Sunday, July 10, 2011

An Irreverent Short Note

St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child

I was brought up a Catholic, but now I’m a lapsed or has the jargon goes a “recovering” Catholic. One of the things I most remember about my years of growing up as a Catholic is the Saints.

We Catholics seemed to have Saints for everything. From St. Christopher, the patron St. of travellers to national Saints like St. Louis and St. Joan of Arc, the patron St’s of France to St. Edward the Confessor and St. George of England. Of course it got a little sad when St. Christopher was removed from the list of Saints on the rather good grounds that he never existed.1 Such a pity I rather liked the story of him carrying the Christ child across a river. But still there are hundreds of Saints to choose from to address your messages to the ear of God.

Now that I have sort evolved, (devolved?), into a sort of an agnostic Christian I’m finding it rather hard to accept the idea that God needs someone to draw attention to your plights or needs. After all s/he is God, all knowing and all that so why would s/he need someone pleading on your behalf? So I’ve abandoned the whole notion Saints as Lawyers pleading for us in front of the almighty.

However I do like the idea of Sainthood being recognition of a particular person’s sanctity or if you will “goodness”. There are people whose willingness to sacrifice themselves for others deserves recognition and as such why not Sainthood.

Now “goodness”, sanctity or to use a Catholic term “heroic virtues” does not mean that the person is perfect or all good or in fact is even particularly nice, what is required is an ability to put others ahead of themselves.

It is very easy to list Saints who were less than “saintly” in some or many aspects of their day to day lives and in fact some saints did or said some truly ghastly stuff. But times change. Thus we have Saints like St. Dominic who founded the Dominican order, whose main purpose was to fight heresy. Now it appears that St. Dominic was a kindly, mild and humble man but he was also an inquisitor and a fanatic and the order he founded was responsible for much misery and suffering along with good. Was he a “saintly” man well yes, but he was also capable of and did in fact commit atrocities. Does he deserve his Sainthood? I would say yes. But that is despite his real crimes.2 The fact is good men can commit atrocities it doesn’t mean they aren’t good but it also doesn’t excuse, palpitate or moderate the vileness that they committed. Also the atrocities such men committed should not be consigned to the memory hole of history.

Sainthood does not confer absolution on everything a Saint did in life although this seems to be a common attitude.

The demand for perfection from Saints does have its risible in a black way aspect. For example Mother Theresa of Calcutta who is on short course for Sainthood. Now during Mother Theresa’s lifetime there already emerged a veritable cult around her that was in many respects rather off-putting. The fact that Mother Theresa herself was rather too comfortable with the cult was also rather off putting also. The rather senseless adulation around her didn’t help. So a book like Hitchen’s extremely nasty and rather unfair The Missionary Position3 should not be a surprise. The book does however make some truly valid points about Mother Theresa’s idiotic naivety, via some stupid things she said, her very often rather reactionary social beliefs and the fact that much if not most of the money raised for her charities and order, The Sisters of Charity, went towards creating more convents and not towards helping the destitute. The most telling sections are those showing the Mother Theresa apparently viewed the poor as a means of spiritual solace etc., for those helping them not as people in need of help, and the section on despite all the money that flowed into the Sister’s of Charity very little seemed to have trickled down to help with palliative care of those in the House of the Dying in Calcutta.

The problem with Hitchen’s critique is its demand for his version of perfection. The thing is Mother Theresa was a Catholic and so of course she has very strong Catholic beliefs which affect her work. One may legitimately criticise aspects of her work but it is true nonetheless that she did good work. For example the House of the Dying it is a legitimate beef that it could have done more with the resources available, however when Mother Theresa set up the House of the Dying she had nothing and going around Calcutta in the late 40’s early 50’s picking up dying people in the street and trying to give them a quiet, relatively, the word to be used, dignified death is pretty saintly. The fact that later the whole thing got messed up and turned into a propaganda opportunity for Catholic cultists was not the original intent. In other words saints aren’t perfect and neither should we expect perfection.

The Catholic process of creating Saints is flawed in many respects. Under John-Paul II the process was streamlined and Saints were manufactured like widgets. The results were well over a hundred Saints created during his tenure. Although in one respect we were lucky we were spared Sainthood for Pius XII, otherwise called Pius the silent. His silence during World War II was not a “saintly” action.

But Pius XII fits in with the new “conservative” Vatican mindset and so of course there is a lot of push to make him a Saint despite the total lack of anything that could be called “Saintly”.
One could contrast Pius XII with John XXIII, who actually did something during the Second World War. In John XIII’s case he signed, while Papal Nuncio, many thousands of fake Baptismal certificates and thus helped to save thousands of lives. Pius XII seems to have done precious little actively.4 Although Catholic organizations and institutions like, Monasteries, Convents etc., save countless people such acts were done by the institutions individually and owed little / nothing to Papal direction.

And making John XIII a Saint is controversial because so many Catholic conservatives in the hierarchy dislike Vatican II.

And speaking of “controversial” possible “Saints” Bartholme Des Casas, “the Defender of the Indians”, would be an ideal candidate for Sainthood but again he is “controversial” and so instead we get candidates for Sainthood like Junipero Serra, the founder of Franciscan missions in California, which were characterized by vicious brutality and little better than places for large number of Indians to die.5

Of course what is also silly is the requirement that several “miracles” occur that are associated with the Saint. This has led to a whole series of very dubious proofs of miracles. And to such travesties as Loudres.6

So the process is flawed for all sorts of reasons and not everyone who is a Saint or is nominated for Sainthood is in fact “Saintly”. And of course Sainthood is reserved for Catholics which is hardly fair.

1. Catholic Online, St Christopher Here.

2. See O”Shea, Stephen, The Perfect Heresy, Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, 2000, pp. 60-66, 171-173, 192, 200-205, Oldenbourg, Zoe, Massacre at Montsegur, Phoenix Press, London, 1961, pp. 91-98, 236-238, 284-285, Wikipedia, St. Dominic Here.

3. Hitchens, Christopher, The Missionary Position, Verso, London, 1997.

4. Lewy, Guenter, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany, Da Capo Press, Philadelphia PA, 2000, (Org. Pub. 1964), Sereny, Gitta, Into That Darkness, Andre Deeutsch, London, 1974, pp. 112-114, 140-142, 330-333. For a fierce attack on Pius XII see Hochhuth, Rolf, The Deputy, Grove Press, Inc., New York, 1964. This is a play and it is an acid attack on Pius XII’s reputation.

5. Stannard, David E., American Holocaust, Oxford University Press, New York, 1992, pp. 134-142.

6. Randi, James, The Faith Healers, Prometheus Books, Buffalo NY, 1987, pp. 20-30, 48-59.

Pierre Cloutier

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