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The politics of sainthood
Why has the Church chosen this moment to canonize a priest widely accused of sexual misconduct with women?

LAST MONTH’S CONVOCATION of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, held to hammer out an official policy on how to respond to future cases of clergy sexual abuse, was roundly hailed by the US media as a bold and progressive step forward for the Roman Catholic Church. Time magazine, in its usual hype-speak, called it "groundbreaking." The policy worked out at the Dallas conference, which mandates, among other things, that any priest found guilty of sexual abuse of a minor will be immediately — and permanently — removed from pastoral work, has to be okayed by Vatican higher-ups before it can be implemented. Word from the conference president, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory, is that this approval should not be a problem. Well, maybe yes and maybe no.

It’s not fully appreciated just how unprecedented this conference actually was. The impetus for forming the new policy came from an extraordinary demand by American lay Catholics that the US Catholic hierarchy admit its errors and — contrary to the organization of Roman Catholicism — follow the lead of the faithful. It was a stunning moment in the history of the Church. But you need look no further than the recent canonization of Padre Pio — a priest who faced numerous, credible accusations of sexual misconduct with women — to get an idea of how seriously (or not) the Vatican is taking the calls for change.

Make no mistake, the process of canonization within the Roman Catholic Church — that most methodical and bureaucratic of organizations — is fraught with politics. Aside from their spiritual evolution, saints also have pedagogical functions. They are the Church’s poster children and spiritual heroes. They are promoted in books and on holy cards, statues, religious portraits, and stained-glass windows. The Vatican makes clear political and social statements, cloaked in the guise of theology, when it selects its saints.

Take, for example, the canonization of Maria Goretti. Born in poverty in 1890, she lived with her family on the outskirts of Rome. In 1902, the 12-year-old Maria was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old neighbor. When she resisted, he stabbed her. When she died a few days later, she told her confessor that she forgave her assailant and wanted him "to be in paradise" with her. The assailant was sentenced to 30 years in prison. For the first eight, he harbored bitterness toward Maria, but repented after she appeared to him in a dream. Upon his release he received communion — at a shrine built for the young martyr — with Maria’s mother at his side. A cult immediately sprang up around Maria Goretti, making her both a visible and visceral emblem of the chastity of Catholic youth. She was promoted by Pope Pius XII as an icon of virginity during the Allied liberation of Italy after World War II, when there was much concern about sexual immorality among young people. In the years after the war, as the Vatican became increasingly worried about the effects of movies, jazz, and other forms of popular culture on Catholic youth, Goretti was continually brought forward as a model young Catholic. She was beatified in 1947 and canonized in 1950. During the ceremony, Pius XII stated: "From Maria’s story, carefree children and young people with their zest for life can learn not to be led astray by attractive pleasures which are not only ephemeral and empty but also sinful." In the United States, Catholic youth were urged to take the "Modesty Pledge of the Friends of Maria Goretti," which began, "I am special! My body was made in God’s image and how I choose to act, what I choose to wear, to watch, or listen to, enhances or diminishes the virtues of my personality."

So what are we to make of the fact that even as the seemingly bottomless sexual-abuse scandal (which is not, as many believe, limited to the American Catholic Church) threatens the financial stability of various archdioceses and erodes Church leaders’ authority to speak on issues of public morality, the Vatican has just made a saint of a priest who was accused of sexual conduct with countless women as well as acting in effeminate ways? The canonization of Pio, now known as Saint Pio de Pietrelcina (after his birthplace near Naples, Italy), tells us that the Vatican’s crusade under Pope John Paul II to bring Rome back to its pre–Vatican II past is alive and well.

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Issue Date: July 11 - 18, 2002
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