Magical Thinking and the Canonization of Two Popes

Why Pope Francis is canonizing two popes for all of the world wide web to see.

For the first time in history, believers and unbelievers everywhere on the planet will have the chance to witness the simultaneous canonizations of two popes, John XXIII and John Paul II, live-streamed from the Vatican on April 27.

The media are likely to cover this unique (for once, the adjective is accurate) event with the kind of uncritical awe normally reserved for ceremonies involving the British monarchy. Instead of the critical scrutiny appropriate for what is as much a political as a religious event, there will be more blather extolling the “humility” of Pope Francis. This nonsense, it should be said, has been purveyed not by Francis himself but by a press blind to the fact that human beings who become popes, like human beings who become presidents, tend to be earthly creatures of vaulting ambition rather than humility.

[A] pope can change the rules about miracles whenever he wants — and that is what Pope Francis has done in order to canonize John XXIII.

The canonizations raise serious practical and philosophical questions about the role of the church in the modern world and about the fundamental meaning of Catholic sainthood, which places some human beings so far above others that they are thought to have a special pipeline to God. Sainthood and its discontents are not trivial issues. They helped shape the Protestant Reformation and remain a source of contention between the Catholic Church and many other religious believers, as well as secularists, today.

As it happens, the two popes being elevated to sainthood had very different ideas about the future course of the church over which they had been granted absolute power. So it is difficult to imagine that they could be equally effective as mediators between God and humanity — the role assigned them in Catholic theology — unless God Himself has no opinions.

John XXIII, who was 76 when he was elevated to the papacy in 1958, was thought to be a placeholder but turned out to be a great reformer when he convened the Second Vatican Council. Unfortunately for liberal Catholics, John died in 1963, before the work of Vatican II was completed.

Changes that would have made an enormous difference to the fate of the church in developed nations, involving everything from its condemnation of artificial birth control to priestly celibacy, were being debated when John died. Without a push from an activist pope, the debate became more muted and the issues remain unresolved today.

The two popes being elevated to sainthood had very different ideas about the future course of the church over which they had been granted absolute power.

John Paul II, by contrast, was only 58 when elected pope in 1978 and was thought to possess the potential to become an activist reformer. He did indeed become an activist and a reformer — as one of the most theologically conservative popes in modern history. He used his long reign of 27 years to replace one liberal bishop after another as the “Vatican II generation” of church leaders, appointed by John XXIII, began to die off.

I am an atheist, raised as a Catholic by an Irish Catholic mother and a Jewish father who converted to Catholicism. I greatly admired John XXIII, though I was already an atheist at the time of his death, and I consider John Paul II to have been a disaster for Catholicism in the western world. It is no accident that during John Paul’s conservative papacy — when the church refused to reconsider sexual prohibitions applying to the laity but covered up sexual abuse of children by priests — millions of practicing Catholics decamped in the United States and Western Europe. According to a Pew poll conducted in 2009, more than one out of five native-born Americans raised in the church no longer consider themselves Catholics.

John XXIII, by contrast, generated immense enthusiasm among my contemporaries, who had known only the dour Pius XII as pope. Tears came to my eyes at age 15, in 1960, when I read that John had greeted a delegation of American Jewish leaders with the words from Genesis, “I am Joseph, your brother.” This was a reference to his name, Angelo Giuseppe (Joseph) Roncalli before he became pope.

The American delegation was presenting the pope with a Torah scroll honoring him for his work, as papal nuncio in Istanbul during World War II, in saving many Jews from the Holocaust by providing them with false documents for immigration to Palestine.

Just as clearly, I remember my anger when, in 1998, John Paul II canonized Edith Stein, a Jewish convert to Catholicism who became a Carmelite nun, Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, and was gassed at Auschwitz in 1942. The canonization of Stein was considered an insult by many Jews (despite improvements in Catholic-Jewish relations during John Paul’s papacy) because it explicitly claimed that she was martyred at Auschwitz because she was a Catholic.

Of course — like all of Jewish birth — she was murdered by the Nazis because she was a Jew. She was taken from her convent in the Netherlands and placed on a train to Auschwitz, while all of the Catholic-born nuns were undisturbed.

The Stein case, as it happens, sheds considerable light on the nature of the canonization process, which requires miracles certified by witnesses for an individual to be raised to sainthood. Historically, these miracles have involved praying to a saint (on behalf of oneself or someone else) and being cured of a fatal disease by inexplicable means. Needless to say, miracles have become harder to come by as medical knowledge has increased. But there are loopholes and Stein was pushed through one of them.

While two miracles are generally needed to qualify for sainthood, only one is needed if the proposed saint is designated a martyr for the faith, as Stein was under John Paul II.

Stein’s miracle turned out to be the recovery of an American girl who accidentally took a Tylenol overdose and whose parents prayed to Sister Benedicta for her recovery. As the story was originally reported by James Carroll in The New Yorker in 1999, the girl was treated by two doctors — one Jewish, one not — who declared that the majority of children with similar overdoses recover naturally. Dr. Michael Shannon, an expert toxicologist, told Carroll that “ninety-nine percent of the time children with Tylenol overdoses fully recover.” The church simply overruled the doctors and certified the miracle anyway.

It was vital to John Paul II that Stein be canonized as a Catholic martyr (obviously, you can’t make someone a Catholic saint for being murdered because she was a Jew), but it was also helpful to be relieved of the need to find a second miracle, since the first was hard enough to document.

As it turns out, though, a pope can change the rules about miracles whenever he wants — and that is what Pope Francis has done in order to canonize John XXIII. John has only one miracle to his credit — the 1966 “cure” of a nun dying of complications after abdominal surgery. John Paul II does have two miracles — the first being the putative remission of Parkinson’s Disease in a French nun and the second the recovery of a Costa Rican woman with a brain aneurysm.

Pope Francis could not afford to wait for a second miracle attributed to John XXIII because of the urgent political need to canonize both popes at the same time. John XXIII is still revered by Catholic liberals and John Paul II is venerated by theological conservatives, who are suspicious of Francis because he has removed several arch-conservatives from positions of power within the Vatican hierarchy. In fact, apart from kind words (though kind words are far from meaningless in this context) like “Who am I to judge?” when asked about gays, Francis has given no indication that he is anything but a theological conservative. He is, however, no economic conservative, and his denunciations of economic inequality scare right-wingers within the church.

One need not be an atheist to be stunned by the anachronism of attributing nature-defying miracles to prayers directed through saints.

Thus, the canonization of John XXIII alone would have enraged conservatives and the canonization of John Paul II alone would have further infuriated disaffected liberal Catholics. The dual canonization is an attempt to please the traditional Catholic base while luring back some among the millions of who have left the church in what was once Christendom’s western bastion.

It is difficult to imagine, though, that Catholics who no longer consider themselves Catholics are likely to return to a church that still condemns divorce, artificial birth control, in vitro fertilization, abortion for any reason and gay unions. Moreover, if the church continues to require priestly celibacy and refuses to consider the ordination of women (Francis has already reiterated his support for the latter policy), there will continue to be a severe priest shortage.

In this environment, how can the canonizations of two such different men heal the deep spiritual and intellectual divide within a church that, increasingly, must rely on the poor and poorly educated, in Africa and some parts of Asia, for new converts?

One need not be an atheist to be stunned by the anachronism of attributing nature-defying miracles to prayers directed through saints. Educated men and women of most faiths, Catholicism included, now believe pretty much what Enlightenment deists did—that alleviating human suffering depends on the exercise of human reason, not on supernatural intervention deemed miraculous.

Finally, if Pope Francis really wants to fashion a more humble papacy, canonizing two popes — whatever one thinks of their respective policies on earth — is probably not the most humble way to go about it.

Susan Jacoby
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