Their Holinesses

In Sunday's New York Times "Week in Review" section, an article by David Gibson asked, "Should any pope be made a saint?" The headline posed a question much easier to answer: "Is Every Pontiff a Saint?" Obviously not. But Rome's recent history of proposing popes as candidates for canonization suggests that the most pertinent query may be a combination of the above: Should every recent pope be made a saint?

John Paul II beatified Pius IX, the 19th-century pope who is a polarizing figure because of his belief in the power of the papacy and his views on Judaism. But like Benedict, John Paul did a little ticket-balancing. He simultaneously beatified the popular John XXIII, who convened the liberalizing Second Vatican Council in 1962. The canonization process for Paul VI, who followed John XXIII, is underway, and there is a campaign to beatify John Paul I, who reigned a mere 33 days before his death in 1978.This trend, by some accounts, is creating several problems. One is that it can dilute the meaning of sainthood; all who die and go to heaven are saints, but those officially recognized as such by the church are exalted as worthy of veneration and imitation. Is every pope such an exemplar? Moreover, by canonizing predecessors a reigning pope elevates the throne he himself occupies and practically ensures that his successor one day will declare him a saint as well as if sanctity were an award for becoming pope.

Do we need to make saints out of even the holiest recent popes -- all of them (with the exception of John Paul I!) far from obscure? The drawbacks are obvious. What are the benefits?

Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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