Monday, December 21, 2009


Two big new items on the canonization front: both John Paul II and Pius XII are now Venerable. The canonization process has to do with how the remembrance of a person is incorporated into the overall liturgy of the Church; those undergoing it go through four different statuses, each represented by a different title:

Servant of God

'Servant of God' just means that there's prima facie reason to start the investigation. The primary issue in the first part of the phase is to determine whether the person in question lived a life of heroic virtue -- that is, practiced virtue in an eminent degree. Contrary to what is usually thought, this does not mean having lived perfectly; virtues are reliable by definition, not infallible, and even heroic virtue is liable to occasional lapse. Someone with heroic virtues is someone from whose life one can learn more about the theological and moral virtues, someone who can be a moral role model or hero to many. When the investigation has concluded that the person did, in fact, live a life of heroic virtue, they are recognized as Venerable. Such people do not have a feast day, and churches can't be named in their honor; the only thing that changes is the mode of investigation for canonization. Up to this point the investigation concerned the person's character; after this point the investigation begins to look into not just heroic virtue but holy intercession, and that typically means the inquiry is into one of two things: proof of martyrdom or proof of miracle. Martyrs for the faith do not need an associated miracle for beatification; everyone else does. Thus when someone is declared Venerable, the next step is for people to pray for a miracle through that person's intercession; if any reported miracles bear up under investigation, the person can be called Blessed, and are, in some sense, already considered a saint, since the distinction between beatification and canonization is not, in fact, as sharp as is usually thought; the major difference at present is that feast days for beatified are not universal, but usually restricted in some way. Canonization, requiring additional proof of holy intercession, even for martyrs, removes these restrictions.

The more controversial of these two moves, of course, is Pius XII; he has been sharply attacked in the past decade or so for having failed to help Jews during the Holocaust. It's difficult to know what to make of these things; at the time Pius XII had exactly the opposite reputation (with only occasional exceptions outside of the Soviet Union), and the shift in views against him can clearly be traced back not to original historical evidence, which is very limited either way, but to an anti-Catholic play in the 1960s, Hochhuth's The Deputy, which fictionalized Pius XII as an anti-Semite. That certainly isn't true, whether he did enough to help Jews escape the Holocaust or not; and Hochhuth is notorious for not playing nicely with the facts of history -- a number of his plays are conspiracy-theory-type things, like the one in which Winston Churchill arranged the murder of the Polish Prime Minister. Such is folk history; and this is why so many people were up in arms about The Da Vinci Code, since it is virtually guaranteed that thirty years from now something that Dan Brown just made up will be repeated as gospel truth because people remember things long past the time that they remember where they read it.

At the same time, the Vatican has an immense amount of discretion as to how quickly or slowly they do these things, and it would have been entirely possible to allow a longer period of fact-airing. I don't know if it would have done any good, given that most people making the criticism want it to be true just as most of the people rejecting it want it to be false, which is a recipe for some nasty politicking, not reasonable discussion; but it was entirely possible. Perhaps it would give more of the open-minded a chance to be convinced; perhaps it wouldn't. These things are difficult to estimate.

John Paul II is much less controversial, and much less of a surprise, of course; I disapprove of how quickly it's moved in his case, but this is a matter of taste, and nothing really depends on whether I approve or disapprove. Certainly there will be plenty of people who will be enthusiastic about it.

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