No track to sainthood

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. That’s why I feel less … Continued

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. That’s why I feel less comfortable criticizing Catholicism than Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised. Occasionally, though, I just can’t help myself. In my defense, some of my best friends are Catholics (actually just one—a guy named Tony). But many of my best friends are ex-Catholics, including my wife.

Which brings me to sainthood. Because I prefer behavior to belief and life to death, I recently criticized Catholic doctrines that make martyrdom an easier path to sainthood than good works. But part of me wishes Congress were as willing to craft political compromises as Pope Francis, who approved making Popes John Paul II and John XXIII simultaneous saints. The first is a conservative and the second a liberal. (I’m grading on a curve here because “liberal pope” seems like an oxymoron.)

Pope Francis has been so anxious to elevate both that he put John Paul II on the fast track to sainthood and waved a second miracle for John XXIII. As I understand sainthood, you must first be dead and in heaven. You must then perform miracles, usually by answering a live person’s prayer for assistance in a desperate situation. “Proof” of such miracles is frequently a medical cure that the Vatican has found to be instantaneous and without scientific explanation. Prayers to win the lottery don’t count, despite overcoming greater odds, one would think, than inexplicable medical cures. If there were a god, she would probably have a good chuckle over the chutzpah of one man (the pope) declaring someone to be in heaven.

It would make more sense to me if sainthood were simply a lifetime achievement award for good works, reserved for those whose character others are invited to emulate. But good works are downgraded when miracles play a key role.

The Catholic Church is known to move slowly. For example, it wasn’t until he had been dead for 350 years that the Vatican admitted Galileo had been right after all about the earth orbiting the sun. Even if I believed in sainthood, I would prefer that the church take its time to declare saints. A long waiting period allows for a legacy to endure or for scandals to emerge. How many of the thousands of official saints would stand up to careful scrutiny today?

The Catholic Church has demoted saints like Christopher from the universal calendar after learning that they never existed, but as far as I know they’ve never reversed sainthood after a horrendous scandal had been uncovered. Since Pope Francis seems to care about public relations, I would advise him to slow down. After all, with abundant evidence that Pope John Paul II shielded pedophile priests, what’s the rush? Sainthood is for an eternity, so a few more years shouldn’t make much difference.

Since I’m offering gratuitous advise to the pope, I have a candidate for future sainthood. It’s my Catholic friend, Tony. He was my roommate in graduate school and we’re still friends after 50 years. Tony has devoted himself to helping his fellow human beings, myself included, and treating them with love, respect, and compassion. We may disagree on abstract theological points, but we agree much more than we disagree on things that really matter. He is a Catholic who focuses on loving his neighbor, helping the poor and working for social justice.

When I bring up topics like heaven and Resurrection, Tony just smiles and, depending on his mood, says something like: “It’s complicated” or “I have no idea” or “I can certainly understand why you don’t believe any of that stuff.” Tony can’t be a Catholic saint because he’s not dead and he’ll never perform miracles, but he is a wonderful role model for Catholics and many non-Catholics, like me. I expect Tony will agree with much of what I wrote in this piece, but he will undoubtedly say there are lots of Catholics more worthy of emulation than he is. Though this might be true, very few of them will ever be recognized as official saints, and that’s a shame.

Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.

Herb Silverman
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  • jonesm2

    Great article, Herb! Of course, I think this is the first time that you’ve ever “graded on the curve”! I have another candidate for sainthood, my friend Dub Green. He performed no fewer than six “miracles” when we were working on my house one summer. I swear he fixed things that were completely unfixable using only duct tape, paint and caulk. I know these things were at least as impressive as some of the medical cures by “real” saints where no one ever grew a new limb.

  • reva12

    An excellent piece, both in its well thought out objections and in its expression, on what should be considered an atavism by now! But alas, when it comes to religion and god, majority of people suffer from cognitive dissonance; and its longevity alone of itself has become the raison d’etre for the church in the collective subconscious, ensuring that the institution with its quaint belief systems and practices will persist.

  • WmarkW

    Bertrand Russell said that the qualifications for sainthood do not include making useful contributions to the human condition:

    ” The most virtuous man was the man who retired from the world; the only men of action who were regarded as saints were those who wasted the lives and substance of their subjects in fighting the Turks, like St. Louis. The church would never regard a man as a saint because he reformed the finances, or the criminal law, or the judiciary. Such mere contributions to human welfare would be regarded as of no importance. I do not believe there is a single saint in the whole calendar whose saintship is due to work of public utility. ”

    John Paul II did serve as a focal point for those protesting European communism, leading to its overthrow during his reign. That alone, is the most useful contribution of a pope in centuries.

  • mistermike

    Based on my limited knowledge of Catholic theology, everyone in heaven is a saint, and everyone on earth is called to become a saint. Everyone. But, as soon as you start to use one as a roll model some blogger will dig up some foible that causes you to hope your kids won’t use that saint as a roll model, or even make you wonder if they really are up there. So the Catholic church does extensive research on some so that it can soundly declare ‘good to go’, ‘safe roll model’, ‘really up there’. This proof seems easier with someone who has died for their faith rather than lived their faith. But both are indeed Saints, its just easier to prove some than others.

  • h5r2

    If you are right, then that encourages people to kill and die in a holy war rather than to help the poor and work for social justice. So the church makes up heaven and tells people that belief is more important than behavior. Not a very humanistic theology.

  • mistermike

    Neither I nor the Catholic church say any such thing. Your prejudice and bias is blinding you.

  • h5r2

    They may not say it explicitly, but they made up rules where it is easier to be declared a saint when you die in a holy war than when you live a good life by helping poor people.

  • inreasonitrust

    They say that God created man. Now, how do they know that their Creator (God) also concurs with their choice of who is saint and who is not? If God is the creator of man, so it is not for the man to tell the creator (God) what to do and/or who to choose as saint. In fact, the truth is that: God has been created by man, so, man has every right to tell the created (God) what to do and/or who to choose as saint. I feel sorry for God becoming like a football and being tossed wherever the man wants.

  • edwills

    Interesting that a dictator was overthrown with the help of another dictator who was certain he had the absolute truth.

  • David Schoonbaert

    Sorry to say you are wrong: remember what Moses said when he returned from the mountain and saw the golden statue with ppl admiring it?

  • macnietspingal1

    Well, maybe you and your wife can help because the Catholics deserve Sainthood as far as Jewess me is concerned. I wonder how you all might help spread the Hebrew word for the OT, Original Testament aka TaNaKh by offering “under god” and “in god we trust” Hebrew in elementary school so Jewish kids can have more time for sports. And use the Trope Trainer to do it. If it weren’t for the Catholic Lingua Franca translation of TaNaK no Jewish child would know the difference between LORD and YHWH. At least the Catholic popes have helped this old Jewess to overcome the bad habit of saying LORD for YaHWeH. And more abusively to the evolving brain, in writing/hard copy instead of YHWH. I think all Catholics are Jewish Angels for publishing The New Jerusalem Bible. The Hispanics say El Senor Then all Catholics and Protestants and Jews can discuss Sura 3:3 and Sura 2:113 in HAKORAN. Wouldn’t you like that kind of scientific approach to the ever useful psychological Bible?

  • BRedmond1

    “If there were a god, she would probably have a good chuckle over the chutzpah of one man (the pope) declaring someone to be in heaven.” Well, Herb, Jesus gave that authority to the Church and the pope endorses the recommendations of an investigative process which includes advocates for and against, it is not his decision alone.

  • BRedmond1

    The miracles are not performed by the saint but by God through the intercession of the saint. The Church is not telling God who the saints are but acknowledging the evidence of God working in the mortal world at the request of the saints.

  • alm17

    In which case if there were a god, she would probably have a good chuckle over the impertinence of a group of old men in dresses declaring someone to be in heaven.

  • h5r2

    They got rid of the “devil’s advocate” to avoid embarrassing information. The pope can take advice (probably from all males), but the pope makes the sainthood decision.

  • alm17

    I wonder which saint interceded with “God” while all those children were being sexually abused by the priests that Karol Józef Wojtyła protected.

  • edwills

    So BRedmond1 is saying that the saints know better than God whether God should perform a miracle. I thought God was supposed to know everything.

  • prietenul

    Ooooh David, I long ago gave up quoting the Old Testament or the New Testament to my Catholic friend. He has informed me that The Catholic Church is whatever the Pope says it is. It will not be bound by any rules and can make up anything as it goes along. How convenient!

  • Rongoklunk

    Doesn’t the fact that we all believe what we were raised to believe worry anyone? I mean a Muslim would die for his Allah. He is certain that he was raised to believe in the one true belief. And the folks who were raised to believe what Catholics believe, believe what Catholics believe – devoutly much of the time. And the guy who was raised by Mormons believes what Mormons believe. The offspring of Hindus will believe what they were raised to believe. Just like the Evangelicals raise Evangelicals, the Southern Baptists raise – you guessed it — Southern Baptists. I could go on for hours. My point is we are like robots. We blindly accept the ancient superstitions of our culture as if it’s some kind of virtue – something commendable. When in truth- it’s some kind of childhood indoctrination. And it works. It’s more virtuous to query our beliefs, just in case they defy reality. We wouldn’t want to be lied to or misled would we? We wouldn’t want to end up believing lies would we? We must never lose our curiosity, or give up our search for what is real. And gods ain’t real.

  • Rongoklunk

    A recent book by Selina O’Grady called “And Man Created God” describes the world when JC was alive. It was a madhouse. Everybody was insanely superstitious, wannabe priests were castrating themselves in the streets, there were lots of Messiah types, and there were Gods galore, all over the place. Life must have a living hell. We cannot imagine. But after much research O’Grady shows us how it was back then. And it was one wacky world.

  • Top8305


    When you referenced the OT & NT, how did you address with your mistaken Catholic friend these scriptures?

    Isa 22:[21] I will clothe him with your robe, gird him with your sash, confer on him your authority. He shall be a father [Papa?] to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. [22] I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; what he opens, no one will shut, what he shuts, no one will open. (binding & loosing, legislative authority)

    Mt 16:18 And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. [19] I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

    Mt 28:18 Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power (authority) in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”
    coupled with:
    Jn 20:21b “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (with all authority/power)
    (remember Christ’s promises of Truth from the Holy Spirit to the Church, not individuals)

    By the way, who is your Pope? You know, the source of the false teachings that you regurgitate in all wisdom? Or are you that Pope with your fallible interpretation of the Holy Word of God?

    God Love you.

    The Church must be one. (No divisions, no dissensions, same mind, united of one heart)
    Jn 10:16, 17:17-23, 17:23
    Rom 12:5, 15:5, 16:17
    1 Cor 1:10, 12:13
    Eph 4:4-6
    Phil 2:2
    Col 3:15

    Mt 16:13-20 Jesus built his Church on Peter, the rock (foretold in the OT: Isaiah 22:15-25)
    Lk 22:29-30, 22:32
    Jn 10:16, 15:16, 21:17-19, 20:21
    Eph 4:11
    1 Tim 3:1,8, 5:17
    Titus 1:5

    The Church is Authoritative
    Mt 18:18-17, 28:18-20
    Lk 10:16
    Jn 20:23
    1 Cor 11:24

    The Church is Infallible
    Mt 28:20
    Lk 10:16
    Jn 14:26, 16:13
    Acts 15:28
    1 Tim 3:15
    1 Jn 2:27

    Perpetual; Eternal/Un-ending
    Isaiah 9:6-7
    Dan 2:44, 7:14
    Lk 1:32-33
    Mt 7:24, 13:24-30, 16:18, 28:19

  • pelicanwatchcb1

    If I could nominate a saint, it would be George Carlin. But who asked?

  • edwills

    If George Carlin were in heaven, it wouldn’t be as boring a place as I thought it was.

  • amelia45

    Putting forward John Paul II while the child sex abuse trials and investigations are on-going is a slap in the face of every victim, their families, and the parishes where abuse occurred. History will not forget his blindness and refusal to deal with what we now know is a nightmare of indifference the Catholic Church had to the suffering caused by her own priests. A century from now, there will be only a great embarrassed silence about this “saint.” I have no doubt he had many good qualities – but his reputation for the next few centuries will be – deservedly – in the mud.