes as a great pope for the world. As he said of the fall of the Soviet Union, “The tree was already rotten; I just gave it a good shake.” Nobody can take that away from him. Yet by the beginning of the 1990s he had turned from secular hero for the world to an ecclesial autocrat for the faithful. He was not a great pope for the Church. The apotheosis of the pope who sought to enforce unenforceable sexual mores, thereby excluding millions of Catholics while overlooking the patent sexual crimes of the clergy, can only confirm the continuity of a papacy that was both domineering and hypocritical even as it undermined the reputation and value of Catholic sainthood for the future.

John Cornwell’s latest book is “Newman’s Unquiet Grave” (Continuum, £18.99)