Beatification Is in the Eye of the Beholder

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Papal politics, unlike presidential politics, is never a winner-takes-all scenario. And that makes the Vatican unlikely to abandon its effort to beatify Pope Pius IX, despite protests by liberal and Jewish groups. The latter are incensed that the current pontiff, so deeply committed to healing the church's relationship with the Jews, would propose sainthood for a man who in the mid-19th century forced Rome's Jews back into the ghetto and stripped them of their civil rights after having initially allowed them greater freedom. Further fueling the protests is the case of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy kidnapped by the papal police and raised by Pius IX despite the anguished protests of his parents because a Mortara household servant claimed to have doused the boy with holy water.

While John Paul II may struggle to defend Pius IX on his treatment of the Jews, the 19th-century pontiff's beatification is being championed by the conservative bishops John Paul appointed to the Curia. Beatification, an advanced step along the way to canonization (sainthood), is one of a number of battlegrounds in the church's centuries-old conflict between theological liberals and conservatives, in which neither side can afford to drive their opponents entirely from the fold — a church that suffered life-threatening breakaways first by the Eastern Orthodox and then by the Protestants can afford no further splits, which is why there's plenty of subtle and symbolic give-and-take in the Vatican's corridors of power.

That much is reflected in the fact that Pius IX's beatification process, first mooted in 1907, is now proceeding in parallel time with the beatification of Pope John XXIII, one of the most liberal pontiffs in the church's history, who presided over the Second Vatican Council beginning in 1962 and inaugurated a modern, more liberal church. John XXIII, needless to say, is not a favorite of theological conservatives, who've spent much of John Paul II's papacy trying to undo his legacy. The liberal pope was to have been beatified in parallel with Pius XII, but with the controversy over that pontiff's record in relation to the Nazis having helped slow his beatification, Pius IX moved up in line to maintain the balance. Ironically, — or, perhaps, an acute reflection of the complex balancing act of Vatican power — one of the most active advocates of Pius IX's beatification was John XXIII.