Parting the Holy See : MAKING SAINTS; How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why <i> By Kenneth Woodward (Simon & Schuster: $21.95; 438 pp.)</i>
In this extraordinary book, Kenneth Woodward, senior writer and longtime religion editor for Newsweek, fashions a near miracle of research and journalistic inquiry. Less fierce but just as determined as Moses, Woodward parts the long-congealed sea of the Vatican bureaucracy that investigates the lives of men and women who have been variously recommended for official recognition as saints. Follow me, Woodward signals from the first arresting page, and we cannot resist making passage with him between the massive, trembling walls of water.
The writer offers a history of the ideal of holiness in the Roman Catholic Church, tracing its evolution from the accepted goal of all believers in Jesus Christ through the Christian community’s almost spontaneous intuitive identification of its truly holy members, especially those who died as martyrs for their beliefs, to the gradual appropriation and legal transformation of the process by the institutional church.
The Catholic Church always has sought to acclaim saints--those whose presence in heaven is validated by papal and ecclesiastical authority--but, as the even-handed narrator explains, its reasons and methods have undergone repeated modifications over the centuries. These metamorphoses in the criteria by which a holy life is judged and the process by which the institutional church, in its own phrase, “raises them to the altar” through public canonization, reflect the dynamics of history that have affected all human institutions.
Not the least of the fascination of Woodward’s book may be found in the potentially predictive quality of this oldest of the world’s bureaucratic institutions in its efforts to measure and deal with human experience that lies finally beyond the calipers of science or the categories of law. In 1983, John Paul II, through the Vatican equivalent of an executive order, mandated changes in the process that left it, in Yeats’ phrase, “changed utterly.”
The responsibility for gathering all evidence was placed in the hands of the candidate’s own bishop, stripping Roman officials of their former role, and the once heavily legal, and therefore adversarial, character of the procedures was replaced by historical methods of research. The famed “Devil’s Advocate” was banished with the rest of the lawyers. While this revolutionary reconstruction of the saint-making met the pope’s goals of a “simpler, faster, cheaper, more ‘collegial,’ and ultimately more productive” process, it may well anticipate conflicts.
John Paul II has so increased the number of canonizations that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, the head of the influential Congregration of the Doctrine of the Faith, has raised questions about the multiplication of canonizations at this time. Waggish critics, convinced that John Paul II employs proclamations of saints to override with their example what he perceives as the excessively liberal teachings of many theologians in moral matters as well as for ecclesiastical political reasons, especially in the Third World, refer to the responsible Vatican office as the “saint factory.”
Woodward observes the “politization” of sanctity as yet another phase in this unique Roman Catholic practice that reflects with such remarkable clarity the history that has taken place in and around the Vatican. Everything that is human about us, good and bad, may be found in the way this process, aimed at identifying something more than human about our possibilities, has been organized, manipulated and managed across the centuries. To this end, he relates, with a novelist’s sense of observation and a professional journalist’s fairness, stories that are, by turns, instructive, depressing and illuminating.
These include accounts of contemporary figures, including the famous pacifist Dorothy Day and El Salvador’s slain Archbishop Romero, each of whom is thought to have led a holy life but neither of whom, largely for Vatican political reasons, is likely to be considered for canonization any time soon.
Woodward examines New York Cardinal John O’Connor’s frustrated efforts to have his predecessor, Terence Cardinal Cooke, declared a saint. O’Connor, perhaps the most influential contemporary American prelate, has heard the same silence echo back from Vatican walls that has greeted scores of prelates, convinced of their causes, before him.
So, too, Woodward explores the rich lives of a score of other persons, including Padre Pio, the late stigmatic friar who told young Father Karol Wojtyla in 1947 that he would one day be pope; the wrenching life of Cornelia Connolly, worthy of a miniseries; the measured tale of the great convert from Anglicanism, Cardinal Newman, who almost single-handedly preserved the intellectual respectability of the Catholic Church in 19th-Century England.
Unlike many authors, Woodward delivers exactly what the subtitle of this book promises. Just as the reportage and the stories are engaging, so, too, are Woodward’s theological explorations, his careful examination of the impacted hesitancy of the church to recognize happily married couples as saints, its awkwardness with intellectuals, and its readiness to expand and retract definitions, such as those of miracles and martyrdom, to serve its own purposes.
His final chapter, in which he outlines his own convictions about the mystery of holiness, especially as an outcome of a spiritual struggle in the lives of those who have known sin, is exceptionally moving. Woodward’s greatest achievement, however, is one that he may not recognize himself:
During the years he spent researching this volume, he entered the maze of Vatican bureaucracy that has frustrated many writers, turning them sour or cynical as a result. There is no trace of these elements in the writer’s words or attitudes. For he unself-consciously learned to understand and speak the special language of this ancient institution, thereby establishing a dialogue in which all voices and viewpoints are respectfully heard.
What might have been an exercise in ridiculing or romanticizing this process of making saints emerges rather as a profoundly engrossing account of the still-compelling search, made the more believable at every turn by its broken and patched human character, for the meaning of a holy life.