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Making Saints: How the Church Determines Who Becomes a Saint, Who Doesn’t and Why
by kenneth l. woodward
simon and schuster, 461 pages, $24.95

Newman did not regard himself as a theologian, and it would distort his accomplishments to call him one. He was that rarer and more comprehensive figure, a Christian humanist, who set his face against utilitarians of both the mind and the spirit. The spirit of Newman sought wholeness of vision: the integration of faith with knowledge, history with human experience, continuity with change. As a thinker and writer, he addressed that zone of controversy and concerns where religion and culture fuse and overlap.” Thus Kenneth Woodward on Cardinal Newman. And thus Woodward himself, in this book.

Catholics are peculiarly sustained and afflicted by historical narrative, since they cannot know their own identity otherwise. This reviewer thinks of some especially pivotal books that in this age have helped form right self-understanding: E. K. Rand's Founders of the Middle Ages, Joseph Jungmann's The Early Liturgy, Christopher Dawson's Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, E. E. Y. Hales' Pio Nono, Joseph Moody's Church and Society, Xavier Rynne's four volumes on Vatican II, and John Noonan's Contraception (as well as his Scholastic Analysis of Usury and Power to Dissolve). They all found ways to tell their stories in a manner that both submitted to facts and construed them into new life. Making Saints belongs to this same genre.

The book, which studies the process of beatification and canonization in the Catholic Church and the personalities of its saints and saintmakers, has several things to its advantage. The first is timing. The entire procedure for saint-making was radically altered in 1983. What had for four centuries protected objectivity through a painstakingly adversarial systematic doubt was converted to a collaborative effort in historically critical biography. The shift from a judicial to a historical process was so recent, so controverted, and so innovative that it left the staff at the Congregation for the Causes of Saints articulately partisan about the nature and needs of their task. They were thus at their most reflective when Woodward prowled his way into their lives.

The second advantage resides in Woodward's own competencies: as Newsweek's religion editor for most of his career, he brings to this book historical perspective, a literary education, an ecumenical habit of mind, and a capacity to schmooze that apparently wore down the professional reserve of Vatican scholars to the point of candor. It is entirely likely that he was able, at the end, to offer them as much insight by his questions as they gave him by their answers.

The previous system, which imposed round after round of argument between advocates of the cause of some candidate and opponents charged with pursuing every possible defect in the evidence, has yielded to a protocol that is much briefer and that invites participating scholars to frame a consensus as they study the character and alleged miracles ascribed to a person held in reverence by a local church. Making Saints is fair in weighing the gains through simplified procedure against the risks that without procedural skepticism the process may be too open to uncritical sentiment or outside pressure.

The recurring problems in the identification and scrutiny of “servants of God” to be held up before the community of belief for their veneration, emulation, and prayer are studied through a combination of textual critique and staff interviews. Martyrs must be honored specifically for their steadfast Christian faith, and not merely for political gumption or feisty temperament. The causes of Nazi victims Titus Brandsma, Edith Stein, Maximilian Kolbe, and of clergy who stood up to totalitarian regimes in Latin America, such as Miguel Pro and Oscar Romero, test that principle . . . perhaps to destruction. The insistence of the Vatican “saint-makers” on ignoring mystic phenomena and appraising only heroic theological and moral virtue is vindicated by the disclosure that the revelations of the once celebrated Anne Catherine Emmerich were a literary fraud, but it has the possible drawback of excluding potential candidates like Padre Pio the stigmatic simply on the basis of abrasive character traits.

Woodward is not hesitant to criticize inveterate blind spots in the Church's hagiographical vision. Rome has been blinkered in its incapacity to recognize and exalt men and women whose sanctity was embodied in the calling of marriage and child-bearing. The preponderance of people chosen for veneration continue to represent but a limited segment of a Church spread through many lands and cultures. Woodward suggests as well that the signs and wonders which confirm sanctity may be much more varied and complex than the physical cures submitted to the judgment of medical doctors. And the finicky insistence that intellectuals of the past must be in thorough conformity with the doctrines of the present may have stalled the cult of the great paladin of doctrinal development, John Henry Newman himself.

All this Woodward reports fairly and imaginatively. He is not a professional scholar in any of the disciplines cognate to canonization, as the reader is reminded by the scores of typos in foreign language phrases or technical terminology. But that is no disqualifier: the competent journalist has got to the points of meaning that the competent scholars can so easily miss. It is not slurry thought but careful integration that allows the book to test elements of scientific inquiry in their ability to meld with Christian practice.

Woodward straightforwardly affirms the theological presuppositions that lie behind the canonization process:

I have no trouble in accepting miracles because I believe in God as Jesus came to understand “the Father,” and therefore in God's grace. On more than one occasion I have experienced graced moments in my own life and in others, which have come as gifts. To believe in miracles one must be able to accept gifts, freely bestowed and altogether unmerited. Nor do I find it difficult to suppose that these gifts have come my way because someone else—parent, child, spouse, friend, or enemy—prayed to God on my behalf. In a graced world such things happen all the time; despite our inclination to credit ourselves for whatever “good fortune” we may have, “grace is everywhere.” But if the world is presumed to be without grace, gifts do not make sense, least of all gifts that come through prayer. Things “merely happen” and one presumes fate or chance, nature or history, or our own merits or well-laid plans to be the cause. The “communion of saints,” on the contrary, presupposes that in God we are all connected, giving and receiving unexpected and undeserving acts of grace.

That is well said. But what the cult of the canonized seems to continue doing is to envision saints primarily as advocates rather than as exemplars. Woodward very capably argues, as perhaps his central criticism of both the old and the new regimes in Rome, that their analytic inquiry into set virtues misses the advantages and violates the integrity of their proper genre, which is that of narrative. They must not only verify that the elements of ardent and consistent discipleship were developmentally operative in a person's life: they must reconstruct the saint's journey to enlighten and assure those of us still en route, how the Lord was followed from Galilee through Golgotha and Pentecost to the Vatican graveyard, all in grace and glory.

The communion of saints is a communion of fellowship and favor more than one of entreaty and favors. Indeed, the gifts we might seek through the intercession of the saints are more likely to be petty and peripheral if we do not appreciate that they are more precious to us than their favors are.

The cult of saints will continue to rival and thus gainsay the cult of Jesus, prophet and martyr and Son, if the servants are implicitly proposed as more approachable or more affable than the Master. The saints as intercessors obscure the saints as disciples who, like us, had neither immaculate beginnings nor immaculate endeavors. The respect in which they must be meaningfully differentiated from their Master is that they became saints through forgiveness of their sins. That is why we must have their stories told to us as journey from selfishness into love. The selection and promotion of saints is perhaps the chief act of the church as a moral teacher. It would seem to be a task difficult or improbable for scholars who lack a continuing investment in pastoral ministry, where these things can be seen close-up.

James T. Burtchaell, C.S.C, is the author of The Giving and Taking of Life.