My problem with saint-making

All Saints is one of my favourite feasts. It’s an opportunity for me to remember the many saints I have known over the years who have passed from this life – family members, colleagues, friends – and to celebrate also the countless others who have lived saintly lives throughout history. I think this year especially of my father, who died 11 months ago, and my Aunt Mary, who died two weeks ago, as well as Fr Jacques Hamel, brutally beheaded in France, and of all those Christians who are being martyred every day in Syria and Iraq.

It’s a reminder also of my call to become a saint, even if I will never get to join the list of those in the official calendar of the church’s saints.

One thing’s for sure – there is no shortage of saints in the Catholic calendar. Pope John Paul II made sure of that. During his 26-year pontificate he canonised 482 saints and beatified 1,300 – far more than any pope in history. Indeed, between 1000 a.d. and 1978 a.d., fewer than 450 men and women were made saints by the Catholic Church. In other words, John Paul doubled this number all on his own.

He loved making saints. Many people would see that as a good thing. After all, we are all called to be saints, and surely we can never have too many of them.

But I have a number of problems with the saint-making process, especially as it developed under John Paul.

The first has to do with changes that made canonisation easier. The ‘Devil’s advocate’ was thrown out the window or, at least, downgraded to such a degree that the role is no longer recognisable. I’d prefer the more stringent process that existed in the past.

Then there is the speed of some canonisations. Several saints have been canonised within a very short period of their deaths. Yes, that happened occasionally in the past too, but what’s the rush? A wait-and-see attitude is always wise so that nothing might emerge in later years to cast a shadow on a particular saint.

Another issue has to do with the criteria John Paul II used when saint-making. He canonised more saints in his 26 years as pope than all popes of the previous millennium combined. He canonised all types. So, it’s extraordinary that he ignored Oscar Romero. Many people in El Salvador and throughout the Catholic world consider Romero to be a martyr for the faith, and yet the Vatican under John Paul and Benedict made no move to advance Romero’s cause. Why was Romero not canonised when so many others were? One would have to conclude that ideology and politics were at play; that JPII did not want to endorse someone so publicly associated with liberation theology, even though he was himself the most political of popes.

Pope Francis, of course, has no such hesitation. One of his first acts as pope was to put Romero on the road to sainthood.

Then there is the policy of almost automatically canonising popes. People accept that those elected to the papacy, at least in modern times, are good and holy men. Why, then, the need to canonise them? And if some popes are not canonised, does that mean they were less holy or great than those who were?

Of course, a danger with canonising popes is that it becomes all about church politics. Conservative Catholics will always refer to Pope John Paul as Saint John Paul the Great, whereas liberal Catholics – who prefer Saint John XXIII – are more likely to refer to him simply as John Paul. Indeed, it was to appease both right and left that canny Pope Francis canonised JPII and John XXIII on the same day. When I hear someone talk about Saint John Paul the Great, I know exactly where he or she stands theologically. Better not to canonise any pope than to turn the whole process into a political and ideological battle.

Then there’s the money involved. Saints don’t come cheap. Unless a group or religious order has the cash and resources to promote the cause of someone they would like to have canonised, it’s not going to happen quickly or at all. There’s something unseemly about mixing cash and saint-making.

So, let’s ease off on the saint-making and focus more on All Saints, those we have known and those who have gone before us, too numerous to tally.


There is room for liberals in the Catholic church

I have always considered myself to be a liberal. Instinctively, since as long as I was able to think for myself, I subscribed to what was known as the ‘liberal agenda.’ Though I was a committed Catholic, and came from a devout Catholic family, I had no time for theocracies. I believed in the separation of church and state. I believed that any church or religious institution that relied on the state to enforce its teachings was, by definition, a weak church or institution. I felt that an unhealthy codependency had developed between civil and religious authorities in the decades after Irish independence that would be detrimental to both of them in the long run.

The relationship between de Valera and Archbishop John Charles McQuaid, and the latter’s interventions in almost every aspect of Irish life, seemed to encapsulate all that was wrong with church and state in 20th century Ireland.

When the ban on artificial contraception was being discussed in the 1970s and 80s, I was with those who wanted reform. It was the same when it came to divorce. I might personally subscribe to what the church teaches about the sanctity of marriage, but I didn’t think it should be imposed on those who were not Catholic or who disagreed profoundly with the church’s position. Similarly, when it came to legalising homosexual acts and to the vote on marriage equality, I was on the side of the reformers. I even wrote an op-ed piece for the Irish Times in support of marriage equality.

And many years ago, when I had just emerged out of my teens, I voted against the 8th amendment to the constitution, not because I was in favour of abortion, but because I thought the proposed wording was weak and was going to lead to a whole pile of trouble.

Meanwhile, I had joined the seminary straight out of school and so found myself in the difficult position where some of the views I held were at odds with the official teaching of the church. When it came to internal church politics I also found myself on the liberal side – favouring the ordination of woman and the introduction of optional celibacy, as well as a more compassionate approach to those who were gay or divorced and remarried. I identified strongly with liberation theology and the preferential option for the poor. I was enthused more than anything by the idea of a church and a clergy that stood alongside the oppressed and were willing to lose all in solidarity with them. An open, welcoming, inclusive church.

But the odd thing is that not only did I find myself in conflict with the Vatican over the years, and run into trouble with the authorities for my views, I found that many so-called liberals had no time for church people like me either. I remember being taken aback one time when Fintan O’Toole referred to me in his column as a conservative. I certainly didn’t see myself as a conservative. Then I understood that in the eyes of many secularists, being a Catholic priest was synonymous with being a conservative. That if you were a card-carrying member of the clergy then, ipso facto, you had to be a conservative. And, therefore, an ogre and an obscurantist.

Given its arrogance and abuse of power in the past, I don’t blame people for being angry at the Irish Catholic church. But what I don’t like is the way in which everybody in the church is viewed through the same lens, how all clergy and religious are regarded as the enemy, and as opponents of all that is good.

Sure, the church as institution has much to answer for, but the church is not a monolith. There is diversity within and much goodness too. To deny that fact, or refuse to see it, as some liberals do, is to replace one form of arrogance and intolerance with another.

The church must root out the cancer of clericalism

There is less lace on display in the Vatican these days and a greater emphasis on simplicity and service, but old attitudes die hard, and the cancer of clericalism is still very much alive throughout the Catholic Church.

Most clerics I know are not consciously part of this culture. They may be clerics but they are not clerical. They are uncomfortable with being placed on pedestals, do their best to listen to what lay people have to say, and are not into power games. They want only to serve God and God’s people.

But that clericalism is deeply rooted in our church cannot be denied. Clericalism has nothing to do with wearing the Roman collar or with conforming to a dress code, though that is part of it. Rather, it is a state of mind, a mentality that is strictly hierarchical and authoritarian. It is to belong to, and to see oneself as belonging to, an exclusive club – male, hierarchical, and celibate – that is closed and secretive, part of a system of privilege, deference and power.

It is a culture that is far removed from the New Testament model of how the disciples related to each other and to the Lord.

In the clerical culture, the instinct is to protect the interests and reputation of the club at all costs, even at times at the cost of Justice and truth. This has been a major factor in the failure of church leaders down the decades to address the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. The reputation of the institution came before the needs of victims. Men who saw themselves as faithful to the church – indeed, precisely because they saw themselves as being loyal to the church – made decisions that further harmed people who had already been harmed by the church.

The culture of clericalism is damaging in many other ways, too.

Clericalism attests to the notion of the laity as the People of God. But this is merely lip service. The lay point of view isn’t taken seriously. Members of the clerical caste, those on the upper rungs of the hierarchical ladder, are the ones who have a monopoly on wisdom and of access to the Holy Spirit.

Clericalism is big into status and privilege. It loves titles and rank and lace and pedestals. Woe betide the unfortunate who does not afford the clericalist his proper title, or give him the humble respect which he thinks is his right.

Clericalism thrives on power and is sustained by it. It is a strong believer in accountability – but only upwards, not downwards. Decisions and decision-making happen at the top. Lay people and ordinary clergy do not have to be consulted – and seldom are.

Clericalism has no time for dialogue and debate. It regards those who talk about renewal in the church as dangerous, and as having a liberal agenda. (Many of them would put Pope Francis within this ‘liberal’ bracket too). But it doesn’t regard those with a conservative vision of the church as having any agenda. They are merely orthodox.

Clericalism talks about service, but it loves ambition, and encourages careerism. To get ahead in the clerical world means being careful to say the right things, to cultivate the right friendships, and to toe the party line on issues of sexual morality and the role of women.

Clericalism adores secrecy and needs it. How appointments are made, how clergy are transferred, how complaints are dealt with, the reasons why decisions are arrived at, are seldom explained. They don’t have to be. Power and control are better exercised in a culture of secrecy.

Clerical is a cancer at the heart of the church. Thank God, it is something Pope Francis is conscious of and wants to drive out. But he faces a daunting, and probably losing, battle. Francis has only a few years left. The Curia will bide their time.