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MEDIEVAL-RELIGION  January 2002

MEDIEVAL-RELIGION January 2002

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Subject:

Re: canonization

From:

Dennis Martin <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 21 Jan 2002 10:14:47 -0600

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medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

David Burr makes precisely my point, though I should have written that the "canonizations are merely political" thesis stems from the attitude foundi n Woodward's book rather than invariably directly from his book.  That many of Prof. Burr's acquaintances share that attitude will not be particularly helpful unless the case can be made that his circle of acquaintance is broadly representative of people in general, Catholics in general etc.  I suspect it is broadly representative of what Peter Berger calls the "knowledge class" in Western Europe and North America (hence very representative of this list) but scarcely representative of the millions of Catholics in Latin America, the Phillippines, Asia, Africa etc.

But more significant is the fact that the ones who are politicizing the cases of Pius IX and Pius XII are precisely those who are complaining about politicization.   The causes are proceeding according to the standard procedures.  I have yet to see any credible specific evidence that corners are being cut in these cases.  If David Burr's acquaintances or if he can offer specific evidence to that effect, I'd be glad to hear it and study it carefully.  But normally, those who make this charge merely offer unsubstantiated generalizations (or, in the case of hack writers like John Cornwell, blatantly false and fraudulently distorted evidence).   I conclude that the politicization takes place in the minds of those who for their own political agendas despise Pius XII and Pius IX.  The recent spate of books by Cornwell and others about Pius XII have been amply refuted.   Much less has been done with Pius IX, but good defenses of him do exist--in response to those who, politically motivated, set out to attack the beatification.  Moreover, if we want to talk about politicization, if we want to study  carefully the historical context in which canonization causes operate, then consider this:

Pius XII was universally celebrated for his efforts on behalf of the Jews during World War II until Rolf Hochhuth's play, _The Deputy_, in 1963.  The New York Times, Albert Einstein, the government of Israel, Jewish historians and a host of others agreed he did more than any other single person to rescue Jews from the Nazis, far more than Otto Schindler and an awful lot more than Churchhill or Roosevelt who positively refused to help Jewish refugees on their doorsteps.

What changed?  A blatant political attack on Pius XII, stemming largely from his anti-Communism and a major shift in the general perception of traditional Catholicism in the wake of the sexual revolution of the 1960s (whose roots lie in the eugenics movement of the 1920s).  If people want to explore the real historic context for the causes of Piux IX and Pius XII, then they must look at the entire context of Jewish and non-Jewish treatments of the Holocaust, the entire context of Jewish-Catholic and Jewish Christian relations, the entire context of Communist-Catholic relations, the role of Marxism as an underlying theoretical force in much of Western academia from the 1930s onward and many other factors.  But those who attack the causes introduced for Pius IX and Piux XII never do this.  They _start_ from the assumption that these two popes were wrong about the modern liberal nation state and about modern philosophy and about Communism and move on from there.

Indeed, I would argue that the challenge to the canonization of Pius IX is what is purely politically motivated and that the introduction of the cause was not.  His cause would have been introduced fifty years ago had there not been so much antipathy toward him among Catholics and non-Catholics who think the Church should have followed a different path during the 19thc.  If anything was politically motivated from the side of the Vatican, it was the delay in introducing his cause, not its introduction.  Now that, I suggest, is a historical assessment of the broader history of this issue.  Perhaps that is what David Burr had in mind?

My point is that precisely those who raise the charge of politicization are those who cast much of what John Paul II does in political terms.  That is one way that those who dislike his theology and philosophy can dismiss him without engaging his thought.  They may, of course, be correct in this approach.  But they might want first to consider George Weigel's claim that this pope precisely cannot be understood that way, but must be understood from his philosophical and religious assumptions (from the "inside") and that Bernstein and Politi or Cornwell or Garry Wills choose not to do that.

But that leads me to Prof. Mundy's response to my post.  It seems to me that has already answered his own question: He knows without doubt that the Church's canonizations are carried out when advantageous to the Church.  If one proceeds from that a priori assumption, then any effort to study carefully the context in which canonizations take place, whether in modern times or medieval times, will come up with politicized explanations.  The only debate will be about the details.

I unfortunately am less enlightened about this than John Mundy.  It would seem to me that if the Church always introduces saints causes when it is to her advantage, then she would never have introduced the cause of, say, Pius IX or Pius XII, given the contemporary atmosphere among the movers and shakers of Western culture--unless she measures her "advantage" from within the Church rather than based on the response of the "knowledge class" and Western academics and journalists.  Any number of saints have been rather embarrassing to the curial Church or made things difficult for Catholics in the areas in which they lived.  For instance, the recent canonizations of Chinese martyrs was not a very politic move from the standpoint of Vatican-Chinese Communist regime relations.  Several months ago I pointed out that the Vatican explicitly held back on introducing causes for English martyrs because of anti-Catholic sentiment in England and the Continent.  Was this politic?  In one sense, of course--it avoided causing additional persecution of Catholics in Germany, perhaps. Yet surely it would have been to the advantage of English Catholics to be fully accepted in society and be able to see their heroes vindicated and the brutality of the early modern English state put in the light of day.  That would have been to the "inner" advantage of Catholics--to avoid introducing the causes would be to perpetuate a convenient myth about the glory of early modern England under Henry and Elizabeth, to be an enabler for English anti-Catholicism.  Is that really to the Church's advantage or disadvantage?  On the other hand, avoiding exacerbating anti-Catholic persecution in Bismarck's Germany might have been "advantageous" for Catholics there.

One can see in such decisions crass power plays, wimpish cowardice, or careful tightrope walking taking account of what is best for all concerned sub specie aeternitatis.  Perhaps the last approach is what John Mundy meant by "advantage." 

This is relevant to medieval studies because it underscores a point I made in a series of posts last spring: the fundamental underlying assumptions one has will color how one reads history.  If one assumes, with John Mundy, that fundamentally it's about power, that institutions make decisions according to rational choice theory, according to self-interest and power politics, one will examine minutely the historical context for canonizations differently than if one assumes that something other than power and self-interest drives at least some institutions and people.

Of course, if I were to claim that the Church seeks to assess sanctity based on evidence of supernatural holiness, ultimately derived from Christian knowledge of a holy God revealed in Scripture and in Christ and that, since canonizations are functions of the highest levels of Church government based on a combination of human historical assessment and divine authentication (miracles), they have divine authority as well as human authority (divinely sanctioned human authority) behind them, I would be making a religious claim, which has been declared illicit on this list.  So I won't make that claim.

I just wanted to point out that any reductionistic claim that it's all about politics is also a religious claim, a disbelief in one set of beliefs about the Christian church (which, like it or not, is what all students of medieval religion take as an object of study, at least to some degree) and therefore a belief in another set of beliefs about the Christian Church's nature.

Now, it may be that Professor Mundy meant by "to the Church's advantage" "to the Church's spiritual advantage"--the Church canonizes people only when it serves the spiritual (understood in the Jewish-Christian sense of the divine transcendent, not in the sense of a "human spirit:") benefit of the Church.  If so, he would be in full agreement with John Paul II.  But he seemed to exclude the divine and spiritual from the sphere of our knowledge and to suggest that our historical investigations can only proceed on the level of the humanly knowable.  Fine, but that is of course a philosophical-religious statement about the (im)possibility of revealed religious truth in the Jewish-Christian-Muslim sense.  It has a fine heritage from the Enlightenment, but it's only one among many philosophical positions on this issue.
 
I risk taxing everyone's patience with this post, but I think it important because I think medievalists, especially those who belong to Western European and North American academic circles where reilgious skepticism of either Enlightenment or postmodern forms predominates, need to remember that they are a small and elitist minority among the world's population in thinking that religious beliefs of past or present peoples may be studied as exotic objects, practices believed in by Others but not by Us, practices and beliefs that may therefore be resolutely reduced to Our hegemonic categories of power politics and rational choice theory.

When I argued that the reigning, hegemonic philosophy (religion) of Western academics today was a kind of belief in the ubiquity of Power (rather than agapic, self-sacrificing love as in the Christian faith or impersonal determinism as in ancient Stoicism or largely rational universal justice as in Aristotle or _______ fill in the blank for Buddhism or Islam) last spring, John  Mundy could not see why I was so exercised about this.  He thought we could all get along quite nicely if we stayed within the safe bounds of a moderate Enlightenment rationalism--at least that seemed to be the essence of his response.

Yet his assertion that he knows that the Church canonizes when it is to her advantage and all that remains to be discovered is what constitutes her advantage in this case would, in the absence of any further explanation of what he means by "advantage" would seem to underscore my point about the hegemony of power-philosophy (rather than self-sacrificing love), even in a pre-PoMo moderate Enlightenment rationalism characteristic of American academic elites in the middle third of the twentieth century.

I would be surprised if by "advantage" he means "agapic love" (which is what a believing traditional Catholic would say is the advantage to canonizing a saint: as a model of Christ's agapic love to inspire others to the same), given the what else he wrote about the unknowability of the Divine.

Thus before we could enter upon his and David Burr's invitation to explore the historical context in which canonizations take place, we do need to at least put on the table our philosophic-religious cards.  Otherwise we will constantly talk past each other.

Dennis Martin


>>> [log in to unmask] 01/21/02 08:16AM >>>
medieval-religion: Scholarly discussions of medieval religion and culture

While the discussion seems to have drifted slightly aware from the medieval
world in its discussion of John Paul II's canonization processes, I'll
perversely nudge it just a bit farther off course by saying Dennis Martin
is not exactly accurate in saying "the thesis that John Paul II's choices
are 'controversial' largely stems from Kenneth Woodward's book."  It's a
widespread feeling among Roman Catholics of my acquaintance, many of whom
never have been near Woodward's book, that the  current interest in Pius IX
and Pius XII is unfortunate.  It's equally true that these same Catholics
tend to see such choices as explicable in terms of broader goals the pope
is seeking to achieve, and they wonder if the total result has been
precisely the opposite, weakening rather than strengthening what Rome sees
as the traditional authority structure.  From the historian's perspective
the pope's choices help us to ask long-term questions about how and why the
canonization process has changed over the years and how these changes are
related to the development of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole,
particularly the relationship between Rome and the laity, more generally
that of the entire hierarchy to the laity.   The first order of business
for the historian is to ask, not whether such changes are good or bad, but
what they are,  why they occurred, and perhaps how they are further
affecting the relationship.  These are good questions.  I may see the
Middle Ages a bit more clearly by asking them.

David Burr

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