The National Catholic Review

One of the biggest surprises during my time at America came in 1995, when I was a Jesuit scholastic. Christopher Hitchens, the atheist and author who has since died, had just published a book-length attack on Blessed Teresa of Calcutta entitled The Missionary Position. Mr. Hitchens had received a great deal of attention for accusing Mother Teresa of accepting contributions from corrupt politicians. One of our senior editors, the late John W. Donohue, S.J., confided that he was going to write a response to Mr. Hitchens’s book. “Great,” was my less-than-Christian response. “Let him have it!”

Imagine my surprise when I read John’s article “Holy Terrors” (5/13/95). Instead of a point-by-point defense of Mother Teresa (which John seemed to consider a task too absurd to be worthy of much attention), John took a different tack. His approach could be summed up as: If you think that was bad, then you don’t know much about the saints.

“Mr. Hitchens,” Father Donohue wrote, “seems to assume that no one who has ever made mistakes or even acted ambiguously deserves to be called saintly.” John then listed some ignoble activities of many well-known saints, including the irascible St. Jerome and St. John of Capistrano, who “behaved at times more like George S. Patton Jr. than Francis of Assisi.” My favorite example was St. Cyril of Alexandria, whom John described as “brave but sometimes overly vehement, indeed violent.” Cyril arrived at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) with a gang of “unruly followers” and sent one of his fellow archbishops, Nestorius, into exile. After Ephesus, Cyril seems to have led a quiet life. John quoted one of his former Jesuit teachers saying, “We don’t know anything about the last 10 years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been the years in which he became a saint.”

I thought about John’s article when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would canonize Junípero Serra during the pope’s visit to the United States in September. As we mentioned in a Current Comment (2/9), Blessed Junípero was an indefatigable missionary, but he also stands accused of approving some the worst excesses of Spanish colonialism in 17th-century California. His legacy is further complicated by the fact that many critics conflate the following: first, what the colonists did; second, what Junípero approved of; and third, what Junípero himself did. What seems clear, at the very least, is that Junípero condoned the beating of local people by Spanish colonists.

Similar accusations were leveled in recent years against St. Thomas More in the popular novel Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel—now a play and soon to be a BBC-TV series. Mantel portrays the “Man for All Seasons” as a religious fanatic, schemer, misogynist and, in the words of Mantel’s hero Thomas Cromwell, “a blood-soaked hypocrite” who tortures Protestants in his cellar. Writing in The Tablet (1/29), the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy disagreed, pointing out that for his time, More, though a relentless pursuer of heresy, would have been seen as a compassionate man. “More was neither blood-soaked nor a hypocrite,” writes Duffy, “but he was a man of his times, not of ours.”

Yet even the saints not accused of such terrible crimes—beatings and torture—did not lead perfect lives. The saints were human beings who, even after their conversions, sinned. They knew that better than anyone.

Canonization does not mean that the church is declaring that a person was perfect. At the same time, we must ask: Are there some things that should prevent a person from being canonized? The answer is yes. But what things? And how shall we evaluate yesterday’s actions using today’s moral calculus? In the future, will some commonplace activities (to take one example, eating meat) seem monstrous, and thus a roadblock to canonization? Likewise, will some things that seem to bar a person from canonization today—say, Thomas Merton’s late-in-life affair with a young nurse—seem insignificant?

Here’s the honest answer: I don’t know. The church will continue to canonize imperfect saints. Perhaps the more helpful question is: What do we want to praise and emulate, as well as avoid and condemn, when we meditate on the lives of these men and women? Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Blessed Junípero Serra, St. Thomas More and Thomas Merton, pray for us.

James Martin, S.J., is editor at large of America and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Twitter: @JamesMartinSJ.


Bill Mazzella | 4/9/2015 - 7:30pm

Truly, the canonization process leaves much to be desired. The best we can say is that we are all sinners and in need of redemption. As Jesus instructed us to say: "We are unprofitable servants." Sadly many on the list of saints were rogues. A lot of these awful acts came after the beatitudes. No excuse for Cyril nor Thomas More.

William Atkinson | 3/20/2015 - 2:19pm

I always remember the line from the movie "O God" where George Burns, playing the role of God, said even I (God) screwed up and made the avocado seed to big. I do believe God, whom we made in our image and likeness until star wars showed us God was the "Force be with you" often stubbed His toe when throwing lightening bolts at us humans.

Bruce Snowden | 2/19/2015 - 6:54am

“Saintly Sinners, Sinful Saints,” another Pulitzer by Jesuit Father James Martin! Let’s face it, we’re all natural born screw-ups, “damaged goods” so to speak, called nonetheless by a super-magnanimous God to “partake” of his Divine nature, graciously made possible despite our moral raggedness. As he struggled to get rid of his raunchiness, his sexually obsessed behaviors, Augustine prayed, “Make me chaste, but not yet!” Others dealing with their personal demons might pray to God, “Make me sensitive to the underprivileged, to the marginalized, to the “good life’ fed by avarice and corporate greed, in a word to Mt. 25:31-46 etc., … but not yet!”

I can’t think of any sinless saint, excepting the Blessed Virgin Mary, appropriately so, as our Catholic Church recognizes, considering with whom she would share her body and blood, her persona. Yes, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly Man by Divine chromosomal contribution, the Father “coming upon her” as Scripture calls Mary's impregnation by the Holy Spirit, Mary also contributing to Jesus’ true humanity by her chromosomal input, Mother of God, Mother of Jesus, an unfathomable mystery!

Even St. Joseph Husband of Mary and earthly Dad to Jesus was not sinless. He’s called by the Church “a Just Man” and we are also reminded by the Word of God that. “the Just Man sins seven times a day!” There it is again, that mysterious biblical “seven” meaning an unknown number as in the Genesis seven days creation story. I’m sure St. Joseph like the rest of us had his screw-up situations too. One we know about as when he discovered his “girlfriend” was pregnant and he knew he didn’t do it. So he decided to do what every guy would do, “get rid of her!” But unlike many of us, not with clanging bells and crashing cymbals, but “quietly” walking away. Therein rests St. Joseph’s root-sanctity, his unwillingness to destroy the reputation of the girl he planned to marry despite his own hurt. That took moral guts to live out!. Graciously while he slept, maybe in restless, psychologically torn slumber, he got the whole thing right. We know the rest of the story – Mary and Joseph got married, structuring what could be called the “Wholly Holy Family/Family” of Joseph, Mary, Jesus and by a kind of “Come and see” invitation, we're all called to hang out with them.

True, some of the canonized saints were real “B&B" people, individuals one wouldn’t care to invite to dinner, or have as a friend. I see as a merciful sign from God filled with hope that even I (any of us) at our worse “seventy times seven times” bad, again and again, endlessly screwing up, still have the chance to say and really mean it, “Jesus I do love you, help me to love you more! Help me to be a saint, which left to myself I truly ain’t!” And to our Church for having such wisdom to see through the darkness, to the light within each of us, canonizing some “Bs&Bs” I am profoundly grateful ! “Saintly Sinners and Sinful Saints,” pray for us!

Henry George | 2/17/2015 - 5:52pm

Thomas Welbers,

Where does Augustine, or another writer say, that Monica tried to coax Augustine into marrying his mistress,
the mother of Adeodatus ?

William Burrows | 2/14/2015 - 11:48am

A column well worth reading. I suspect that what has happened in the modern era is that a form of moralism has taken over the popular imagination. "Do Good and Avoid Evil" is the mantra. That attitude cannot accommodate the notion that God's love can infuse a person who is endowed with less than a perfectly agreeable personality or that someone who acts in accord with his or her own day's standards but not ours could not be deeply in love with God and human beings. On the one hand, personality is to a great extent, the result of the accidents of genetics and brain chemistry. The agreeable behavior and personality of truly pleasant people are often no more than the result of good luck, genes, and parenting. Few Europeans in the sixteenth through the 20th century could escape the legacy of acting in accord with their culture's belief systems, systems that considered Europeanicity the epitome of high culture. In that worldview, you were doing a favor by chastising members of "less fortunate races". Alas, we will be judged harshly by people several centuries from now if misdeeds resulting from blindness don't pollute the planet to an extent that Gaia does away with humanity. Serra was a good, holy man. Not a perfect, holy man.

Monserrat Washburn | 2/14/2015 - 10:02am

Here's my honest answer: The Church should minimize or do away with canonizing imperfect saints, and maybe, just maybe, they should re-examine all the lives of Saints and pull out from the list those who do not meet strict criteria. And be honest with it to the public. I think many more Catholics will welcome transparency and truth rather than having all those saints of dubious character. Let's start with the personalities involved in the Council of Nicaea and all the Popes canonized just for being popes. If we were able to take out names of saints that used to be on religious calendars like St. Christopher and my namesake, Our Lady of Montserrat (for whom I was named), why can't we do the same with Saints (capital S). If we have put them on a pedestal, then "sinful saint" would be an oxymoron.

And what about the intense and tedious investigation that go along with the process of sainthood? I suppose this was not really strictly followed to the letter with some of the Saints. And to think that we make a distinction between Saints and saints every year around All Saints Day and All Souls day. So from now on, I think we should likewise stop doing this as this just highlights the very hierarchical thinking in the Catholic Church to this day. And this mindset does not just apply to the clergy but to laity as well, humbling them to the point of submission, not knowing that we are now all called to be holy and the pyramid has now been inverted.

Anne Chapman | 2/14/2015 - 3:28pm

Agreed. And this point is especially important -
......we should... stop doing this as this just highlights the very hierarchical thinking in the Catholic Church to this day. And this mindset does not just apply to the clergy but to laity as well, humbling them to the point of submission, not knowing that we are now all called to be holy and the pyramid has now been inverted.

Doing away with "imperfect" saints is a good idea as it would get rid of the whole underlying, deceptive structure that results in canonizations. Nobody is perfect, so nobody would be canonized. Good idea.

Hold some up as "good" examples of how flawed people can still do good, holy and courageous things. Maybe even people who did not live morally perfect lives, but who came through in crisis, loving others as God loves them. Schindler comes to mind as an example of a very flawed man who did extraordinary things in loving his (Jewish) neighbors.

The canonization process that requires unverifiable "miracles", and is highly political at its heart should be trashed. Being pope in this last era seems to be almost the fast track to "sainthood" as you note, and it is absurd. Interesting that John Paul II himself did away with one of the miracles, but he also did away with the office of Devil's Advocate, which provided at least a tiny bit of restraint.

"Saintly" people are found everywhere, but the church tends to recognize almost exclusively those who followed a religious vocation. Virginity is a good way to become a saint, subtly again reinforcing the idea that a celibate life is "superior" to the married life. The church even has held up married people as "saints" primarily because they chose celibacy after having children (all of whom entered religious life), as though marital sex that is not deliberately procreative is highly suspect. Why not a normal married couple? Why not normal married people whose children also married instead of becoming priests or nuns?

The most "saintly" people I have known personally are lay people, very often married women, although I have also known a couple of extraordinary holy women who are religious, working with the poorest of the poor in the world's most awful places to live. A few lay people working in those places also, but they have even less chance of being canonized than the religious sisters with whom they work.

Martin Eble | 3/5/2015 - 7:01pm

The criterion for sainthood is holiness, not perfection. The canonization process as it currently exists involves very careful verification of miracles. The Catholic Church most certainly recognizes people from every walk of life, and if you are unaware of that, you haven’t spent five minutes with a standard Life of the Saints. Since you want to see “a normal married couple” you’ll be pleased to know that the parents of St. Therese of Liseux are about to be canonized.

THOMAS WELBERS | 2/13/2015 - 11:15pm

Augustine did not abandon either his unnamed mistress or Adeodatus, his son. In fact, when he went to Rome, and later to Milan, they both accompanied him. Both parents were proud of their son, and Augustine claims he was of extraordinary character and intellectual ability. Monica, Augustine's mother, tried to coax him into marrying her, but he resisted, and finally she left him to return to Carthage, leaving Adeodatus to be raised by him. About her, Augustine in the Confessions says only, "She was stronger than I, and made her sacrifice with a courage and a generosity which I was not strong enough to imitate." Quite an admission, no? History seems to have read into this that she may have converted to Christianity long before Augustine did, and legend has it she entered a convent and lived the rest of her life in prayer and penance. Years later, Adeodatus was baptized at the same time as Augustine (the father was 32, and the son 15), and collaborated with him on a couple of his early writings before he died two years later. So quite a bit is known.

Anne Mullee | 2/13/2015 - 7:55pm

Does any one ever wonder what happened to St. Augustine's common law wife (long term gf) and baby after he abandoned them? I do, but I have never heard anyone talk about it except to say it was good they were gone.

Anne Chapman | 2/13/2015 - 4:40pm

Unfortunately, sometimes the Vatican canonizes those whose behavior and choices were not accepted even in their own time. John Paul II did nothing to protect children against sexual abuse by priests, instead offering consolation to priests who might be "tarred" by their fellow priests' actions. He held no bishops accountable, he apparently stopped the investigation into Maciel's crimes, and he refused to meet with any victims of clerical sex abuse.

This wasn't centuries ago, but now, and his canonization was inexcusable. It will be equally inexcusable to canonize Pius IX and Pius XII.

Martin Eble | 3/5/2015 - 7:04pm

Ah yes, those people "whose behavior and choices were not accepted even in their own time" - Jesus, for example.

And yes, it is quite apparent that St John Paul II should have consulted with you for advice as to how to run the Church, and yadda yadda yadda about "clerical sex abuse". Next .... the Inquisition and the Crusades.

John Quinn | 2/13/2015 - 8:54pm

Concern over canonization is perhaps more significant today because of the speed with which persons are being rushed through the process. Jon Stewart freely admitted his positions were “informed” by his leftishness but that’s all, they weren’t determined by it I claim, like Jon Stewart, that my positions are “informed” by my Catholic education (and in significant portions Jesuit education), which means that my take on the scandal of Catholic abuse and continuing cover-up owes more to Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, Tom Doyle and Jason Berry than to John Paul II. My feelings about the canonization of John Paul II also reflect his support of Ronald Reagan in Latin America, his attitude and actions towards Oscar Romero in particular and liberation theology in general, his finger wagging at Ernesto Cardenal on the tarmac in Nicaragua, much more than his equally political involvement with the Solidarity Movement in Poland, his World Youth Days, his role in dismantling the Berlin Wall and the orchestrated “santo subito” campaign. I believe that in the not too distant future JP II’s collaboration with Reagan and what that meant for so many Catholics, laity and priests alike, in Latin America will come back to bite us. I am not simply referring to what was described thus in the article:

“Mr. Hitchens,” Father Donohue wrote, “seems to assume that no one who has ever made mistakes or even acted ambiguously deserves to be called saintly.”

“Saint” John Paul II chose consciously, while “supreme pontiff” and at the height of his powers – intellectual and political – to fight against what I grew up knowing as ‘atheistic-communism (one word). At the same time he ignored Catholic dictatorships in Latin America that carried out equally oppressive regimes and targeted Catholic laity and priests (proponents of liberation theology) all in the name of fighting so-called atheistic- communism.

Ronald Reagan’s presidency ended in 1989, a mere 26 years ago. John Paul died a mere 10 years ago. We are not talking about making mistakes or acting ambiguously. We are talking about a well orchestrated “santo subito” campaign that resulted in a canonization that was never in possession of documents that could and will cast light on significant actions taken during his life. The Catholic Church, through popes, bishops and priests has constantly criticized what is called instant gratification. I offer you ‘Saint” John Paul II, “santo subito”, perhaps “santo” too “subito.”

Martin Eble | 3/5/2015 - 9:07pm

What you call "santo subito" was the norm for centuries in the Church. Canonization recognizes the holiness of an individual, not the degree to which they fulfill your particular political theories and inclinations. And I was unaware that Ronald Reagan was being consider for canonization.


Anne Mullee | 2/13/2015 - 7:53pm

I agree.

Anne Danielson | 2/13/2015 - 3:32pm

There is a difference between being a sinner who repents, asks for forgiveness, desires to overcome his/her sinful inclinations, accepts his/her penance and desires to be reconciled with God, and a sinner who refuses to call sin, sin.

Chris NUNEZ | 2/13/2015 - 1:45pm

Absolutely NOT! The treatment of the people of the region of the California missions is so odious an event in the history of the Church that sainting Serra would send a deathly message and counteract any effort to 'evangelize' -- on the other hand, the withholding of the 'honor' would send a signal that is loud and clear to the world -- not unlike the regret for the treatment of Galileo. And if instead it was recognized that it was NOT Serra who made California the 'multicultural' region that is more accepting and embracing of racial, religious, and cultural diversity, than any place in the past, but his predecsssors, Bartolome de las Casas, a repentend Dominican, and Fr. Kino who have been a positive influence in the 'civilizing' of the region, that is, making it accepting of people of so many differences, that would be a positive and evangelizing message. Missionaries like las Casas actually struggled through their encounter with the people of the New World, and came to champion their 'rights' as human beings deserving of that respect. This shaped the future of Latin America (read California down through South America), and its role in creating the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights. This is an 'evangelizing' message. sign me, native-born California Catholic.

Christine Miller | 2/14/2015 - 4:42pm

And, interestingly, every 5th grader in the California school system has to select and study one of the Serra Missions. Most schools, if there is a mission within reasonable bus trip range, takes their class to see the mission. For Californians along the coast, there is ALWAYS a mission within visiting range. You can go into any bookstore in California and find a kids section devoted to the missions, with everything from a set of patterns with which to build a paper replica of the mission selected, to story books about Serra to various other activities. There isn't as much information about the various indian tribes that lived in the regions, however. There are about 3 tribes which lived in my local area, including the Chumash tribe.

PR chris

Anne Chapman | 2/13/2015 - 4:41pm

Unfortunately, while Padre las Casas did defend the native residents of some of the Caribbean islands against slavery, he encouraged importing Africans to be slaves instead.

Martin Eble | 3/5/2015 - 10:01pm

A quick survey of standard biographies of Bartolomé de las Casas did not turn up his encouraging importation of Africans to be slaves.


JACK HUNT | 2/13/2015 - 12:59pm

And in the end being a saint, becoming a saint, is not our accomplishment but rather God's. It is God, who by the grace of Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit, makes the sinner a saint. When Jesus invited us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect I suspect he wasn't saying that we should be divinely, squeakily clean. Seems that he might have been inviting us to become immersed in the divine reality just as he (God) became immersed in our human reality. Perfectly immersed that is!

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