I like to think it speaks well for John XXIII that the mandatory miracle had to be waived on his behalf. There was none to be found, not a trace. No pious Catholic had the heart to come forward with a crumb of evidence that the man who had convened Vatican II—its touted spirit and all its works—was released from purgatory so soon.

No need to fret over the waiver. It is just possible that John was either too reticent or too canny to deliver the customary cure. Better to greet its absence as a signal refusal, a sign of sanctity more compelling than any custom-made cure. Certainly John knows—more keenly now than ever—that miracles, like grace, are everywhere. To pull one out of a zucchetto for his own glory might have seemed ignoble to him, a catchpenny wonder that served bureaucratic concerns over salvific ones. Perhaps he thought the requirement too ornate? Utilitarian?

Daniel Chodowiecki. The Boy with the Sausage Spit (1764). Los Angeles County Museum of Art.


There is no way to know. All we do know is that this year’s double canonization, in combination with the coming beatification of Paul VI, opens a window onto the politics of saint-making. Like sausage-making, into which we are advised not to look, it is a less than edifying sight.

This is Rome honoring its own in an end run around debate that continues to dog Humanae Vitae. Not infallibly proposed but infallible nonetheless? Sound in part, unsound in another? In beatifying its author, the Vatican canonizes the encyclical, entrenching it as litmus test to distinguish true Catholics from pretenders. On another level, it buttresses the novus Ordo Missae, experienced by many as desacralized and neophiliac. This year’s triple play is a megacanonization that amplifies and reinforces the authority of a man’s works by venerating the man himself.

Paul’s beatification swats at what Francis is reported to have called, in audience with bishops of the Czech Republic, “a kind of fashion” for the Tridentine Mass. Come October, seminarians drawn to the Latin liturgy are likely to find themselves more marginal than they are now. Parishes on the fence as to whether to introduce the traditional Latin Mass will have a disincentive to proceed. Catholics seeking the solemnity of the old liturgy might have to travel farther to hear the sharp, plangent treble of a Sanctus bell.

Jean-Baptiste Greuze. The Butcher (18th C.). Private Collection.


At the same time, Paul’s elevation is poised to outjockey resistance to the encyclical’s blanket rejection of any contraceptive act under any circumstance. The logic of principled, good-faith demurrals can be left to suffocate under the weight of Paul’s proclaimed sanctity. A transparent maneuver, the beatification further burdens conscientious Catholics who suffer—and suffer they do—the gap between their own marital scruples and credence in the Church’s teaching authority on the matter. The thunder of denunciation—“intrinsic evil,” “intrinsically disordered”—extended without nuance to non-abortive contraception used by responsible spouses open to parenthood, continues to roar confusedly in many consciences.


Paul’s advancement, conjoined with that of his successors, is a ritual of enforcement. Its object is to enfeeble unresolved opposition by leap-frogging over critical arguments in all their complexity. It looks to blunt suspicions that Paul’s encyclical, however beautiful its hymn to conjugal love, masked a failure of nerve.

The personal holiness of these three popes is not in question. The issue is quite different. What we are witnessing, in triplicate and garlanded with ceremony, is the exaltation of ecclesiastical politics.

There is pathos in that. And danger. 

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Articles by Maureen Mullarkey

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