The sturdiest storyline in the coverage of the canonization of two popes last Sunday was a narrative that claimed that Pope Francis yoked the two in a single ceremony because he wanted to unite the conservative and progressing wings of the Catholic Church—as represented by John XXIII (favored by progressives) and John Paul II (ditto by conservatives). That was the narrative in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and among several Catholic pundits who really should have known better. Call it the “Big Tent” metaphor, which is what Jeffrey Goldberg did on Meet the Press, adding that he wished U.S. politicians would go do in like manner. Alas, the U.S. Constitution does not grant anyone the power to canonize saints.

Trouble is, there isn’t a scrap of evidence to support the Big Tent metaphor. Nothing Pope Francis said, before or during the ceremony, remotely justifies the political reconciliation theory. The New York Times story, headlined “Sainthood for 2 Predecessors Allows Pope to Straddle Divide,” was especially confused. After a lead that set the theory in stone, the storyline dissipated into a “he said, she said.” The closest the reporter got to a Vatican official was a priest working for the Vatican press office who disagreed with the Big Tent argument.

It would be nice to think that the twin canonizations will effect some level of reconciliation between progressive and conservative factions. But to suggest this was Francis’s intention is tea-leaf reading. The likelier explanation is more prosaic: Given that the processes for both popes were complete, and that Francis had inherited a mandate from the crowd who came to John Paul’s funeral to officially recognize his saintliness “swiftly,” he went ahead and did it just nine years after John Paul’s death. That he dispensed the cause of John XXIII from the usual second intercessory miracle was hardly unprecedented. Such miracles are seen as divine confirmation that the Church’s judgment of the candidate’s holiness are well founded, but John Paul II waived the need for second miracles many times and in his first year in office Francis alone has authorized three or four other such dispensations.

Moreover, the canonization of two or more candidates at the same time is also fairly routine. (It saves money, among other things, since in many cases the cost of the ceremony is the biggest expense in a canonization process.) In 2000, John XXIII and Pius IX—an extremely odd coupling of a liberal and a reactionary pope, were beatified in the same ceremony. What they had in common besides the fact that both causes were ready for beatification is that Pius convoked Vatican Council I in the middle of the nineteenth century and John convoked Vatican II in the middle of the twentieth. Since Vatican Council I was interrupted and never formally closed, Vatican II is seen as its completion. John Paul II, especially, loved historical symmetry like that.

Indeed, one of the stories missed last weekend was the fact that Francis could have substituted Pius IX for one of the others, or made it a threesome had he so chosen. That he didn’t was a clear sign that the controversial Pius IX is likely to remain at the level of blessed—at least under Francis, who is moving the Church in the opposite direction from that of the pope who pressured the bishops at Vatican I to proclaim papal infallibility a dogma of the Church.

Seeking symmetry of a different kind, one of MSNBC’s television commentators, George Weigel, declared that what yoked the two popes is the fact that that John convoked Vatican II and John Paul brought the council it to its “magisterial” completion—meaning that John Paul gave the Council its official and doctrinally final meaning. This is wishful thinking masquerading as accomplished fact. History shows that it takes well more than fifty years for the meanings of a Church council to play out, and there many signs that Francis’s own magisterium will significantly modify John Paul’s.

Yet another reason to reject the “Big Tent” explanation for the dual canonizations is this: Seeing the Church as divided between progressives and conservatives is largely the fixation of Catholic partisans in North America and parts of Western Europe, where only a minority of the world’s Catholics now live. There are other, more important divisions in the global Church that command the attention of Pope Francis—a pope who, after all, comes from Latin America where the Church has more pressing issues on its collective plates.

Finally, the metaphor fails because canonization of a pope does not imply a blessing on his papacy. The papacy is what brought the world’s attention to these two men. But the ceremony last Sunday was about each man’s qualities of holiness and about the example each sets before the faithful. Given that prior to last Sunday only two popes had been canonized since 1588, when rigorous procedures for recognizing saints were finally in place under papal authority, the message to the rest of us might well be this: Even popes can be saints.

Kenneth L. Woodward, a contributing editor at Newsweek, was for thirty-eight years the magazine’s religion editor. He is author of Making Saints: How the Catholic Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t, and Why.

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Articles by Kenneth L. Woodward

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