There has been a lot of discussion about the historical importance of Pope Francis’ canonization of two previous and greatly influential popes – John XXIII and John Paul II – and that discussion has ranged from highly critical to rapturously euphoric. But while the history that has been made is evident, the politics at play within it is of far more immediate interest. The canonization of these two popes is really a story of the interplay between the two living men who are part of that office, Benedict and Francis. Despite the spiritual nature of canonizing saints, this is really more of a politics problem for Pope Francis, whose moderate nature of being one of the biggest religious leaders in the world is challenged by the conservative forces put in play by his predecessor.
When Francis was elected pope, the process to canonize John Paul II was already underway and nearly complete since it had been spurred on by Benedict during his short tenure. In fact, Benedict had done much to expedite the process. Normally, a person had to have been dead for at least five years before the process could go forward, but this waiting period was waived by the then pontiff. This was in part a response to the call of those Catholics who had been devoted to John Paul II and had descended on Rome chanting “Santo Subito” which is Latin for “make him a saint.” In what is spun as a bow to the reverence that John Paul II inspired, Benedict greatly sped up the process to “make him a saint” as soon as possible.
It was also a move that had political overtones, however. Benedict, whose own conservatism was well known from his time as cardinal, wanted not only to encapsulate his predecessor’s conservative legacy, but to align himself with its popularity. John Paul II had tried to work against what he saw as the abuses of the Second Vatican Council and had been highly critical of its reforms. Making him a saint not only made reverence for the man a religious form, it made reverence out of the beliefs he tried to institute so strenuously.
When Francis was elected to the papacy, however, a change in that conservative mission was effected. While he has not changed any of the substantive doctrine of the Church, he has provided an example for a graceful acceptance of all people, regardless of marital status, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation. Canonizing John Paul II probably would not have been high on his list of priorities. His priorities have been of a material nature, either in providing aid for people who need it or for examining the problems of the church which have plagued it for decades. That has been Francis’ mission, not a political move towards making saints. But he was hampered by the fact that the process was basically accomplished when he was elected and so Francis faced the problem of the politics involved in canonizing the well-loved pope.
Looking at the moment from this viewpoint, the problem of politics for Pope Francis is obvious, as well as his handling of it. Canonization is not just a religious act, but a political one in which Francis will be associated with one side or the other. But by including John XXIII in this process, Francis managed to avoid that problem. John XXIII was the pope who called the Second Vatican Council which has been criticized by conservative Catholics. His goal in doing so was to bring the Catholic church into the modern era and to open it up to more people who were looking for a place to make their spiritual home.
The comparison of John XXIII and John Paul II could not be more stark, but neither could the ideological chasm between Benedict and Francis. A recent news story about Pope Francis involved a call he made to an Argentinian woman who is married to a divorced man. According to Catholic teachings, her marriage is not recognized by the church and, therefore, she cannot receive communion at her local parish because she is living in a sinful relationship. During their phone conversation, Pope Francis told the woman that she could receive communion in an apparent contradiction of church doctrine. Officials in the Vatican have claimed both that the pope is a pastor of his people first and foremost and also that phone calls to private persons do not define church doctrine.
While that is true, the action does define the man who made it and Francis has shown himself to be almost diametrically opposed to his predecessor’s views. In 1994, then Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict, wrote a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion by the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful.” In this letter, he iterated that church pastors, while exercising the option of grace, had a duty to remind their parishioners of the doctrines of the church regarding this issue. Those doctrines, according to then Cardinal Ratzinger, include the teaching that remarried persons cannot receive communion. Apparently, Francis has decided to emphasize the grace rather than the doctrine his predecessor drove home.
This tension between two living religious figures is what is really at issue with this canonization, not the tension between two (now) saints. It has been said that Pope Francis does not see the two sainted men as representing opposition, but as complementary. This is a fair assessment from a religious viewpoint. While they may have disagreed on certain points, they were both a part of the process in the church of moving its mission along and they both had the good of their institution at heart, as well as a sincere belief in God. In that way, they truly are complementary. But the current political status of the church is not complementary and Francis and Benedict represent differing sides in that debate.
There can be no doubt that while the canonization is a political maneuver on the part of Francis, it is also a beautiful moment for faithful Catholics all over the world. Despite the opposing politics, both saints have inspired Catholics along a wide spectrum of political beliefs. That is the part of this moment that is televised and prayed about. But the politics cannot be ignored. Francis is involved in a re-working of the Church that is part of his own personal faith, part of his belief in the grace of God and his church. Unlike John XXIII, he is not calling councils. More like John Paul II he is using his own personal persona to spread his message. He is more than just a canny political operator. Pope Francis has faced a problem of politics and solved it in a way that is relevant to his personal style and mission. But in the end, politics is politics, no matter what religion it’s a part of.
Opinion By Lydia Webb