Should we be canonizing so many Popes?

There was an interesting opinion piece arguing that the recent trend of canonizing so many popes needs to stop.

As a bit of a Pope history buff, it is an interesting historical note that up through the middle of the 6th century just about every Pope was made a saint. But then it started dropping off, notably after St. Pope Silverius. Up to that point 54 of the first 58 Popes had been canonized.

After that it started a slow decline. Here’s the breakdown by century:

  • 5th century (so pre-Silverius): 11 of 12
  • 6th century (Silverius’ century): 7 of 14
  • 7th century: 9 of 20
  • 8th century: 5 of 12
  • 9th century: 4 of 19
  • 10th century: 0 of 23
  • 11th century: 2 of 21

After St. Pope Gregory VII, who’s reign ended in 1085, so late 11th century, there were only two Popes whose reign was before the 20th century who were canonized:

  • St. Pope Celestine V (1294-1294)
  • St. Pope Pius V (1566-1572)

But the 20th century, as the article noted, has seen a pretty significant resurgence. The 20th century had 8 Popes and half of them have been canonized, including the 3 of the last 4 (and that 4th one was only Pope for 33 days).

So at some level something has changed. But one wonders if it is really what the article writer, Professor Massimo Faggioli, suggests. He points to a movement towards papal supremacy. But I just don’t buy that.

First of all, he’s got the dates all wrong. Yes, the 1st Vatican council, which he points to, formally defined papal infallibility, but frankly the power and prestige of the Pope is not at all defined by that dogma. Students of Catholic history know that Papal power peaked just before the Reformation. In the High Middle Ages there was no one who had more sway over the world than the Pope. We’re aren’t using a calendar (the Gregorian calendar) named after the Pope who promulgated it in 1582 for nothing. (1582 is a over a half century after the start of the Reformation, but his power took centuries to wain from it’s pre-Reformation peak.)

And this doesn’t just apply to his secular power. Ever since the Orthodox/Catholic split was formalized in 1054, over precisely the issue of the Pope’s doctrinal authority, the Pope has had great and nearly unquestioned doctrinal authority of the Church from top to bottom.

This is why I’d argue that Papal power and prestige is looking at the wrong thing. Far more interesting, timeline wise, is the rise and fall of the Papal States. The Pope was the monarch of the Papal States. They were first established (officially anyway) with the donation of Pepin in 756. And the Pope was it’s ruler until it was subsumed by Italy in 1870. (Forgive me for glossing over a lot of nuanced and complicated history.)

With that in mind, go back and look at that by-century catalog of papal canonizations. It’s the 8th century when things really changed. The change was not instantaneous, but it sure looks to me like the arc of the movement away from canonizing Popes is best explained by the rise of the secular power of the Pope. Popes were picked more and more for their secular administrative and leadership skills and less and less for their holiness and doctrinal leadership. Obviously I’m painting with a broad brush, but I think trend-wise it is appropriate.

Which would also suggest why in the 20th century we’re seeing a resurgence. With the collapse of the Papal States, the papacy has returned to being primarily a spiritual leadership position. As a result, is it really a surprise that we’re seeing a resurgence of holiness of those elected to the position?

Said another way, from a canonization perspective we could break the Church into 4 eras:

  • Pre-Edict of Milan (313): 100% Canonized (32 of 32)
  • Post Milan, Pre-Papal States (756): 61% (36 of 59)
  • Papal States era: 6% (10 of 164)
  • Post Papal States: 44% (4 of 9)

It’s hard to argue with those groupings both from a historical significance stand point and how starkly the rates of Canonization changed when the Church transitioned from one to the other.

So while I think it is reasonable to ponder and debate whether we should be canonizing so many Popes, particularly to do so as quickly after their death as was done for St. Pope John Paul II, I’d argue that that ‘Pope worship’ and idolization is not what is going on here nor should be the basis for that debate. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny against the backdrop of Catholic history.

(Hat tip to Deacon’s Bench for bringing my attention to the article)


  1. Vincent K Kasoma

    I believe canonization is a true and authentic process that the Catholic Church endures until it’s absolute final stage. Whom of the recent Popes do you doubt he, ‘s not qualified for Sainthood?? Please Deacon don’t mislead you us.?!!!

  2. kencraw

    Vincent, there’s no Pope who’s been canonized I would question. (Nor did I intend to imply that with my post.)

  3. kencraw

    Joseph, I assume you’re referring to this sentence:

    “The 20th century had 8 Popes and half of them have been canonized, including the 3 of the last 4 (and that 4th one was only Pope for 33 days).”

    The last 4 Popes (who have died):
    John XXIII (Canonized)
    Paul VI (Canonized)
    John Paul I (Venerable)
    John Paul II (Canonized)

    So no, JP1 has not been canonized. He’s the 4th one. The other 3 have been. I apologize if that sentence wasn’t as clear as it could have been.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.