I am not now, nor have I ever been, a member of the Catholic Church. That’s why I feel less comfortable criticizing Catholicism than Orthodox Judaism, the religion in which I was raised. Occasionally, though, I just can’t help myself. In my defense, some of my best friends are Catholics (actually just one—a guy named Tony). But many of my best friends are ex-Catholics, including my wife.
Which brings me to sainthood. Because I prefer behavior to belief and life to death, I recently criticized Catholic doctrines that make martyrdom an easier path to sainthood than good works. But part of me wishes Congress were as willing to craft political compromises as Pope Francis, who approved making Popes John Paul II and John XXIII simultaneous saints. The first is a conservative and the second a liberal. (I’m grading on a curve here because “liberal pope” seems like an oxymoron.)
Pope Francis has been so anxious to elevate both that he put John Paul II on the fast track to sainthood and waved a second miracle for John XXIII. As I understand sainthood, you must first be dead and in heaven. You must then perform miracles, usually by answering a live person’s prayer for assistance in a desperate situation. “Proof” of such miracles is frequently a medical cure that the Vatican has found to be instantaneous and without scientific explanation. Prayers to win the lottery don’t count, despite overcoming greater odds, one would think, than inexplicable medical cures. If there were a god, she would probably have a good chuckle over the chutzpah of one man (the pope) declaring someone to be in heaven.
It would make more sense to me if sainthood were simply a lifetime achievement award for good works, reserved for those whose character others are invited to emulate. But good works are downgraded when miracles play a key role.
The Catholic Church is known to move slowly. For example, it wasn’t until he had been dead for 350 years that the Vatican admitted Galileo had been right after all about the earth orbiting the sun. Even if I believed in sainthood, I would prefer that the church take its time to declare saints. A long waiting period allows for a legacy to endure or for scandals to emerge. How many of the thousands of official saints would stand up to careful scrutiny today?
The Catholic Church has demoted saints like Christopher from the universal calendar after learning that they never existed, but as far as I know they’ve never reversed sainthood after a horrendous scandal had been uncovered. Since Pope Francis seems to care about public relations, I would advise him to slow down. After all, with abundant evidence that Pope John Paul II shielded pedophile priests, what’s the rush? Sainthood is for an eternity, so a few more years shouldn’t make much difference.
Since I’m offering gratuitous advise to the pope, I have a candidate for future sainthood. It’s my Catholic friend, Tony. He was my roommate in graduate school and we’re still friends after 50 years. Tony has devoted himself to helping his fellow human beings, myself included, and treating them with love, respect, and compassion. We may disagree on abstract theological points, but we agree much more than we disagree on things that really matter. He is a Catholic who focuses on loving his neighbor, helping the poor and working for social justice.
When I bring up topics like heaven and Resurrection, Tony just smiles and, depending on his mood, says something like: “It’s complicated” or “I have no idea” or “I can certainly understand why you don’t believe any of that stuff.” Tony can’t be a Catholic saint because he’s not dead and he’ll never perform miracles, but he is a wonderful role model for Catholics and many non-Catholics, like me. I expect Tony will agree with much of what I wrote in this piece, but he will undoubtedly say there are lots of Catholics more worthy of emulation than he is. Though this might be true, very few of them will ever be recognized as official saints, and that’s a shame.
Herb Silverman is founder and President Emeritus of the Secular Coalition for America, author of “Candidate Without a Prayer: An Autobiography of a Jewish Atheist in the Bible Belt,” and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the College of Charleston.