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Who was the worst Catholic saint?

March 15, 2002

Dear Cecil:

Who was the worst Catholic saint?

This is a perennial topic of debate at my local saloon, right after "Who was the world's greatest fighter?" (The other guys are evenly split between Joe Louis and Muhammad Ali, but I'm holding out for Ingemar Johannson.) The discussion is complicated by the fact that little is known about many saints. We don't even know how many there are — the Catholic Church keeps no official tally, although Butler's Lives of the Saints has 2,565 entries.

Then you've got the question of criteria. What do you have to do to qualify as "the worst"? Here are the possibilities, as I see them:

  • Be nonexistent. In Christianity's early days sainthood was a matter of popular acclaim. When the church formalized canonization in the 13th century, the traditional saints were grandfathered in, but later historical review found no reliable information about many of them and some appeared never to have existed at all. One egregious example is Saint Josaphat, who supposedly was the son of an East Indian king who persecuted his Christian subjects. When it was foretold that his son would become a Christian, the king had him brought up in confinement, but the son converted anyway. Scholars eventually realized this was actually the legend of the Buddha tricked out in Christian disguise.

Then there's Saint Ursula, said to have been martyred along with 11,000 virgin companions in 451 at Cologne. Although it's possible some women were martyred in that city at some point, the notion of there ever having been 11,000 virgins in one place at one time ultimately proved too much for even true believers to swallow, and veneration of Ursula was suppressed.

When Pope Paul VI revised the canon of saints in 1969, some traditional saints were downgraded because of doubts about their stories, if not necessarily their existence. Saint Christopher, for example, is thought to have been martyred under the Roman emperor Decius in the third century, but nothing else is known about him. The well-known story about his having carried the Christ child across a river — the kid supposedly became staggeringly heavy because he bore the weight of the world — is now recognized as pious fiction.

Not all fabrications about saints can be attributed to medieval simpletons. Take the case of Saint Philomena. In 1802 the bones of a girl between 13 and 15 years old, plus a vial of what was believed to be dried blood, were found in a catacomb in Rome. An inscription said, "Peace be with thee, Philomena" and included depictions of anchors, arrows, and a palm. Impressionable souls leaped to the conclusion that these were the tokens of a virgin martyr. A cult sprang up and hundreds of miracles were attributed to Philomena's intercession. Other devout persons of the era, several of whom went on to become canonized themselves, implored Pope Gregory XVI to start the canonization process, and devotions to Philomena were authorized in 1837. Reason eventually reasserted itself and Philomena was removed from the calendar of saints in 1961.

  • Be crazy. Where to start? Paging through Butler's Lives we find the story of Saint Christina the Astonishing, who was unable to bear the smell of human beings. "She lived by begging, dressed in rags, and in many ways behaved in a very terrifying manner," we are told. "There is little in the recorded history of Christina … to make us think she was other than a pathological case."
  • Be bad prior to having seen the light. By his own admission Saint Augustine lived a life of debauchery prior to getting religion. To him is attributed the wonderful quote, "Lord, make me chaste — but not yet."
  • Be bad, period. One's attention is naturally drawn to recent examples, some of whom have merely been proposed for sainthood. Pope Pius IX was declared blessed, an interim step on the road to canonization, despite allegations of anti-Semitism. An attempt to do likewise for Pius XII was postponed over protests that he had done nothing to save the Jews during World War II. (For a particularly harsh indictment see John Cornwell's 1999 book Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII.) The question remains controversial and I won't attempt to settle it, but I notice Pius XII's defenders often fall back on the argument that speaking out would only have made things worse — as if things could possibly have gotten much worse than the Holocaust. Easy to say when you're not the one on the hot seat, I guess, but there comes a point when caution looks like cowardice. I'm just glad this guy's not a saint yet.
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