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On October 14, 2018, Pope Francis will canonize Pope Paul VI as the 82nd saint among the 266 popes. Paul VI will become only the eighth papal saint since 1000 AD, but the fourth of the twentieth century, joining Pius X, John XXIII, and John Paul II. What are we to make of this fact?

For the Church’s first five hundred years, popes were routinely acclaimed as saints. Christians regarded their late popes as saintly and created individual cults. Of the fifty-four popes from St. Peter to St. Felix IV (d. 530), only two were not canonized. After Felix IV, such popular devotions became more selective, but through the eighth century the process remained the same. This was the “popular model” for canonizing popes, whereby the faithful selected popes for veneration. It was the norm, not the exception, for a pope to become a saint; only the controversial and the morally or doctrinally suspect were denied sainthood.

After Pope St. Nicholas I died in 867, papal saints became highly unusual, for two reasons. First, all the popes during the period 900-1050 were either obscure or simply bad people. Second, during subsequent ecclesial reforms in the eleventh century, the popes centralized and formalized canonization decisions throughout Christendom. In 1200, Innocent III confirmed the exclusive right of the papacy to name saints. Such papal control complicated the decision to canonize a pope. The canonization of any saint—but especially a papal saint—conferred the current pope’s imprimatur on that saint’s life, beliefs, and political or religious agendas.

As a result, papal saints became rare, and the few papal canonizations between 900 and 1957 all reflected contemporary papal policies. Pope St. Leo IX, one of the eleventh-century reformers, was canonized by Pope St. Gregory VII, himself a great reformer and centralizing pope. Gregory’s own canonization in 1728 accords with the post-Tridentine vision of a muscular papacy. Pope St. Celestine V, who abdicated and was imprisoned by his successor Boniface IX, was canonized by Clement V at the behest of King Philip IV of France—Clement’s friend and Boniface’s enemy. Pope St. Pius V, who implemented the Council of Trent and solidified Catholicism after the Reformation, was canonized in 1712 in recognition of that work. Finally, “the Pope of the Blessed Sacrament,” Pope St. Pius X, was canonized by Pius XII, who shared that devotion.

These five saints represent the “papal model” of papal canonizations. In the papal model, successor popes direct the canonization process. Papal saints become the exception, not the rule, for in general, popes have canonized only those predecessors with whom they agreed on specific political or religious policies. All of these canonized popes were, of course, holy men—but they were not canonized for their holiness alone.

The canonizations of Sts. John Paul II, John XXIII, and (soon) Paul VI do not fit easily into either the popular or the papal model. As in the popular model, the causes of all three have been advanced relatively quickly and within living memory of the popes’ deaths. Also as in the popular model, papal canonizations appear to be becoming routine. While discussing Paul VI’s canonization, Francis said, “Benedict and I are on the waiting list.” It seemed like only half a joke.

Yet, as in the papal model, Francis is expressly canonizing these popes due to their policies, especially in relation to Vatican II. Though John Paul II was likely to be canonized quickly in any case due to his massive popularity, John XXIII’s and Paul VI’s causes gained momentum only after Francis’s election. Francis confirmed the importance of Vatican II to the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II at the canonization Mass for both popes. Moreover, as the causes of post-Vatican II popes are expedited, the causes of recent pre-Vatican II popes have stalled. Francis has moved to canonize not simply John, Paul, and John Paul, but the Vatican II era itself.

One might expect this canonized period (1958-2005, from the election of John XXIII to the death of John Paul II) to have been a time of resounding success for the Church. The last period during which popes were canonized with such frequency—the first five hundred years of the Church’s existence—saw the Church grow in numbers and in faith. But in fact the Catholic Church is in serious decline and at its most unstable moment since the Reformation.

During 2005-09, most European nations saw fewer than a quarter of Catholics attend Mass weekly, with some countries’ rates as low as 10 percent. Mass attendance is similarly low in Latin America, where the Church is hemorrhaging members to Protestant denominations. In the U.S., weekly Mass attendance has slipped from 48 percent in 1970 to 23 percent in 2017.

Vocations are doing no better. Worldwide, despite the Catholic population’s doubling between 1970 and 2016, the number of ordained priests has remained flat, at roughly 415,000. The number of nuns has dropped by 35 percent.

The Church’s sway over its flock is likewise diminished. Ireland has voted by popular referenda to permit abortion and gay marriage. In the Netherlands, a culture of euthanasia has taken hold. German bishops seem more determined to loosen sacramental disciplines surrounding the Eucharist and matrimony than to enforce them. Between 70 and 90 percent of married Catholics reject the Church’s teaching on birth control. Corruption at the Vatican Bank has been a perennial problem.

Rates of clerical sexual abuse of children were at their highest in the three decades following Vatican II. During that time, bishops around the world attempted to shift around or rehabilitate offenders through psychiatric care rather than expel them from the priesthood.

Many of these problems pre-date Vatican II. Yet Vatican II’s purpose was to be a pastoral council—to reorient the Church in the modern world, so that it might serve the Gospel and the people of God more effectively. As the evidence shows, the decline of the Church has accelerated during the sixty years since Vatican II was announced.

Of the three canonized popes who reigned in the years 1958-2005, Paul VI is the one most directly tied to the implementation of Vatican II. He oversaw the issuance of its most important and influential documents. He was responsible for implementing its reforms for the ensuing thirteen years. Unfortunately, he failed to promote a standard interpretation of Vatican II, allowing broad confusion as to what exactly the Council permitted. He exercised little control over the Curial departments involved with the reforms. Though Humanae Vitae courageously and indispensably reaffirmed the Church’s ancient teaching on contraception, the reception of that encyclical so scarred Paul that he refused to write another for the last ten years of his pontificate. Despite reports of widespread and grave emotional and psychosexual problems in the clergy as early as 1972, Paul VI did nothing to address such concerns or instruct bishops on the proper handling of abuse cases. In 1985, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented that the period after the Council seemed “to have passed over from self-criticism to self-destruction” and had hardly “live[d] up to the hopes of John XXIII, who looked for a ‘new Pentecost.’”

By canonizing John XXIII, John Paul II, and Paul VI, Pope Francis is embracing Vatican II and the changes it wrought in religious practice, devotion, the liturgy, administration, external relationships, and general outlook. Francis has expressed that these canonizations reflect a new age of openness to the Spirit brought by Vatican II. Yet given the institutional failures and instability that pervade the last sixty years, the frequency of post-Vatican II papal saint-making may be viewed not as a mark of vitality, but rather as an effort to assert the value of Vatican II in the face of the Church’s potentially permanent decline.

Jake Neu writes from Nashville, Tennessee.

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