Tuesday, October 19, 2010

On Cut-Rate Saints

I'm not sure which of our heavenly readership will be seeing the newly promoted St. André first, but please convey sincere congratulations from the Dawg, Alison, John, Marie Eve and myself. I have a great fondness for hagiography - saints are such a delightful anachronism- and my good buddy Stageleft has been heard to grumble that they're as close as Catholicism gets to a good, decent polytheism.

The newly-minted St. André may privately wonder, however, why some of the older Saints seem a bit- well, aloof. He may be puzzled about why St. Monica isn't standing him a round, or why St. Isidore of Seville keeps refusing his Facebook Friend requests, or why St. Clare keeps calling him "Probie".

It's not your fault, André. They're just annoyed because - to be frank - they think you're an under-qualified parvenu.

For the first few hundred years after the death of Christ, it was pretty easy to get recognized as a Saint. There was no formal canonization process; no resume, no experience, no miracles necessary. Martyrdom could get you there; or a regional bishop decided you had lived an exceptionally virtuous life; or you could be a local myth that the Church decided to adapt to bring in adherents. It was a boom time for Sainthood.

Towards the end of the first millennium Rome began to insist on having a say in the recognition of Saints, and in 1173 Pope Alexander III lowered the boom, declaring: "You shall not therefore presume to honour him in the future; for, even if miracles were worked through him, it is not lawful for you to venerate him as a saint without the authority of the Catholic Church." Pope Al was annoyed at the veneration of a particular "saint" who was a notorious drunk, killed in a barroom brawl.

Over the centuries an increasingly rigorous process of scrutiny evolved, requiring the investigation of the person’s life and the miracles attributed to his or her intercession. Like any good job, employment standards were established. Non-martyrs were expected to perform at least four posthumous miracles. And each case had to withstand the hostile scrutiny of the Promotor Fidei, better known as the Devil's Advocate, an office established in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V. The Devil's Advocate was an expert in Canon Law appointed by the Church to argue against the case for sainthood.

This worked very well for a few centuries. A satisfactory number of Saints made it through the beatification and canonization process despite the Devil's Advocate.

But science is tough on miracles. The invention of the photography, film cameras and videos seem to have cut down quite a bit on the number of miraculous apparitions, spinning suns and suchlike. Uri Geller, the Israeli conjurer who claimed paranormal skills, used to describe "the shyness effect" that somehow dampened his ability to work miracles, specifically when the cameras were rolling or when he was under observation by trained and skeptical researchers. It seems God may be similarly afflicted. DNA testing and carbon dating also wreak havoc with the reputation of sacred relics. And spontaneous, inexplicable cures seem to occur among atheists, Muslim, Jedis and Jains, as well as Catholics.

All this gave Devil's Advocates a whole new set of tools to play with, and the result was, of course, a calamitous decline in the number of beatifications.

That didn't sit well with Pope John Paul II, who streamlined the process and turned the Vatican into a highly efficient Saint Factory. If you're Maple Leaf, and you want to make more sausages, the fastest way to expand production is, of course, to lower your standards, and JP2 did just that: among other efficiencies, he fired the Devil's Advocate and reduced the number of miracles required, thus eliminating most of that inconvenient skeptical scrutiny. And it worked! JP2 cranked out more than 1300 beatifications and almost 500 canonizations. In fact, during his papacy he manufactured more saints that all his predecessors combined since 1588.

Pope Ratzinger has promised to slow the Saint Factor down a bit. But there aren't many signs that he will: he's already beatified or canonized almost 600 over the course of his relatively brief papacy. He's also taken to bending the rules, kicking off the beatification process for John Paul II within a month of his death rather than waiting for the traditional five years.

So St. André - don't take it personally when St. James the Greater snubs you when you want to reminisce about smoked meat at Schwartz's. It used to take the Right Celestial Stuff to be a Saint, back in the days when a miracle was a MIRACLE - levitation, raising people from the dead, walking around with your severed head under your arm, and other cool stuff. Nowadays, it seems, it's enough to have one of your loyal employees claim you cured her.

Just enjoy the view.

Crossposted from Stageleft.

1 comment:

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