Reflections On Pope John Paul II, Thomas More, And Sainthood

Thomas More (1478-1535)  by Hans Holbein, the Younger. Artwork courtesy of Wikipedia.

Thomas More (1478-1535) by Hans Holbein, the Younger. Artwork courtesy of Wikipedia.

On July 5, 2013, newly-elected Pope Francis announced that Pope John Paul II, who became pope in 1978 and died in 2005, will be declared a Catholic saint, only eight years after his death.  This prompted me to consider the process of canonization and the concept of sainthood more closely.

Subsequently, I discovered that the requirements for sainthood were virtually non-existent during the first twelve hundred years of the Catholic Church’s history, after which processes and regulations were instituted over time.  Significantly, popes were invested with discretion to recognize saints.  During the twentieth century, those standards have been relaxed, most notably by John Paul II who, among other changes, reduced the number of miracles required for sainthood from three to two.  He also cashiered the long-standing  “Devil’s Advocate” position.  According to noted Catholic journalist and author Kenneth Woodward in his well-researched book, Making Saints, by doing so, John Paul II abolished the adversarial system “in which canon lawyers representing the Church systematically questioned the evidence put forward by lawyers representing the candidate for sainthood.”

Writing about the revisions, Woodard remarked wryly: “Apparently the Church has forgotten George Orwell’s sage advice: ‘Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proven innocent.’” In any event, the effect of these changes has led to a veritable explosion in the number of Catholic saints in the last quarter of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century under the religious tutelage of John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

But another issue piqued my curiosity about saints.  That issue arose due to recent depictions in literature and film of Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England from 1529 to 1532 during the reign of Henry VIII.  As Richard Rex has documented in Thomas More and the Heretics: Statesman or Fanatic?, the image of Thomas More presented by Hilary Mantel in her Booker Prize winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, is quite different, for example, from the image presented by Robert Bolt in his play, A Man for All Seasons.

As a consequence, I began to look more closely at the subject of canonization and the life of Thomas More.  I discovered that Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI are responsible for canonizing more saints over a thirty-four year span than all popes combined over the past 800 years.  I was disturbed to discover that More was actively involved in condemning men for heresy for, among other reasons, possessing proscribed books like translations of the New Testament. (The Cambridge Companion to Thomas More, ed. George M. Logan (Cambridge, 2011), 93-115.)  The penalty for heresy in 16th century England was to be burned alive at the stake.

Frankly, I also was shocked to find out that Thomas More, who was beheaded in 1535, was not canonized until 1935, 400 years after his death, as Hitler was in the process of consolidating his power in Germany and the specter of a Second World War was beginning to loom.  I had just assumed that he had been canonized centuries earlier.  Was this long delay in some way attributable to More’s pursuit of heretics?  The details of More’s life and death may be as widely reported as any other saint.

Most Catholics know virtually nothing about the process of becoming a saint. Given that the Vatican is integrally involved and the pope is responsible for making the decision, it is hardly surprising that the process of becoming a saint is very formal and elaborate.  But what is a saint and how does a person become one?  First, canonization may only take place after an individual dies.  Woodward has noted that the concept of a living saint “is, canonically speaking, a contradiction in terms.”  I have come upon several attempts at definitions, both from Woodward:  (1) “A saint in the Christian tradition is someone whose holiness is recognized as exceptional by other Christians;” and (2) “To ‘canonize’ means to declare that a person is worthy of universal public cult.”  Unfortunately, these explanations fail to shed much light on the subject of sainthood or how an individual attains such status.

Prior to the election of Pope Gregory IX, the Church had no formally recognized process for the canonization of saints.  In the early 13th century, Pope Gregory established procedures to investigate potential candidates for sainthood.  In the latter part of the 16th century, Pope Sixtus V created what is now known as the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints to regulate and oversee the process.  Since then, various popes, including, most recently, Popes John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis, have relaxed the procedures for canonization.

Today, the Catholic Church has specific, albeit general, investigational requirements for Sainthood:  (1) the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints must determine an individual to be a “Servant of God” and granted the title of “venerable;” (2) the Catholic Church must establish that the candidate is responsible for one miracle after which the case is presented to the pope who makes the determination that the person is deemed “blessed,” a step that is referred to as “beatification,” which can be declared as a result of martyrdom or a miracle attributed to the candidate; and (3) the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints must certify another miracle and present the case to the pope who makes the determination whether to initiate canonization.

In any event, on July 5, 2013, newly-elected Pope Francis indicated that Pope John Paul II, by far the most political of modern popes, had been cleared for sainthood along with Pope John XXIII (1958-1963).  Indeed, Pope John Paul II is on the fastest track to sainthood ever, a mere eight years.  His closest competition in the modern era of the Church is Saint Jose-Maria Escriva, the controversial founder of the Catholic order Opus Dei who was much revered by John Paul II and elevated to sainthood in 2002, 27 years after Escriva’s death.

Traditionally, the process of beatification has required a waiting period of five years after the candidate’s death before it may commence.  However, Pope Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, waived the waiting period for Pope John Paul II, allowing the beatification process to begin just weeks after his death in 2005.  At the same time he announced John Paul’s sainthood, Pope Francis also announced that Pope John XXIII would be made a saint, despite the fact that a second miracle had not been identified by the Vatican and attributed to him.  Explaining this apparent anomaly, Vatican officials reported that Pope Francis is allowed to “dispense” with the established process that requires two miracles.

As indicated above, Pope John Paul II reduced the number of miracles required for canonization from three to two (requiring one for beatification and one for sainthood), thereby (I assume unintentionally) facilitating his own path to sainthood.  In any event, the reduction doubtless accounts for the uncommonly large number of saints that John Paul and his successor, Benedict XVI, elevated during their tenures as pope.

Even quantifying the exact number of saints created by John Paul II, is much more difficult than one might imagine.  The official Vatican Website does not provide an exact number, at least none that I could find.  I have seen sources that put the number at approximately 500 individuals (one Wikipedia entry lists 483).  Another list identifies the names of 110 saints along with the dates of their canonization; but if that list is reviewed carefully, the correct number is actually 372, because, in a number of instances, the list identifies a single individual followed, for example, by a caption that states:  “along with another 119 individuals.”  When all the unnamed individuals are tallied, the number comes to 372.  Wikipedia identifies another 1,340 individuals who were beatified by John Paul, referencing the same Vatican Web site I reviewed.  (I relied on the Wikipedia site instead of the Vatican’s site, because the Vatican site does list a number by the name of the saint.  It only lists names, and I wasn’t prepared to count all the names.)  This means that each of the 1,340 beatified candidates who is not a martyr has intervened in human affairs to perform at least one miracle recognized by the Church and accepted by the Pope.  And incidentally, John Paul II officially proclaimed Thomas More as the patron saint of statesmen and politicians in 2000.  According to Wikipedia, Pope Benedict XVI canonized at least 45 saints during his tenure and beatified another 843, but that Web site states that the list is incomplete.

The aspects of the life of Pope John Paul II are fairly accessible.  At the time of his election, Karol Wojtyla was a Polish Cardinal, but hardly the international cynosure that he became as pope.  Following the extremely brief reign of his predecessor (33 days), John Paul I, John Paul II’s pontificate spanned twenty-seven, very public years that coincided with the fall of communism and the emergence of many new, eastern bloc countries that John Paul eagerly welcomed into the Church.  Behind the scenes at the Vatican, however, the usual intrigue, political machinations, and secrecy proliferated during his reign.

It is reasonably clear that political considerations played, and are playing, a significant role in the canonizations of Thomas More, Pope John Paul II, and Pope John XXIII (1958-63), whom Pope Francis also is declaring a saint along with John Paul II.  It is widely accepted that in elevating Popes John XXIII and John Paul II to sainthood, Pope Francis is seeking to mollify and unify competing factions within the Church, presumably with the intention of establishing hegemony between the more progressive block of the Church (that tends to support the sainthood of John XXIII) and the more conservative block within the Church (that tends to support John Paul II).  Pope Paul VI employed a similar tactic in 1965 when he instructed the Congregation of Causes to initiate processes on behalf of both John XXIII and Pope Pius XII (1939-1958).  The same schism between progressives and conservative existed at that time, with progressives supporting John and conservatives supporting Pius.  In fact, the rancor between the groups was intensified by the fact that John had relaxed many of the rigid standards that Pius XII had imposed on religious writers whose works had been deemed heretical by the Church.

Today, the contingent that supports John XXIII is critical of John Paul II for, among other things, the Vatican’s failure to take responsibility for the pedophilia scandal that continues to rock the Church and for his imperious, authoritarian style and, to some extent, the secrecy that John Paul imposed behind the scenes.  The conservatives criticize John XXIII for being too lenient and impulsive and for instituting reforms through the Second Vatican Council, thereby “sacrificing tradition and opening a door to chaos.” The National Catholic Reporter has described Pope Francis’ decision “as a brilliant move to unify the church.”  NCR‘s John L. Allen Jr. has written that Pope Francis is reaching out and speaking to the liberals and conservatives within the Catholic Church who revere John XXIII and John Paul II heroes.  “The message seems to be, You both belong here.”  Id.

The Church has identified two miracles in which John Paul II is said to have intervened, which have allowed him to meet Catholic criteria sainthood.  The first involves a French nun, Sister Marie Simone-Pierre, who allegedly was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2001 (a disease that is misdiagnosed in almost 25% of cases and generally requires an autopsy for complete accuracy).  In 2005, following John Paul II’s death, she and fellow nuns prayed to John Paul II.  She awoke the next morning cured.  The second miracle involved a woman from Costa Rica, Floribeth Mora, who allegedly was afflicted with an untreatable brain aneurism.  She and her family prayed to John Paul, and Mora’s aneurism disappeared completely on the day John Paul was beatified, May 1, 2011.

Several sources, including The Guardian newspaper in 2010, have reported that Sister Marie Simone-Pierre’s affliction had returned.  Following some of these reports, the Episcopal Conference of France issued a statement confirming that the nun had recovered fully from her disease. There are also conflicting reports regarding Mora’s condition, but after sifting through them, any suggestion that her condition was fatal or that she was at the point of death appear to be false.  Her physician in Costa Rica, Dr. Alejandro Vargas, is on record stating that her condition was not likely to be fatal and that her chances of dying were quite small.  I have seen several written statements quoting Dr. Vargas saying the chances of her condition being fatal were “2 per cent.”  Dr. Vargas is on record saying that he cannot scientifically explain the disappearance of the aneurism.

As part of the canonization process, in addition to the involvement of religious officials, all alleged medical miracles must be examined a select group of physicians who determine whether the healing can be explained by existing science.  Not surprisingly, in modern times, approximately 95 percent of Church-certified miracles are attributed to healing that cannot be explained from a medical standpoint.

Thomas More was born in London in 1478.  He died on July 6, 1535, just outside the Tower of London where he had been imprisoned since his arrest in 1534.  The life of this noted lawyer, member of Parliament, statesman, author, and early humanist is surprisingly well-documented.  More succeeded his “patron,” Cardinal Wolsey, in 1529 as Lord Chancellor of England and served until 1532 when Henry VIII accepted More’s request to resign his position.

The salient facts of More’s life have been widely reported, and he is the subject of numerous books and biographies.  One of the more recent is the well-researched The Life of Thomas More, by noted author and historian Peter Ackroyd, which was published in 1999.  The denouement of More’s life is also brilliantly captured by Robert Bolt in his luminous play A Man for All Seasons and the equally impressive movie of the same name that won the Oscar for Best Picture in 1966 along with five other Oscars, including Best Actor for the late Paul Scofield who played More in both the play and the movie.  In addition, history has preserved a transcript of More’s trial for treason, which Bolt and biographers cite copiously.  But authors like James Woods, Richard Marius, and others question the saintly portrayal of More due to his pursuit of alleged heretics and the vitriolic nature of his writings denouncing heretics.

The image of More’s face is almost equally well-known, based on numerous paintings, drawings, statues, and even mosaics, the most famous of which may be the painting by Hans Holbein the Younger that hangs in Frick Gallery in New York City.  In this portrait, undetected under More’s regal raiment is the hair shirt that More reportedly wore during his life and bequeathed to his daughter Margaret prior to his death.  According to Peter Ackroyd and others, More also is said to have engaged in the practice of self flagellation, using “knotted straps,” which he also gave to his daughter.  This latter practice presumably prompted British biographer Jasper Ridley to describe More as “a particularly nasty sadomasochistic pervert.”  (See generally, Ackroyd, Peter.  The Life of Thomas More.   New York:  Doubleday, 1998.)

Virtually no one denies that Thomas More died as a result of his firmly held religious principles and beliefs that prevented him from swearing to the Act of Succession and Oath of Supremacy, resulting in his beheading.  G.K. Chesterton’s 1929 panegyric description of More in his The Fame of Blessed Thomas Moore may be the image that most Catholics recognize:

Blessed Thomas Moore is more important at this moment than at any moment since his death, even perhaps the great moment of his dying; but he is not quite so important as he will be in about a hundred years time.  He may come to be counted the greatest Englishman, or at least the greatest historical character in English history.  For he was above all things historic; he represented at once a type, a turning point and an ultimate destiny.  If there had not happened to be that particular man at that particular moment, the whole of history would have been different.

It is not clear whether Chesterton was aware of More’s commitment to rooting out heresy in England.  But it has been suggested that Chesterton’s writing may have played a role in reviving Vatican interest in declaring More a saint, centuries after his death. More was sainted in 1935, and John Paul II made him the patron of politicians and statesmen in 2000.

Given the generally accepted perception by the Catholic Church of More’s moral rectitude, he qualified for sainthood as a martyr and no miracles are ascribed to him.  Nevertheless, it seems curious that Thomas More was not beatified until 1886 when Pope Leo XIII conferred “blessed” status on him, along with 53 other English martyrs.  It is just as curious that he was not canonized for another 49 years, when he and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester were made saints by Pope Pius XI as martyrs of the Protestant revolution that resulted in the separation of the Church of England from Rome and the Catholic Church.  Ironically, More is now recognized as a saint of the Reformation.

Among More’s many duties as Chancellor of England was the responsibility to enforce laws that included the prosecution of religious heretics, and it is that duty that has led writers to questionthe Catholic portrayal of More as truly saintly man due to his zealous pursuit of alleged heretics and More’s sainthood.  Even staunch Catholics have recognized the tension between More’s status as a saint and his pursuit of heretics.  In a June 2010 homily presented to the Thomas More Lawyers’ Guild of Toronto, Fr. Daniel Callam began his sermon as follows: “However much we admire Saint Thomas More, we cannot ignore the limitations that his time and temperament placed on him. Historians universally have found his treatment of heretics to be intolerable.”  Pope John Paul II also recognized this same limitation in his Apostolic Letter, dated October 31, 2000, proclaiming More the patron of statesmen and politicians.

Although sources differ, there is general consensus that at least six men were burned alive for heresy during More’s short tenure as chancellor:  Richard BayfieldJames Bainham, Thomas Bilney, Thomas Dusgate, Thomas Hitton, and John Tewkesbery.  Some authors believe that only four men were consigned to the flames during More’s time as Chancellor.  Others argue that More was only actively involved in three cases.  But whether the number is six, four, or three is really irrelevant to the fact of More’s involvement.  One writer, Louis Martz, argues that More’s only peer in written “vituperation” was Martin Luther.  (Moreana, No 100 (1989): 397-416. Martz, Louis, Thomas More:  The Search for the Inner Man at 410.)  Martz, who writes sympathetically of More writes that “More shows intemperance in language to an unusual degree. . . .  His vituperation stands out because of [More’s] literary power.”  Moreover, another forty alleged heretics were imprisoned at More’s behest, some of whom died.  For example, James Woods, in his essay Sir Thomas More:  A Man for One Season, writes:  “[More] raided the home of a businessman called John Petyt, who was suspected of financing Tyndale; Petyt died in the Tower. Six rebellious Oxford students were kept for months in a fish cellar; three of them died. . . .”

Some historians have described More’s pursuit of heresy and heretics as overzealous to the point of mania; others point out that it took place at a time when the increasing publication of books would have dictated increasing scrutiny by More. There is no question that the law in England proscribed the production and reading of the New Testament in English as opposed to Latin or that More was empowered to move against heretics. It is also true that each of the heretics was given the opportunity to recant his heresy. Second offenses were afforded no reprieve. Some of those burned were religious men. Thomas Hitton was a priest. Richard Bayfield was a former Benedictine monk. Thomas Bilney, a Cambridge scholar, was burned for preaching heresy. Ackroyd writes that Bilney was “a fervent and devoted man, who preached the gospel in leper houses and prisons,” and Bilney’s death was lamented by portions of the population he assisted.

In this regard, the criticism is that More’s pursuit was unnatural.  James Woods argues that:

The darker More eclipses the saint, however. . . .  As Lord Chancellor, which he became in October 1529, More, though a layman, was soon the church’s most eager agent. With the help of John Stokesley, the Bishop of London, More personally broke into the houses of suspected heretics, arresting them on the spot and sometimes interrogating them in his own home. . . .  More was now a spiritual detective, a policeman in a hair shirt, engaged in what would now be called surveillance and entrapment among the leather-sellers, tailors, fishmongers and drapers of London. (Wood, James. The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief.  New York:  Random House, 1999. 3-15.)

In Thomas More, A Biography, Richard Marius writes that while More was Chancellor of England, he did everything in his power to exterminate Protestants:

His own labor was utterly singleminded and not mitigated by any flash of mercy or tolerance.  Heretics were enemies of God, . . .  More believed that they should be exterminated, and while he was in office he did everything in his power to bring that extermination to pass.  That he did not succeed in becoming England’s Torquemada was a consequence of the king’s quarrel with the pope and not a result of any quality of mercy that stirred through More’s own heart. (Marius, Richard. Thomas More:  A Biography.  New York, Knopf 1984 at 406.)

Indeed, I have read that dramatic productions of Bolt’s play have been affected by the increasing awareness of this aspect of More’s life as the actors portraying More have considered modifying the portrayal to comport more accurately with the actual figure.

It is clear that More’s involvement in pursuing and killing heretics caused him at least some personal disquiet.  His own writings attempt to justify not only the killings as warranted but his and the Catholic Church’s involvement in them.  In answering charges levied by critics that it was an unchristian act to burn heretics and the Church’s involvement was unjustifiable, in elaborate arguments, More argued that neither he nor the Catholic Church was responsible for burning anyone, an argument that was borrowed by Catholic theologian John Henry Newman in the 19th Century to justify the Catholic Church’s culpability for the Inquisition.  More places responsibility upon the state, which prompted author and scholar, Alistair Fox, who was extremely critical of More’s political machinations, to write that More’s defense of his actions “gives evidence of a political endeavor in More so subtle and devious as to set not only Machiavelli, but also Richard III and Iago to school.”  Louis Martz writes that More “was immoderately proud of his high position in the realm and fierce, indeed, bloodthirsty on the subject of heretics.”  (Martz, Thomas More: The Search for the Inner Man at 397.)  James Wood argues that “More was cruel in punishment, evasive in argument, lusty for power, and repressive in politics. He betrayed Christianity when he led it so violently into court politics, and he betrayed politics when he surrendered it so meekly to the defense of Catholicism.” (The Broken Estate at 15.)

In fairness to More, he went to trial knowing full well the outcome:  he would be convicted of treason and suffer the grisly fate set aside for traitors.  In his biography, Ackroyd relates the official pronouncement of the court:

Sir Thomas More, you are to be drawn on a hurdle through the City of London to Tyburn, there to be hanged til you be half dead, after that cut down yet alive, your bowels to be taken out of your body and burned before you, your privy parts cut off, your head cut off, your body to be divided in four parts, and your head and body to be set at such places as the King shall assign. (The Life of Thomas More at 398.)

Actually, the manner of death was even more hideous.  The victim was dragged on wooden boards, head down, over cobblestone streets for the five miles to Tyburn.  (Bishop Fisher’s sentence was commuted to beheading because he had become so frail his jailors deemed it unlikely that he would survive the final journey to Tyburn.)  His privy parts [penis], when cut off, would be stuffed in his mouth.  Fortunately for More, Henry VIII interceded and remitted the sentence to beheading.  Thus it is that author Louis L. Martz, who while critical of More, nevertheless concedes that More was “a man of conscience so strong that he would die rather than bend his beliefs to suit the demands of a ruthless tyranny.”

How the Church chooses to approach the issue of sainthood as it goes forward is critically important if the concept is to be taken seriously.  It is all well and good to identify and celebrate men and women who have led exemplary lives, but if that is the criterion, the Church should resist the temptation to embellish by clothing alleged saints with a false veneer in the form of miracles that are questionable, at best.

Eighty-one popes have been canonized, excluding John Paul II and John XXIII.  But over the past nine hundred years, only three popes have been canonized:  Celestine V (who abdicated after five months in 1294); Pius V (1566-1572); and Pius X (1903-1914).  In light of the foregoing, John Paul II’s elevation to sainthood so soon after his death seems preternaturally rapid and, consequently, unseemly.  When the “quality” of his miracles is scrutinized, and when one factors in the all-too-obvious political calculations by the Vatican in declaring John Paul a saint, his canonization seems ill-advised if the purpose is ultimately to appeal to a wider audience.

There is little question that the timing of Thomas More’s elevation to sainthood in 1935  clearly involved papal politicization that was intended to respond to the growth of totalitarianism on the European continent.  Not only More’s canonization, but the creation of the Feast of Christ the King was a political response by the Vatican to repressive political conditions on the European continent.

More is a saint.  Although the Church has taken action with respect to some historical saints like Christopher, whose history cannot be established, More’s canonization is not at risk.  While the story of More’s life and death had been known for centuries, he wasn’t even beatified until the late nineteenth century.  That, in and of itself, is not a criticism of the process, nor is it a reason to prevent his canonization.  But More’s sainthood comes with baggage that is difficult to set aside by means of theological and legal legerdemain.

Going forward, canonizing individuals because they stand out as beacons and models for others to emulate seems like an acceptable thing to pursue.  But ascribing questionable miracles to prospective saints is likely to become an increasingly public process that may offend the faithful.

The Church needs to explain the historical vagaries involving the canonization of saints whose lives evince behavior that is – for lack of a better term – decidedly unsaintly.  Perhaps one such saint is Thomas More who had men burned at the stake and is responsible for the deaths of others who died in prison.  One need only ask this question:  Would Jesus have condemned a heretic to the flames or any other death? If the New Testament is to be given any credence, we all know the answer to that question. That answer casts doubt on the legitimacy of Thomas More’s sainthood.

George Brent Mickum is executive editor and general counsel of The Public Record. He lives in Washington, D.C. where he is an attorney and businessman. He was raised and educated as a Catholic.

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1 Response for “Reflections On Pope John Paul II, Thomas More, And Sainthood”

  1. There is a very simple reason it took 400 years for St. Thomas More–or St. John Fisher, for that matter–to be canonized. There was no hierarchy in England from the reign of Queen Elizabeth I to the reign of Queen Victoria. Without a hierarchy to promote the causes of the English martyrs, no progress was made in their canonization. Catholics in England could not carry out the investigation necessary to gather the information, since it was practically illegal to be living as a Catholic in England from the reign of Elizabeth I to 1829; even after the Restoration of the Hierarchy in 1850, the causes did not get started until the late 19th century. Thomas More, John Fisher, and 52 other Catholic martyrs on 29 December 1886. BTW: the Church of England honors Thomas More and John Fisher on its liturgical calendar, too, as Reformation Martyrs.

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