Thursday, December 24, 2009

Because I Say So: Rome Defends Choice to Make Pius XII a Saint

Christmas eve, and I’m thinking about the statement yesterday of Rev. Federico Lombardi, head of the Vatican’s press office, that the decision to move Pius XII’s cause of sainthood forward has to do with Pius’s “Christian life” and not with “the historical impact of all his operative decisions.”

I wonder if anyone else finds that a strange statement—an unconvincing exercise in sophistry. Here’s the thing: unless I’m very much mistaken, the point of canonization in the Catholic tradition has always been to recognize the sterling character of someone’s Christian life as exemplified in his or her actions and “operative decisions.” Rev. Lombardi’s statement maintains that the church can choose to recognize Pius’s “heroic virtues” while keeping open options for “discussion concerning the concrete choices made by Pius XII in the situation in which he lived.”

How are we to know that someone led an exemplary Christian life full of heroic virtue if we ignore the “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” that person made? Hasn’t the church always taught that the quality and nature of a person’s acts point back to the quality and nature of the person himself or herself?

Come to think of it, isn’t this precisely the argument used by the Catholic church to determine that every gay or lesbian person in the world is “objectively disordered”—because he or she either commits or is inclined to commit “disordered” acts?

Essentially, what I hear the Vatican saying about Pius and his life is that we’re to trust that the virtue was there, shining through Pius’s life, in the absence of evidence that he lived a life of heroic virtue! I’m not making a value judgment on the quality of Pius’s life here. What I’m saying is that I don’t see or hear a convincing narrative about why Pius lived an exemplary Christian life, as the push is made to canonize him. I hear Rome asking me simply to believe, to trust, that his Christian life was exemplary without providing me with compelling reasons to come to such a judgment myself.

The problem, of course, is that there are many people both within and outside the Catholic church who have concluded that Pius’s “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” were not only less than admirable decisions and choices, but were, in fact, counter-signs to the gospel—impediments rather than signposts to faith. We’re talking, after all, about “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” that involve something more than poor prudential judgments like, say, giving the bishop’s hat to Monsignor X when Monsignor Y turns out to have deserved it far more and X turns out to be a crook.

We’re talking about—or so many people believe, and I don’t hear the Vatican advancing evidence sufficient to counter this belief—Pius’s “operative decision” and “concrete choice” to remain silent as millions of people were murdered in the Nazi period. By a nation largely Christian. With a significant proportion of Catholics. And with the apparent complicity of many Catholics in nations occupied by the Nazis.

Concerns about Pius’s silence during the Holocaust remain so widespread that a decision by Rome to canonize him surely demands a strong, compelling narrative on the part of Rome—it demands proof—that Pius was silent for a good reason, that he engaged in heroic acts to counter mass murder while he remained silent, and so forth. Concerns about who Pius was and what he did are so strong that the decision to move his canonization forward surely warrants opening the Vatican archives, so that the world can see why Rome is convinced Pius was holy, despite widespread concern.

And yet Rome has refused to open its archival materials re: Pius, and seems unwilling to present us with the kind of compelling narrative of sanctity that would lay to rest concerns about Pius’s silence. And that leaves me wondering whether the motives underlying the stubborn determination to move Pius to sainthood subito are less than admirable.

I wonder if the move to push Pius towards canonization has much to do with an in-your-face determination to exalt clerics and the clerical system at a point in history at which many Catholics have become disenchanted with clericalism. I also have to wonder if there’s some need to be in your face vis-à-vis the Jewish community, some need (applauded by anti-semitic groups in the church like the SSPX, which Benedict has chosen to rehabilitate) to tell our Jewish brothers and sisters that we’ll do what we want when we want, and the children of Abraham can just lump it if they don’t like it.

I’m underwhelmed by what the Vatican seems to be doing in the case of Pius, just as I’m underwhelmed by the defense of this move on the part of the Vatican’s press secretary. I don’t see millions of Catholics clamoring for Pius’s canonization. If there are widespread cults promoting Pius’s sainthood—groups praying to Pius, many shrines devoted to remembering him—I’m unaware of it. The push to canonize Pius seems to be coming almost exclusively from inside Benedict’s Vatican.

Father Lombardi’s argument—we’re recognizing Pius’s Christian life, not affirming the “operative decisions” and “concrete choices” he made—seems to overlook the inextricable connection between the lived example given by leaders of a sacramental church, and the message proclaimed by that church. In a church driven by the sacramental principle, what we do and how we do it are every bit as much a part of the message we proclaim as the words we speak. In fact, what we do and how we do it are even more the message that we actually proclaim than are the words we speak.

Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words. The sexual abuse crisis in the priesthood has caused untold millions of Catholics to lose confidence in the church as a sacramental sign of God’s love and salvific care for the world. For many of us, the leaders of the church have become not sacramental signs of the gospel, but counter-signs.

The stubborn determination of Benedict’s papacy to move Pius’s canonization process forward seems to be a statement to everyone in the church outside its inner elite that what we perceive in our leaders—who they are and what they do—simply doesn’t matter. If Rome decides to call them holy, Rome will do so, and if we don’t like it, then thats our misfortune.

The argument Lombardi is advancing re: Pius’s canonization could easily be used, a generation down the road, to canonize any of the unctuous, heartless, slippery career ecclesiastics we’ve found, to our woe, to have protected and promoted priests raping children. Yes, they made bad concrete choices. Their operative decisions weren’t so admirable.

But they led good Christian lives, the Bernie Laws and Anthony O’Connells. Trust me. Because I say so. It was all about heroic virtue in the end.

St. Bernie Law, pray for us.