THE CONTINUING CONTROVERSIES over the role of Pope Pius XII during World War II and the recognition this week of St Thomas More as the Patron Saint for politicians both raise once more a vital question for Catholics. What is the relation between their Church and history?
The Catholic Church does not just have a history: it exists in history. This existence is a consequence of the Incarnation. Of the ways through which God could have revealed Himself to man, He chose to act through man and man's activities. He chose the Jewish race so that their history became part of God's revelation. God used history.
In Christ the revelation became full: God fully revealed Himself through this one man and His personal history. How Jesus lived; where He travelled; what He said: all became part of the Christian revelation. Christ's history became our faith.
We believe that after Christ's death His Church carried on not only the work of salvation but with God's revelation. As with the Jews, this was through what men and women did and said. In other words, through history.
God's revelation comes through what we do and say but not everything we do and say. We are imperfect creatures and this is where the trouble arises. Those men and women whom Catholics accept as saints — as messengers of God's revelation — were imperfect creatures.
SAINTS NEVER PASSED examinations in perfection before being canonised. Their saintliness was recognised by others, not assumed. Mother Teresa, today's most popular candidate, is honoured because of what she did in her life to express the unlimited nature of God's love, not because of her views on India's social problems.
Saints therefore, like the Church in general, exist in history, in one specific time and place. They, like we, are also products of history, of the people and events that have gone before them. They, like we, are bound by their times and their legacies. We may rightly expect a saint to be different in some things but not in all. There may be potential saints driving along the MI today but their driving is probably no better than others.
Critics of the decision to make St Thomas More the patron saint of parliamentarians, as they used to be known, point out that he did some pretty nasty things when in power. There is a certain naiveté in this, as it assumes that he existed outside time and space. No one has ever denied that St Thomas did things of which we would not approve today. (The same may be said 450 years from now about saints who were in governments that tolerated abortion.) The point about St Thomas is that he is honoured for his testimony to the point of death to the great truth that Christ's Church is meant to be one body covering the whole earth, and not bodies moulded by the whims of sovereigns or politicians with their own "agendas for reform".
TiE PROPOSED CANONISATION of Pius XII is a far more complicated problem. Few popes have faced such horrific problems as he faced.
In spiritual terms the Papacy claims sizable power. In the world of international relations the Papacy has remarkably few powers. It suffers, however, from its own spiritual claims and those inclined to criticise move effortlessly from the spiritual to the material and ask: why didn't the Pope do this or that or the other?
There are, we must remember, those who are inclined to criticise the Papacy, just as there are those, we must also remember, who seem prepared to excuse it from all criticism. The Papacy, and in this case Pius XII, exist within history. Each carries what liberal intellectuals like to call the "baggage of history".
Historians, however, are also the products of history and they carry with them their own Gladstone bag of prejudices and biases. Those who deny this simply are not being honest. When it comes to the Papacy, Pius XII and the War, there are factors which may influence historians. It is, for instance, hardly surprising that many historians who write about this period are Jewish. In almost all cases they write with objectivity; nevertheless, they do not exist in an historical vacuum.
On the other hand the Vatican has not altogether helped its own cause. Great institutions breed institutional thinking which usually include a disinclination to criticism from "outside". The Church's own CatholicJewish Historical Commission, appointed to investigate Pius XII and the Jews, said last week that the papers they were allowed to examine in the Vatican's archives were not sufficient to "put to rest significant questions" regarding his role.
The Church is of history and in history. She cannot expect special treatment by historians. She cannot expect all popes to be saints but she can demand that history be objective and balanced. It cannot be so without the evidence.
The Vatican should keep nothing back because in the end, the truth will out. Should we want it any other way?