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When the Saints Go Marching In

The Roman Catholic Church, long the Western world’s sole dispenser of “sainthood,” deserves congratulations for having come up with the brilliant, self-cleansing concept of the “Devil’s Advocate.”

Established all the way back in 1587, by Pope Sixtus V, the Devil’s Advocate (Advovatus Diaboli, in Latin) is the device—or more accurately, the methodology—by which candidates being considered for canonization (sainthood) are rigorously investigated to determine whether or not they qualify for the honor.

It was the Devil’s Advocate’s job to assume the role of “professional doubter” or “professional skeptic” in these proceedings, by presenting the most persuasive argument possible against bestowing sainthood upon an individual.

Not only did the Devil’s Advocate diligently search for examples of low morals and character flaws, he challenged the evidentiary veracity of the so-called “miracles” that were necessary for canonization. Without this level of scrutiny, the Vatican rightly feared that something as auspicious as the bestowal of sainthood would be tarnished. Being the Devil’s Advocate was a dirty job, a thankless job, but someone had to do it.

Then, in 1983, in a surprise move, Pope John Paul II decided that no one had to do it anymore. Apparently, the job had become so dirty and thankless (and unnecessary), John Paul II thought it should be done away with, and so it was.

With a single stroke of his papal pen, he abolished the office of Devil’s Advocate. Pope Sixtus V established the requirement in 1587, and John Paul II removed it almost 400 years later, which was his legal right. Gaining sainthood in the post-1983 world was now an infinitely easier gig, sort of like when colleges and universities eliminated the foreign language requirement for masters and doctorate degrees.

So what has been the upshot? What has occurred since the Devil’s Advocate was removed from the equation? To no one’s surprise, there has been a tremendous increase in the number of people getting canonized. Either the moral quotient of the world has risen to the point where the earth is now crawling with saintly people, or the process of bestowing sainthood has been diluted beyond recognition.

Let’s do the math. The number of canonizations awarded by all of Pope John Paul II’s predecessors during the 20th century was 98. That was the grand total: 98 people became saints. That seems a perfectly reasonable number. After all, like baseball’s Triple Crown, you don’t want to cheapen it to the point where it’s too easy to attain.

But John Paul II may have opened the floodgates. Since 1983, there have been nearly 500 people canonized, and a whopping 1,300 additional people beatified. Holy inflation, Batman! That’s a shitload of goodwill. Accordingly, because that figure represents more than a 500% increase over a relative brief timespan, it’s going to raise all manner of questions.

Such as: Has the Church been needlessly stingy in its previous bestowals? Was Rome too strict in its definition of what constitutes a “miracle,” and is this simply an adjustment that was long overdue? Or was it a public relations ploy, not unlike Wal-Mart calling its workers “associates” instead of “employees,” even though the change in nomenclature resulted in no increase in wages?

In any event, unless we had access to the innermost offices of the Vatican, we’re never going to know how or why the decision was made. It’s now papal law, and will remain so. Besides, in the larger scheme of things, what does it matter? We’re all going to Hell anyway.

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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