What we can learn from popes who are on road to sainthood

Questions have been raised in recent months about whether it makes sense for so many modern popes to be on the road to possible sainthood. 

Five popes of the 20th century — Popes Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I and John Paul II — are in some stage of investigation for possible canonization. Late last year, Pope Benedict XVI advanced the sainthood causes of Pope John Paul II and Pope Pius XII, declaring that both had lived lives of “heroic virtues.” 

Critics, especially those opposed to the causes for Venerable Pius XII and Venerable John Paul II, charge that canonizing modern popes is merely an attempt to inoculate the papacy from criticism and risks creating some false dichotomy between personal holiness and apparently egregious official decisions or failings. 

Papal history 

In the first centuries of the papacy, all but a few popes were declared saints, a reflection of the fact that so many early pontiffs died as martyrs. Not surprisingly, the number drops off from that point, and it is noted by some writers that only a handful of popes have been canonized in the last millennium. 

In truth, since around the year 1000, there have been 14 popes canonized or beatified. Several were in the 11th century as the papacy underwent a thorough reform that culminated with the heroic Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-1085) and his struggle against lay interference with the Church. Five hundred years later, the Dominican St. Pius V (1566-1572) represented the full flowering of the Catholic Reformation. Still other popes — such as the indomitable Pope Pius VII, who spent nearly six years a prisoner of Napoleon Bonaparte — likely deserve canonization but are not widely enough known.  

Witnesses of holiness 

What is clear about these earlier papal saints and blesseds is that holy popes have provided crucial leadership in ways most valuable in their particular eras. Some have been martyrs and others warriors in defense of Church rights and security. The modern popes are most valuable as living witnesses of holiness and heroic virtue in an age conspicuous at times for its contempt of the holy and the virtuous.  

Far from being exemplars of an overreaching papacy, the popes in modern times are necessary exemplars of the faith in a media-saturated environment, and their personal holiness is an example for all Catholics and people of conscience. 

By his death in 2005, Pope John Paul II, the pope criticized for his supposed administrative shortcomings, had become a powerful model for the average person facing the hardships of life with fortitude and patience. The judgment of his cause of canonization relates to his sanctity and not whether he was a mediocre manager of ecclesiastical government. 

Pope John Paul I, pope for a mere 33 days in 1978, is also on the road to beatification, but it was his reputation for personal goodness that helped win his election and not his virtually unknown skills as an administrator. 

Equally, far from setting up some false dichotomy, the cause of canonization for Pope Pius XII has been the means of defending the authentic record and legacy of the maligned pope during World War II and the Holocaust, an argument that his defenders are clearly winning. 

Likewise, the cause for Pope Paul VI has permitted a re-evaluation of his prophetic vision in Humanae Vitae (“Of Human Life”) and Populorum Progressio (“The Progress of the Peoples”) about a contraceptive culture and the impact of globalization on every human person. 

And then there is the final verdict to be rendered by Church authorities. The certification of a miracle is needed for each step toward beatification and canonization. This validation is itself testimony to the wisdom of the Church in allowing the causes to proceed in the first place. If someone is truly a saint — whether in the second century or the 20th — do we have the right to allow our own political or theological leanings to blind us to that supernatural reality even if he was a pope? 

Matthew Bunson is the editor of The Catholic Answer magazine.