“Saintly Sinners, Sinful Saints” — A Reflection on Canonization and What It Means to Be Declared a “Saint”

“Saintly Sinners, Sinful Saints”

American Magazine
February 23, 2015
James Martin, S.J.

One of the biggest surprises during my time at America [Magazine] came in 1995, when I was a Jesuit scholastic. Christopher Hitchens, the atheist and author who has since died, had just published a book-length attack on Blessed Teresa of Calcutta entitled The Missionary Position. Mr. Hitchens had received a great deal of attention for accusing Mother Teresa of accepting contributions from corrupt politicians. One of our senior editors, the late John W. Donohue, S.J., confided that he was going to write a response to Mr. Hitchens’s book. “Great,” was my less-than-Christian response. “Let him have it!”

Imagine my surprise when I read John’s article “Holy Terrors” (5/13/95). Instead of a point-by-point defense of Mother Teresa (which John seemed to consider a task too absurd to be worthy of much attention), John took a different tack. His approach could be summed up as: If you think that was bad, then you don’t know much about the saints.

“Mr. Hitchens,” Father Donohue wrote, “seems to assume that no one who has ever made mistakes or even acted ambiguously deserves to be called saintly.” John then listed some ignoble activities of many well-known saints, including the irascible St. Jerome and St. John of Capistrano, who “behaved at times more like George S. Patton Jr. than Francis of Assisi.” My favorite example was St. Cyril of Alexandria, whom John described as “brave but sometimes overly vehement, indeed violent.” Cyril arrived at the Council of Ephesus (A.D. 431) with a gang of “unruly followers” and sent one of his fellow archbishops, Nestorius, into exile. After Ephesus, Cyril seems to have led a quiet life. John quoted one of his former Jesuit teachers saying, “We don’t know anything about the last 10 years of Cyril’s life. Those must have been the years in which he became a saint.”

I thought about John’s article when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis would canonize Junípero Serra during the pope’s visit to the United States in September. As we mentioned in a Current Comment (2/9), Blessed Junípero was an indefatigable missionary, but he also stands accused of approving some the worst excesses of Spanish colonialism in 17th-century California. His legacy is further complicated by the fact that many critics conflate the following: first, what the colonists did; second, what Junípero approved of; and third, what Junípero himself did. What seems clear, at the very least, is that Junípero condoned the beating of local people by Spanish colonists.

Similar accusations were leveled in recent years against St. Thomas More in the popular novel Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel—now a play and soon to be a BBC-TV series. Mantel portrays the “Man for All Seasons” as a religious fanatic, schemer, misogynist and, in the words of Mantel’s hero Thomas Cromwell, “a blood-soaked hypocrite” who tortures Protestants in his cellar. Writing in The Tablet (1/29), the Cambridge historian Eamon Duffy disagreed, pointing out that for his time, More, though a relentless pursuer of heresy, would have been seen as a compassionate man. “More was neither blood-soaked nor a hypocrite,” writes Duffy, “but he was a man of his times, not of ours.”

Yet even the saints not accused of such terrible crimes—beatings and torture—did not lead perfect lives. The saints were human beings who, even after their conversions, sinned. They knew that better than anyone.

Canonization does not mean that the church is declaring that a person was perfect. At the same time, we must ask: Are there some things that should prevent a person from being canonized? The answer is yes. But what things? And how shall we evaluate yesterday’s actions using today’s moral calculus? In the future, will some commonplace activities (to take one example, eating meat) seem monstrous, and thus a roadblock to canonization? Likewise, will some things that seem to bar a person from canonization today—say, Thomas Merton’s late-in-life affair with a young nurse—seem insignificant?

Here’s the honest answer: I don’t know. The church will continue to canonize imperfect saints. Perhaps the more helpful question is: What do we want to praise and emulate, as well as avoid and condemn, when we meditate on the lives of these men and women? Blessed Teresa of Calcutta, St. Cyril of Alexandria, Blessed Junípero Serra, St. Thomas More and Thomas Merton, pray for us.

James Martin, S.J., is editor at large of America and author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage. Twitter: @JamesMartinSJ.

[To see Fr. Martin’s article as it originally appeared in America Magazine, click here:]