Why Do We Declare People Saints?


A listener calls in with several questions about the nature of sainthood: “I am wondering [what is] the reasoning behind canonizing saints? Why do we as Catholics get to decide or judge who is in heaven and who has deserved that? Why do we spend money on this process? And why has there never been anyone from another faith? Do we think it’s only full of Catholics up there?”

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Father Dave starts with the most overarching question — what purpose does it serve to have and honor saints? He explains that in the “early centuries and even the very earliest decades of the Church, it was seen as valuable” to elevate certain people to the stature of sainthood, and the saints would have been seen as aspirational figures for the rest of us.

Nowadays, Father Dave says, we’ve started to think of singling people out for their outstanding moral character or contributions to society as somehow demeaning to those who have not been singled out. He cites the much-discussed advent of “participation ribbons” in contests over the past 30 years. Father Dave takes issue, though, with the conflation of “singling out” and “judging,” as the caller puts it: “There is value for us as humans in raising up people who can be inspiring. … It is a bolster to the human spirit. That doesn’t mean that everybody else is bad because one person did particularly well.”

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As to why monetary resources are spent during the canonization process when they could be allocated elsewhere, Father Dave has this to say: “The basic answer is human. In our human need and incarnational response to things, things that we have to spend more money on [in the Church are typically more lasting], and [also possess an intrinsic] beauty that goes beyond something we’d see at the supermarket or in our office building call out in our best selves to something higher, bringing us to something higher.”

Lastly, Father Dave addresses the caller’s concern about heaven being a Catholics-only club: “I would agree that that does send more of a message that we might think that only Catholics are in heaven. But really, I think, looking at it in the best light — it speaks to [the fact that] we believe we have the jurisdiction to make declarations about the Catholic Church. … We say in our official theological documents that certainly there is salvation possible outside of the visible bounds of the Catholic Church, so we don’t actually believe that only Catholics are in heaven. But I wonder what it would be like, and I think it’s a fair question to raise, for us to have some way — whether we call it saint or not — in which we acknowledge that theological belief. … I think that’s the most poignant of the issues that you raise. Because there are plenty of people who do not have the Roman Catholic stamp, but I absolutely believe they will be in heaven with God. I’m not on the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome, but I would guess that it is [not the Church out of] arrogance saying that we only believe Catholics are in heaven, but that we believe we have the jurisdiction or the competence to declare [Catholics as saints] because of the revelation of God in our Catholic faith.” (Original Air 09-12-17)

Photo credit: Tapestries showing seven new saints hang from the facade of St. Peter’s Basilica before a canonization Mass celebrated by Pope Francis in 2016. The new saints: Jose Gabriel del Rosario Brochero, Ludovico Pavoni, Jose Sanchez del Rio, Guillaume-Nicolas-Louis Leclerq, Manuel Gonzalez Garcia, Alfonso Maria Fusco and Elizabeth of the Trinity.