A modest proposal

On Feb. 18, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints presented a document on diocesan inquiries for causes of beatification. The instruction, entitled “Sanctorum Mater” (“Mother of Saints”), is intended to clarify the rules by which dioceses collect and document evidence of holiness or martyrdom, including alleged miracles, of people that the Church is seriously considering for sainthood.

These rules were issued 25 years ago by Pope John Paul II at the time the new Code of Canon Law was promulgated. Generally speaking, the rules call for diocesan proceedings to gather evidence of heroic virtue or martyrdom in the diocese where the person died, or evidence of a physical miracle in the diocese where it supposedly occurred, and then to submit that evidence to Rome for final decision by the Roman Curia and the pope.

On Feb. 3, for instance, the diocesan proceedings in Peoria, Ill. concerning the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen were formally sealed for submission to Rome. Bishop Sheen was a great modern evangelist, using the radio and television to propagate Catholic teachings. He received an Emmy Award in 1952 as television’s “Most Outstanding Personality.” It’d be nice if such a modern celebrity were declared a saint.

The Vatican just announced, in another development on the canonization front, that it was dispensing from the usual five-year waiting period before opening a cause of beatification for Sister Lucia, the last of the Fatima visionaries to die. (The only other two recent cases where the waiting period was dispensed were for the causes of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Pope John Paul II.)

Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, CMF, the head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, said that “a serious and rigorous verification of the fame [reputation] of sanctity or martyrdom, undertaken in dioceses, is a prior requirement of absolute importance. Hence, a procedure must not be begun without irrefutable proof that the Servant of God ... is held to be a saint or martyr by a considerable number of faithful, who invoke him or her in their prayers and attribute graces and favors to his or her intercession.”

Vatican II, in its key dogmatic Constitution on the Church, “Lumen Gentium” (“Light of the Nations”), firmly and unequivocally stated that all the faithful, of whatever state or condition of life, are called to holiness. Everyone is supposed to be a saint, then. And if a person is a saint, then, in principle he or she could be canonized (officially recognized as such by the Church). That would mean an awful lot of causes of saints.

Here’s my proposal: I would like to see more causes of canonization here and everywhere than cases for the annulment of marriage, or, for that matter, cases dismissing priests from the clerical state for instances of sex abuse. We know that there are all too many cases involving pathologies in married life or in the priesthood, necessary as they are to confront, and yet not everyone is called to the priesthood or marriage. But everyone is called to holiness. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had more documented examples of the flourishing of the faith in holiness among people of all types? Wouldn’t that lift up our hearts with hope?

Yes, some people make a shipwreck of their lives and betray their Christian calling. But even they continue to be called to holiness. As Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “God creates out of nothing. Wonderful, you say. Yes, to be sure, but he does what is still more wonderful: he makes saints out of sinners.” Canonization reminds us of what Christian life is really about: making saints out of sinners.

Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.