The Book of Sin and Saintliness

March 27, 2010 § Leave a comment


The fact that Richard McBrien is both a Catholic Priest and a Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame ought to prepare the reader of this book, not just for the rigour of the research that went into writing it, but also for a splash of controversy. Priesthood and theological research must make different and often contradictory demands of a writer, I imagine, regarding the questions that he is not permitted to ask, the opinions that he must hold, and the subjects he may and may not broach. In a different era, every word of McBrien’s works would have been scrutinized intensely for deviation from the orthodox faith, and the unintended incorporation of a single questionable word would have been sufficient to commit him to the stake. For our forefathers understood better than we do that belief can be either total or not at all; that faith, tempered with rational choice of values, is not fundamentally different from atheism.

As McBrien points out, the word heresy is derived from the Greek for selective perception.

In what way can something as innocent as an attempt at historical hagiography be controversial? To begin with, the very definition of sainthood is debatable. McBrien’s book defines a saint as one who is officially recognized by the church as a person who has lived a heroically virtuous life, is now in heaven, and can be venerated publicly by the faithful. But this is a definition that has evolved over time. In the beginning, the immediate followers of Jesus were called saints. Then, when Christianity was a nascent religion, saints were those who cheerfully preferred martyrdom and torture to the repudiation of their faith. Then they were those who fanned out across the world and converted entire nations to Christianity. When much of Europe was Christian, saints were those who established monastic orders, administered effectively, advised and rebuked kings, consolidated theological knowledge, combated heresies vigorously, and by these means, helped the Church become arguably the most successful hierarchical organization in history. It was only recently, after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) that the emphasis has begun to shift from saints as miracle-workers to saints as role models. Even so, conclusive evidence of bona-fide miracles having been performed by the candidate, is still a mandatory step in the canonization and beatification processes – something McBrien admits is anomalous. In his own (very modern) opinion, saints are holy, but human:

“The saints confirm us in the hope that holiness is an achievable goal…they live in history, are shaped by it, and in turn, often shape it as well…they prove that a certain form of life and activity is a real genuine possibility… The saints are not situated between us and Christ. They are with us, in Christ, as sisters and brothers with whom we share a common humanity…and a common destiny.”

And indeed, Father McBrien’s biographical notes contain numerous tales of superhuman selflessness in service, of utter fearlessness in the face of intense suffering or death, and of a lack of covetousness that is so complete that it sounds scarcely credible to readers of our materialist age. But it is the rest of the stories that I found most interesting, and so, I suspect, does the Reverend. For his own scholarly interests, according to his Wikipedia entry, revolve around ecclesiology (the relationship between religion and politics), and an essential sub-text to the story of the saints is the story of that hotbed of perennial political activity, the Catholic Church itself.

The Church had humble beginnings, barely eking out a furtive subterranean existence during the initial days of oppression. Long after Christianity became the state religion of the empire, Popes derived their authority from their formal appointment to the post by the Roman emperor. Still, their power grew over time, until Martin I incurred Emperor Constans‘s wrath in 649 AD for being consecrated without waiting for imperial approval. A couple of generations later, events had taken an even stranger turn. In 711 AD, Emperor Justinian was killed by Philippicus Bardanes, but Pope Constantine boldly refused to recognize Philippicus as the new emperor, resulting in the collapse of his imperial reign. The roles had now been reversed, and it was the Emperor who relied on Papal approval for his authority. Secure in its mastery over Rome, the Church now aimed to consolidate its authority across the Catholic world. Of course the conflict between the Pope and Emperor was more complicated than that – in 1046, Emperor Henry III was still able to depose Gregory VI on the charges of simony – but the Church as an establishment was very powerful by then. In 993 AD came a new milestone, when John XV canonized Ulrich of Ausberg. Until then, official recognition of sainthood was not a papal prerogative. No longer was it left to minor cults and local communities to proclaim and celebrate saintly individuals who had lived and died in their midst. Spontaneous eruption of public affection and veneration was deliberately replaced by an elaborate, centralized process that took years to play out, and public veneration of individuals not yet beatified by Rome was severely frowned upon.

The process of beatification and canonization is endlessly fascinating (to connoisseurs of bureaucratic organizations). It involves local bishops, notarized witnesses, scrutiny of published writings, unpublished writings and personal letters, written legal dialectics, Promoters of the Faith, the preparation of a ‘positio’ document, officials of the Congregation of Rites, Decrees of Introduction, new questions, new tribunals, the Decree of the Validity of the Process, the Postulator, the preparation of an ‘informatio’ document, new objections, Cardinals, and the Pope himself – all of which is THEN followed by the determination of the veracity of two miracle-working claims (for beatification) and an additional one (for canonization).

Clearly, the process has been made intolerably difficult for a good reason – the Church, for obvious reasons, likes to retain firm control on the number of people who are declared saints, and on the specific virtues and attributes that qualify them for sainthood. They determine who one should revere, in order to influence how one should behave. But a centralized, bureaucratic process has another important consequence as well: political corruption. McBrien quotes Lawrence Cunningham as saying:

“Every beatification or canonization is, of course, a political statement in the sense that such public gestures of the Church desire to make plain preoccupations, emphases, and iconic representations that are part of the larger church program”

Thus Celestine V was canonized “because the King of France pressurized a French Pope to do so”, Louis IX “as part of a negotiated settlement of a dispute between the Pope and the King”, Rose of Lima and John of the Cross to earn the Church brownie points in the Spanish court, and Joan of Arc to mollify France after World War I. The Feast of Joseph the Worker was inaugurated by Pope Pius XII purely to counteract the Communist May Day holiday. Other controversial canonizations include bishops tainted by accusations of simony and unchastity; men of violence and intolerance who vigorously advanced the Church’s and their own causes with fire, sword and cruelty; and Pope Anastasius I, who “did nothing else that was memorable in his very brief pontificate except perhaps fathering his own successor, Innocent I”.

Professor McBrien makes it a point not to paper over the blatantly political decisions; in fact, he may be accused with some justification of describing the sins of the controversially canonized with a relish that is ever so slightly unbecoming in a priest. But these are precisely what make the book most readable, and the shrewd padre thus proves what we always knew – that Sin sells better than Saintliness.

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