This post was originally going to be a sequel to my last entry. However, I have been thinking about the recent hoopla surrounding the canonisation of Mary Mackillop. Whilst I greatly respect the work she did – helping the poor, ministering to the downtrodden – I was perturbed by the outpouring of emotion, even to the point of veneration, which went with this unprecedented event (unprecedented in the sense that Ms. Mackillop is the first Australian to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church). This is quite apart from the distorted theology that underlies the legitimacy of canonisation within Catholicism, which I will also touch upon.
Don’t get me wrong; I think that the Catholic Church has done some wonderful good in the community. It has established many charitable organisations that have alleviated the burdens with which the poor and broken-hearted have struggled. I had the privilege of volunteering with St. Vincent’s soup van for a time, which was originally a Catholic outfit (though it has become somewhat secularized). And unlike some of those snarling secularists out there, I am not criticising the veneration of Mary Mackillop because I hope to erase all traces of religion from public life. I read an article in The Australian at the time, written by Greg Sheridan, which argued that this was precisely the attitude that lay beneath much of the criticism levelled at the Catholic Church and its canonisation of this Australian nun. I am certainly not in that basket; indeed, the whole point of this blog is quite the opposite – to preserve Christianity’s position within the public square.
And yet, my criticism remains. It rests upon theological, ecclesiological and christological grounds, and I will tackle them in turn. First, the general theological issues. The Bible speaks constantly about the dangers of idolatry. It was one of the primary sins into which Israel constantly fell, the prophets condemned them for it. The New Testament does not shy away from this point either: Paul, for example, takes aim at human depravity by linking it to idolatry. Instead of worshiping the One who is sovereign over his creation, humanity instead decided to worship parts of the created order (Romans 1:21-25). Instead of giving obeying the source of all truth, wisdom and life, man gave himself over to bits of creation, substituting idols for the real deal. It’s a broad-brush approach that sums up humanity’s plight by placing it in the context of primal idolatry. The root sin of all the lesser sins we witness around us is, according to Paul, the sin of unseating God from his rightful place as sovereign Creator and placing something in his stead.
Now, is this occurring when a person is singled out for canonisation by the Catholic Church? I think it comes dangerously close to what one would call idolatry. It may not do so in some kind of deliberate, systematic way, but the kind of veneration we saw at the time of Ms. Mackillop’s elevation to sainthood threatened to unseat the primacy and centrality of Christ. I don’t remember hearing much at all about God or Jesus during that time, and it seems to betray a fundamental distortion of priorities. This is where the theological and the christological issues overlap. Thus, the second problem I have with the canonisation of Mary Mackillop and all that went with it is the fact that she seemed to take the place of Christ himself. Surely the church should be preaching Christ? Surely the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus should take pride of place in the life and witness of God’s people? For all the good work she did, I believe that Mary Mackillop’s canonisation, and all the attention she received because of it, did a great disservice to the church and to the world, since it drew attention away from the saving work of Christ and placed it on one of his servants.
A particularly acute example of this comes by way of the push to have Mary Mackillop’s miracles recognised. One such miracle was said to have been performed after a woman prayed to Mary Mackillop in order to be healed of cancer. Now, I don’t know whether this was a miracle or not. But one thing is for certain. We are not instructed to pray to fellow human beings, dead or alive. We are instructed to pray instead to the Creator God who is also the Redeemer God, and who made himself known to humanity in the most radical and intimate of ways – through the person of Jesus Christ. Mary Mackillop’s canonisation, and all the attention it garnered, completely did away with all of this, whilst at the same time making the fundamental theological error of attributing any miracles performed to her instead of God himself. As I said, the fact that such miracles were attributed to her is an especially obvious sign of a creeping idolatry that has unseated God from his rightful place of primacy and centrality. And in all the media attention and publicity the Catholic Church generated, it spectacularly failed to fulfil its mandate to bring the gospel to the multitudes. All that attention, all that energy, all that time – and none of it spent on Jesus. At the very least, it can only be called a failure to obey the explicit teachings of the One who has saved us and the One who has sent us.
The third criticism I must make, pertaining as it does to issues of ecclesiology, is the very fact of sainthood, as practiced in the Catholic Church. Sainthood, properly understood, is a good and biblical thing. The problem lies in Catholicism’s hierarchical reading of sainthood. It is emphatically not the case that there is a kind of spiritual hierarchy within the church, whereby some are elevated to the status of saint, whilst the rest wallow in the in the pit of ordinariness. The fact is that all those who have been called into God’s redeemed community are saints; there is no distinction. To be a saint is to be sanctified. To be sanctified is to be set apart and progressively set free from the corruption of sin. A quick look at, say, 1 Peter 2:9 gives us the strong impression that we are – all of us – saints. He says that we are a “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation…” The language here echoes Israel’s status as God’s chosen people. They were called out of Egypt – all of them – and set apart as God’s holy nation (“holy” is much the same as sanctified, for it refers to separation also). The Israelites – again, all of them – were to be a nation of priests, intermediaries between God and humanity. As members of the church, we take up that common identity, without distinction. All of us have been set apart, and therefore all of us are saints. Similarly, all of us have been called to be ministers, and therefore all of us are “priests” in some fashion. The canonisation of Mary Mackillop reflects a distortion of the radical egalitarian nature of the church of God.
My beef does not lie with Mary Mackillop. As I said, she apparently did some wonderful work in her obedience to God and her service to the poor. That is not at issue. However, for the reasons I have outlined, I am deeply troubled by the way in which an arm of the Christian church could have gotten all of this so spectacularly wrong. Why this is the case is not entirely clear. Perhaps it’s a carry-over from the Roman period, when empire and church made a fateful pact that would end up warping the nature of the latter. The canonisation process, at least, seems to betray a hierarchical model that is inimical to New Testament Christianity. Of course, it’s easy to sit back and criticise from afar, but we must remember that we produce and sustain idols all around us, whether material, ideological or conceptual. My own denomination, the ACC, seems to have turned that practice into a fine art. The obvious theological distortions that have been reflected in the canonisation of Ms. Mackillop should make us aware of the fact that all of us carry the potential to distort God’s truth, unseat him from his place of honour, and hinder our witness in the world. That should consistently humble us.