A favorite of Charles de Gaulle and Charles Péguy, not to mention Bernard Shaw, Joan of Arc has long been a historical figure whose popularity tells us perhaps more about those who revere her than about the martryed saint herself. Joan’s curiously malleable legend has been championed by secular French republicans and Catholic monarchists, Dreyfusites and anti-Dreyfusites, Nazi collaborators and resistance figures alike. The popular imagination seems never to tire of her, and the story of the maid of Orléans has been the subject of at least twenty films, most effectively in Carl Dreyer’s 1928 silent masterpiece La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, most recently in last year’s thoroughly contemporary The Messenger (see Richard Alleva,"Dames at War," December 17, 1999). There is something about the story of the teen-age girl who led an army against English invaders and helped to crown a French king, only to be betrayed and condemned for heresy and witchcraft, that never fails to fascinate. It is a story that clearly has captivated novelist Mary Gordon, and below she writes on how the multifarious nature of Joan’s legend and the elusiveness of her personality can expand our ideas about sainthood.
Even centuries as the angel of men’s imagination did not make it easy for Joan of Arc (1412-31) to be named a saint by the Roman Catholic church. It was in 1869, nearly three hundred and fifty years after her excommunication and death at the stake, that the process of formal canonization was begun, and she was not declared a saint for another fifty years. In truth, Joan’s remarkable personality did not conform to the traditional categories the church used to judge individual sanctity. At the same time that Joan’s cause was being discussed in the Vatican, the question of Christopher Columbus’s sanctity was also up for debate. But his case was dropped in 1892 on the ground that he had an illegitimate son. This seemed to be an insurmountable problem, overcoming the glory that he earned because, as the records of the Congregation of Rites (now the Congregation for the Causes of Saints) tell us, "He did not hesitate to conquer the dark sea and to thrust himself into every kind of vicissitude in order to acquire new shores for the gospel and enter into their possession in the name of Jesus Christ."
This transformation of Columbus’s career as an explorer into one of evangelization indicates the problems for someone like Joan or Columbus, someone whose fame was achieved by exploits not specifically religious in nature. In order to be named a saint, the candidate has to be understood to have been acting for the greater good of the church and in ways that conformed to the gospel. As with Columbus, it required a certain amount of quickstepping to interpret Joan’s goal of uniting France under the scepter of Charles VII as a sacred mission. That this was done for Joan and not for Columbus points to an aspect of the church’s canonization process that is always present, if not dominant. At any historical moment, the church canonizes people whom it needs to canonize to make a point about what it considers, at that period, an exemplary life. A saint is made a saint not because canonization does anything for him or her; presumably, he or she has already achieved eternal salvation. A saint is canonized to help the living, and the nature of the help that the living need is often determined by the contemporary pressures of the world upon the church.
Although the first and most natural of questions regarding Joan’s canonization is "Why did it take so long?" the more fruitful and interesting ones are "Why did it happen when it did?" or "Why did it happen at all?" The process that resulted in Joan’s canonization began in 1859. The France of that period was at the center of the intellectual and social phenomenon that the church, beginning with Pope Pius IX and continuing to the present papacy, considered one of the greatest-ever threats to its power. This was a series of impulses over which the church spread the linguistic tarpaulin of the word "modernism," a habit of mind that was secular, rationalist, and anti-hierarchical. Joan’s canonization in 1920 can be seen as the church’s attempt to recapture the larger public imagination for itself. It was one response to the powerful tide of socialist, anticlerical thought, particularly powerful at the end of the First World War. Many in the church believed that this tide, whose source was clearly in France, could potentially capsize the boat piloted by Peter’s heirs to the papacy. What was needed was the ballast of Joan’s image: the popular, and unmistakably loyal, daughter of the church. There is a certain irony that this loyal daughter of the church was sentenced to death by an ecclesiastical court, but this irony was passed over for the greater good of a clearly legible symbolic truth. The greater irony is that this woman, who insisted upon the primacy of her individual experience, who has been called by some, the first Protestant, would be seen as the curb by which the faithful could be brought to obedient, communal heel.
It was an irony not unregarded by the devil’s advocates charged with disproving Joan’s qualifications for sanctity. This was only one of the problems with Joan as a saint that they addressed, and it is difficult not to sympathize with their reservations. In examining Joan’s history of resistance to her clerical judges, they raised the question of whether this constituted a model of faithful obedience, whether, in presenting her for emulation by the faithful, the church was backing the wrong horse, or filly. It is important to understand what is in the mind of the church when it names someone a saint and in this context to explore the differences between a saint and a hero.
The church’s criteria for sainthood are based on a person’s having lived an exceptional, in fact unimpeachable, life of virtue. The emphasis is placed upon the three theological and four moral virtues; it is assumed that the candidate would have kept the Ten Commandments of Moses and the six commandments of the church-the latter having to do with questions of fidelity to worship. Keeping the commandments is only paying membership dues in the club of potential salvation; it implies only the minimum compliance (however rare that might be in reality), not the distinction that sainthood implies. The three theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity; the four moral are prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Whereas none of her devil’s advocates questioned whether Joan was an admirable person, they asserted again and again that she was imperfect in the practice of the virtues. One of the devil’s advocates, Jean Baptist Lugari, said of her: "Even though she was a most noble heroine, even though she was pious and endowed with the most impeccable morals, still her virtues do not seem to be such as to make her worthy of being proposed by a decree of the Holy See an exemplar to be imitated by the Christian faithful."