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Posted July 13, 2002
The politics of sainthood
Why has the Church chosen this moment to canonize a priest
widely accused of sexual misconduct with women?

LAST MONTH’S CONVOCATION of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, held to hammer out an official policy on how to respond to future cases of clergy sexual abuse, was roundly hailed by the US media as a bold and progressive step forward for the Roman Catholic Church. Time magazine, in its usual hype-speak, called it "groundbreaking." The policy worked out at the Dallas conference, which mandates, among other things, that any priest found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor will be immediately — and permanently — removed from pastoral work, has to be okayed by Vatican higher-ups before it can be implemented. Word from the conference president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, is that this approval should not be a problem. Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

It’s not fully appreciated just how unprecedented this conference actually was. The impetus for forming the new policy came from an extraordinary demand by American lay Catholics that the US Catholic hierarchy admit its errors and — contrary to the organization of Roman Catholicism — follow the lead of the faithful. It was a stunning moment in the history of the Church. But you need look no further than the recent canonization of Padre Pio — a priest who faced numerous, credible accusations of sexual misconduct with women — to get an idea of how seriously (or not) the Vatican is taking the calls for change.

Make no mistake, the process of canonization within the Roman Catholic Church — that most methodical and bureaucratic of organizations — is fraught with politics. Aside from their spiritual evolution, saints also have pedagogical functions. They are the Church’s poster children and spiritual heroes. They are promoted in books and on holy cards, statues, religious portraits, and stained-glass windows. The Vatican makes clear political and social statements, cloaked in the guise of theology, when it selects its saints.

CANON PODDER                 
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Take, for example, the canonization of Maria Goretti. Born in poverty in 1890, she lived with her family on the outskirts of Rome. In 1902, the 12-year-old Maria was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old neighbor. When she resisted, he stabbed her. When she died a few days later, she told her confessor that she forgave her assailant and wanted him "to be in paradise" with her. The assailant was sentenced to 30 years in prison. For the first eight, he harbored bitterness toward Maria, but repented after she appeared to him in a dream. Upon his release he received communion — at a shrine built for the young martyr — with Maria’s mother at his side. A cult immediately sprang up around Maria Goretti, making her both a visible and visceral emblem of the chastity of Catholic youth. She was promoted by Pope Pius XII as an icon of virginity during the Allied liberation of Italy after World War II, when there was much concern about sexual immorality among young people. In the years after the war, as the Vatican became increasingly worried about the effects of movies, jazz, and other forms of popular culture on Catholic youth, Goretti was continually brought forward as a model young Catholic. She was beatified in 1947 and canonized in 1950. During the ceremony, Pius XII stated: "From Maria’s story, carefree children and young people with their zest for life can learn not to be led astray by attractive pleasures which are not only ephemeral and empty but also sinful." In the United States, Catholic youth were urged to take the "Modesty Pledge of the Friends of Maria Goretti," which began, "I am special! My body was made in God’s image and how I choose to act, what I choose to wear, to watch, or listen to, enhances or diminishes the virtues of my personality."

So what are we to make of the fact that even as the seemingly bottomless sexual-abuse scandal (which is not, as many believe, limited to the American Catholic Church) threatens the financial stability of various archdioceses and erodes Church leaders’ authority to speak on issues of public morality, the Vatican has just made a saint of a priest who was accused of sexual conduct with countless women as well as acting in effeminate ways? The canonization of Pio, now known as Saint Pio de Pietrelcina (after his birthplace near Naples, Italy), tells us that the Vatican’s crusade under Pope John Paul II to bring Rome back to its pre–Vatican II past is alive and well.

ONE OF THE MOST remarkable — and remarked upon — aspects of Pio’s canonization has been the short length of time between the priest’s death and his declared sainthood. The Vatican generally takes a long view of history, and it has not been unusual for at least 100 years to pass between a subject’s death and the discussion of his or her sainthood. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, for instance, died in 1821 and was not even put up for canonization until 1940; she was finally declared a saint in 1975. But it took less then 34 years from the time of the Capuchin friar’s death in 1968, at age 81, to his being made a saint. In Vatican time, this is a speedier fast-tracking than the derailment of habeas corpus has received at the hands of John Ashcroft. Padre Pio’s accelerated path toward official holiness is even more remarkable given his history with the Vatican.

While the media coverage of Padre Pio’s canonization has been respectful, it did hint that Pio was an unusual candidate for sainthood. The New York Times coverage began with the ironic headline THE FRIAR, MIRACULOUSLY, MARCHES INTO SAINTHOOD and then noted with some delicacy that "in the past, Rome took a dim view" of Padre’s Pio’s life and reputation. Most other news reports noted that Pio, though popular, was controversial. This is, as one might expect when talking about a newly minted saint, putting it kindly.

The last 50 years of Pio’s life were fraught with scandal. He was accused of sexual impropriety, attacked for public episodes of rage aimed at penitents, and accused of accepting money in the confessional. His numerous critics — both within and outside the Church — claimed that Pio, far from being a saint, was nothing more than a self-serving monomaniac who shamelessly promoted himself as the center of a popular cult. The impetus of the cult was his claim to having been blessed with the stigmata — the bleeding wounds of Christ on the hands, feet, and side. The Vatican took these claims so seriously that it ordered a series of investigations into his behavior. Even the Capuchins had such serious qualms about their most famous member’s sanctity that they had his cell — and, many claim, his confessional — bugged. It was an ecclesiastical Watergate, and let’s face it: no one has been looking to canonize Richard Nixon lately. The general media presumption is that Pio’s rapid canonization occurred in spite of his checkered past. But that is too kind. It is far more likely that his swift and nimble ascent to sainthood occurred precisely because of his past.

Born Francesco Forgione in 1887 to poor peasants living in the rural Italian village of Pietrelcina, Pio grew up a delicate and devout child, with many health problems. At the age of 15, in 1902, he was accepted into the Capuchins — an independent branch of the Franciscans — and given the name Fra Pio (Brother Pius). From the beginning, Pio sought to express his devotion by becoming — in the words of Saint Theresa of Avila — "a victim of divine love." For Pio, this meant physical self-mortification. He would engage in extravagant fasting (once refusing all food but the Eucharist for three weeks); as a novice, he self-flagellated until he bled. Not surprisingly, he became so chronically ill that he had to leave the monastery for periods of time. He was well enough to be ordained in 1910, but soon began struggling with fairly extraordinary spiritual difficulties. He wrote to a friend that the devil — literally — came at night with "every sort of fantasy to tempt me into thoughts of [sexual] uncleanness," and he became increasingly ill. This illness, Pio’s lifelong friend Mercurio Scocca said, was brought on by sexual frustration. Later that year, Pio announced, "I do want to suffer, even to die of suffering, but all in secret," and in 1911 he received what he claimed to be early markings — technically called a "proto-stigmata" — of the wounds of Christ on his hands (the doctor attached to the monastery could not explain them). Over the next few years, Pio experienced trances during which he spoke to Mary and Jesus, as well as episodes of continued wrestling with the devil. In 1918 word circulated that Pio, who had already been gaining a public reputation for saintliness, had also been granted such spiritual gifts as the ability to read minds, speak to spirits, and bilocate, or exist in two places at the same time. Most spectacularly — and notoriously — rumor had it that he had been blessed with the full stigmata: bleeding wounds that shed up to a cup of blood a day, but which had the fragrance of flowers.

As Pio’s fame for holiness grew, so did criticism. From the 1920s onward, the Vatican was deluged with letters claiming that Pio was behaving inappropriately with women in the confessional and even that he brought women to his cell, where they stayed all night. Others accused Pio of "pomading his hair," perfuming his body, and even wearing makeup. Still more asserted that he accepted money in the confessional — a charge that Pio granted was true, but claimed that he passed the money on to more needy penitents. There was also the matter of his nearly uncontrollable and often inexplicable rage, which he would unleash at a moment’s notice on selected penitents and visitors. As early as 1922, the Vatican forbade him to hear the confessions of women, give blessings to people, or let the public know in advance when he would celebrate Mass. In 1923, he was forbidden to teach teenage boys in the school attached to the monastery because the Holy See considered him "a noxious Socrates, capable of perverting the fragile lives and souls of boys." But when the Vatican tried to transfer Pio to another monastery, the village in which he lived went into full revolt; the threat of a riot was so great that the national police force had to be called in.

More troubling to some people, though, was Pio’s intense relationship with Adelaide Pyle, an American soap-flake heiress, who became obsessed with the friar in 1924. She eventually joined the third order of Franciscans, built a house next door to Pio’s monastery to entertain luminaries who came to visit him, and gave much of her money to his charities. There were also disconcerting rumors of his fascist sympathies during World War II. The controversy continued, and as late as 1960 the newly elected Pope John XXIII launched yet another investigation into Pio’s life and practices. Not surprisingly, Pio was dismayed by many of the changes introduced by Vatican II and was even granted special permission to continue to say Mass in Latin.

Clearly, Pio was not a shoo-in for sainthood. Over the past 100 years, the Vatican has been very careful to disassociate itself from "miracles" (especially stigmata) that might be exposed as frauds. It has also been equally wary of popular cults over which it has little control. Therefore, it came very much as a surprise when the Capuchins submitted Pio’s name to the Vatican for beatification (the first step toward canonization) in 1969, just a year after his death. Its immediate acceptance came as an even greater surprise, since such proposals are usually not permitted until five years after the candidate’s death. In 1999, Pio was beatified — again, in a very short time — and after a brief trip to the altar, he became a full-fledged saint.

BUT MAYBE Pio’s sainthood shouldn’t be so surprising. His canonization fits right in with Pope John Paul II’s conservative political agenda. Indeed, the politics of canonization have become overtly conservative under his pontificate. Early on in his tenure, the pope gutted the traditional process of canonization by abolishing the office of the Devil’s Advocate (a Vatican official who would voice all the arguments against canonization) and changing the rules for the number of miracles needed for canonization. (Prior to those changes, multiple miraculous works — usually cures of dire physical illnesses that cannot be explained by science — were required of those put up for sainthood. Historically, candidates needed two miracles for beatification and two for canonization. They now need only one for each.) While this might appear to be a progressive streamlining of the old-time Vatican bureaucracy, the reality is that it has made it easier for John Paul II to approve canonizations. Indeed, since his ascension to the Chair of Peter in 1978, John Paul II has canonized 283 new saints — more than were sainted in the 407 years directly preceding him. And they haven’t been just any saints. John Paul II has canonized those who fit his highly conservative political agenda.

Since 1978. John Paul II Has Canonized

283 New Saints - More Than Were Sainted In

The 407 Years Directly Preceding Him.

In keeping with John Paul II’s strong anti-communism, for instance, he beatified four men in 2001 who had been murdered under the Soviet regime: Nikita Budka, who died in 1949; Josaphat Chichkov, who died in 1952; and Metodio Domenico Trcka and Kamen Vitcher, both of whom died in 1959. His frequent denunciations of South and Central American radical "liberation theology" were backed with appropriate saints: this year the Vatican beatified Maria Romero Meneses, a wealthy Nicaraguan nun who supported the Somoza regime and worked with the upper classes to help the poor. She died in 1977. Juan Diego, a peasant who died in 1548 and reportedly saw a vision of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, was beatified in 1990. He was canonized this year and praised by the pope for humbly accepting his station in life. Of course, a decade passed before the name of left-leaning Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero — killed by right-wing assassins while saying Mass in 1980 and regarded by many in his country as a saint and martyr — was even allowed to be entered on the list of those put up for beatification.

The pope’s political prejudices were also evident in his 2001 beatification of the Martyrs of Valencia — pro-Franco clergy and lay people who died during the Spanish Civil War. Particularly notable was his treatment of JosŽ Mar’a Escriv‡ de Balaguer, a well-known Spanish anti-Semite, crucial supporter of Franco’s fascist regime, and founder of the right-wing Roman Catholic organization Opus Dei. De Balaguer died in 1975; he was beatified in 1992 and will be canonized in October of 2002. While he never openly supported Hitler, he was widely quoted as saying, "Hitler against the Jews, Hitler against the Slavonic, means Hitler against communism." (These beatifications and canonizations are particularly striking given that, in 1962, Pope Paul VI had placed an interdict on proceeding with the cause of the Spanish Civil War martyrs because he did not want to be seen as favoring the Franco regime.)

Stigmatized: Padre Pio's critics called him a pomading, womanizing fascist, but that didn't interfere with his meteoric rise to sainthood under the politically conservative reign of John Paul II.                                                                                                                                          Perhaps most notorious in recent years, though, has been John Paul II's promotion of saints who were killed by the Nazis. Two priests - Maximilian Kolbe (who died in 1941 and was beatified in 1971) and Titus Brandsma (who died in 1942 and was beatified 1985) - caused some to comment that the Church sought to Christianize the Holocaust. Kolbe's case in particular drew ire of Jewish groups, since as a writer and magazine editor in Poland, Kolbe had promoted the belief that The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was not an anti-Semitic forgery but the work of "a cruel, crafty, little known Jewish clique" who had let themselves "be seduced by Satan."
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But the charge of Christianizing the Holocaust became an international cause cŽlbre with the beatification of Edith Stein in 1987 and her canonization in 1998. Stein was a Jewish convert to Roman Catholicism who became a Carmelite nun, taking the name Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. She was arrested in 1942 and died in Auschwitz — not because she was a Catholic resisting Nazism, but because she was Jewish. At the end of her life Stein wrote a "spiritual will and testament" that asked God to accept her life "for the atonement of the unbelief of the Jewish people and for this: that the Lord may be accepted by his own people [Jews] ..." Stein’s canonization was met with enormous opposition from Jews and many Catholics who felt that the Vatican was cynically and immorally canonizing as a martyr a woman who was executed for being Jewish. Jewish leaders worried that John Paul II was going to use the canonization of Stein to start a Vatican campaign to convert Jews. Even worse, many suggested, the Vatican sainted Stein to combat increasing criticism of that era’s pope — Pius XII — for failing to take a strong public stand, befitting his high spiritual office, against the Nazis or the Holocaust. These complaints were not baseless. In his homily at Stein’s canonization, the pope claimed that when Stein converted from Judaism, "she discovered that truth had a name: Jesus Christ." To make matters worse, one section of his homily was titled "Only the Love of Christ Makes Us Truly Free" — a grotesque parody of the phrase "Work Makes You Free" ("Arbeit Macht Frei"), which was emblazoned across the gates of Auschwitz. So much for the Vatican’s highly touted campaign to apologize for past anti-Semitic behavior.

IN THIS CONTEXT, the canonization of Padre Pio, as well as the public-relations hoopla that the Vatican has attached to it, makes perfect sense. The pope’s conservative politics, his retrograde vision of the Church, and his insistence on being a top-down manager — well, let’s face it, it’s not called a hierarchy for nothing — find a perfect match in this new saint. Indeed, who better to sanctify in the midst of a worldwide crisis concerning priestly sexual abuse (of various kinds) than a priest who has been accused of such behavior and vindicated in the course of canonization? While the priest sex scandal is now in full bloom, it is important to remember that it has been in the making for at least two decades. One might imagine that "the cause" — as the Vatican puts it — of Padre Pio’s canonization would have progressed more quickly if the cases of John Geoghan or Father Porter had never reached the courtroom. Even Padre Pio’s old-fashioned, damn-near-medieval mysticism — what other saint has claimed the power of bilocation in the past two centuries? — would have been a mark against him in the more enlightened church of the 1970s. But under John Paul II, it’s seen by the Vatican as a return of traditional spiritual values — mysteries that are beyond explanation and that must be believed and accepted on faith alone. Indeed, the very acceptance of the miraculousness of Padre Pio’s stigmata can be seen as reflecting the church’s hostility to modern science, particularly its reproductive technologies and stem-cell research. Don’t forget, the Vatican’s official agreement with Galileo came less than two decades ago, and that was after a 13-year-long investigation by the Holy See.

Let’s not kid ourselves: whatever progress the United States Conference of American Bishops made in bringing the Roman Catholic Church out of the Dark Ages will face strong opposition from Rome. The Vatican may rubber-stamp the new US policy on the sexual abuse of children — though that is by no means a foregone conclusion, as a Holy See spokesman has already stated that canon law does not require the reporting of abuse by priests to law-enforcement officials. Either way, the conservative legacy of Pope John Paul II, including all those he’s marched into sainthood, will be with us for a very long time.

Michael Bronski is the author of The Pleasure Principle: Sex, Backlash, and the Struggle for Gay Freedom (St. Martin’s, 1998). He can be reached at mabronski@aol.com 

2002 Phoenix Media Communications Group - Reprinted from The Boston Phoenix of July 11-18, 2002.

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