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from issue no. 09 - 2004

Even politicians go to Heaven …

The phrase comes from Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints. It was no accident that Paul VI defined politics as “the highest form of charity”

by Gianni Cardinale

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, 
Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints

Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of Alcide De Gasperi, whose possible beatification is under examination at the preliminary diocesan level; accession to the honor of the altars of Alberto Marvelli, member of Catholic Action and Christian Democrat councilor in Rimini in the immediate post-war period; the beatification of Karl of Hapsburg, the last emperor of Austria: this congerie of events provides the starting point for a discussion of the relations between sanctity and politics. 30Days talked about it to Cardinal Josè Saraiva Martins, who has been head of the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints since 1998. The Portuguese cardinal is particularly interested and prepared for the discussion not least because he is preparing a thorough report on the subject to be presented next October to the international association “Carità politica” founded by Professor Alfredo Luciani.
Before replying to the questions Cardinal Saraiva Martins thought it wise to make a clarification. «I would like to make clear», he told us, «that what I have to say about sanctity and people engaged in political activity refers exclusively to lay Christians. They are the only ones whose proper vocation in the Church is “to seek the kingdom of God in the management of temporal things”. Contrariwise, the condition of priests, of religious, male and female, demands an exclusive dedication to their own mission, which involves the duty to abstain – in ordinary circumstances – from political, economic or trade union activities».

Your Eminence, politics is also the art of compromise. Are sanctity and compromise compatible?
JOSÉ SARAIVA MARTINS: The word “compromise” can lead to confusion. It could be understood as haggling to the detriment of truth and justice. And if that were so, the whole class of politicians would be automatically disqualified. Nevertheless it is true that, in political activity, it’s almost never possible to achieve everything that one wants. First of all, God established an order in the universe through the eternal law or natural law but, within that framework, he wanted the free and responsible collaboration of human beings, according to the dictates of their own conscience correctly formed, in finishing within the bounds of time the work of creation. The observance of natural law and the responsible freedom of individuals are therefore inseparable elements and together constitute the statute willed by God for Christian action in the temporal sphere. If the solutions for all possible cases were pre-established, freedom and therefore the dignity of man would be lacking, nor could one talk anymore of History, but only of rigid determinism. Now, when the legitimate options are more than one, it’s not licit for anyone to attempt to impose his own opinions on others, and it’s necessary to arrive at a decision that is the result of an honest and thorough confrontation of different opinions.
Therefore for a Catholic politician it is possible to approve laws not perfectly conforming to Catholic doctrine?
SARAIVA MARTINS: In paragraphs 73 and 74 of the encyclical Evangelium vitae, John Paul II conceives the case of a politician who, faced with a law harmful to the right to life which cannot be completely abrogated – and the same is valid for laws contrary to the dignity and stability of the family or many other similar cases – can and sometimes must «offer his proper support to proposals aimed at limiting the damage of such a law and diminishing the negative effects at the level of culture and public morality», once his personal opposition to this law is clear and known to all. I limit myself to alluding to the question, which would require further clarification. But not even in this case do I think that one can talk of compromise.
Robert Schuman with Alcide De Gasperi

Robert Schuman with Alcide De Gasperi

Is it possible for politicians to be saints also?
SARAIVA MARTINS: Certainly. The universal call to sanctity obviously regards politicians also, Vatican Council II says so in the apostolic constitution Lumen gentium: «It is therefore evident that all the Christian faithful, of whatever state and order, are called to the fullness of Christian life and to the perfection of charity». Whether the call is then realized is a later step. Political activity must work for the common good. It’s obvious, therefore, that it can sanctify those who perform it and that political activity itself can and must be sanctified. It’s a cause for rejoicing therefore that many of the laity participate in it actively, according to their own situations and possibilities. It was no accident that Paul VI defined politics as «the highest form of charity».
Are the causes for the canonization of politicians more complicated than those of others?
SARAIVA MARTINS: In themselves they are not more complicated. The Church doesn’t canonize a political system but the person who has heroically practiced the virtues and who, moreover, in the specific field of politics, has acted in conformity with the faith, with true competence and in the continuous seeking of the good of society, rather than their own interests. More complication can come, as in other cases, from the fact that one is dealing with politicians whose activity had repercussions at a national or international level, in which case it’s necessary to set the person in his historical and social context, while in other cases – think, for example of the mother of a family who lived in the ordinariness of a restricted geographical setting – a more general description of the milieu in which the candidate for canonization passed his life will suffice.
The patron saint of politicians is Thomas More. One might think then that the only way for a politician to become a saint is martyrdom …
SARAIVA MARTINS: Politicians, even those who aspire to sanctity, needn’t worry. It’s not necessary that they aspire of necessity to martyrdom … any faithful Christian who has devoted himself to politics can be declared a saint. Personally I think Thomas More could have been canonized even without being a martyr.
The Emperor Karl of Hapsburg with his retinue during the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Vienna

The Emperor Karl of Hapsburg with his retinue during the Corpus Christi procession through the streets of Vienna

Are there figures of politician saints that are particularly close to your heart?
SARAIVA MARTINS: I wouldn’t like to express preferences. I allow myself only to mention the last beatified “politician”, Alberto Marvelli, who as well as being former Salesian student and a member of Catholic Action, was also a Christian Democrat councilor on the town council of Rimini.
What struck you in particular about the figure of the Blessed Marvelli?
SARAIVA MARTINS: Two things in particular. First of all his total giving of himself to Jesus Christ without fear and not in an abstract way, but always keeping in mind the phrase of Jesus:«What you have done to these the least of my brethren, you have also done to me». Marvelli was in fact a great apostle of the poor. And then the perception of the fact that not the shrewdness or maneuvering of the politician, but only the grace of the Lord, procures the good of the state. In fact Blessed Alberto wrote: «We have done nothing for the elections, we must work in depth. In some places they work a lot, but do nothing. It’s necessary to work in the grace of God …».
Some of your statements in favor of the sanctity of De Gasperi made during “The Youth Camp”, at the Abruzzi sanctuary of San Gabriele dell’Addolorata at the end of August made news. Would you like to add anything?
SARAIVA MARTINS: Let me reply by taking up again the words of the blessed Cardinal Ildefonso Schuster who died fifty years ago, a few days after De Gasperi. When the archbishop of Milan heard of the death of the statesman from Trent, he said: «A humble and loyal Christian who gave entire witness to his faith in his private and public life has disappeared from the earth». For such a measured person as Schuster it seems to me significant praise and confirms his freedom of judgment. On the fiftieth anniversary of his death the great qualities of De Gasperi are being more brought to light, his complete and convinced agreement with Robert Schuman [the diocesan phase of whose process of beatification is over, ed] on the project for real European integration. The causes of beatification of both, however, lead one even deeper into their rooted and lived Christian spirituality. I read with interest what Cardinal Angelo Sodano stressed, how in De Gasperi «religious virtue and civic virtue had welded together in the service of political commitment». There’s something very beautiful, that has a prophetic character today, which God’s servant Alcide writes to his wife Francesca: «There are men of prey, men of power, men of faith: I want to be remembered among the latter».
The causes of beatification of modern politicians seem to regard exclusively men of the people, of Christian democrat origin (Marvelli, Schuman, De Gasperi …) Must it be necessarily so?
SARAIVA MARTINS: Good heavens, no, sanctity doesn’t have a party card. Of any kind. The only law of God valid for a Christian politician rests on two things: on the one hand, the natural law understood as the declarations of the magisterium of the Church, which admits of a plurality of concrete solutions in individual cases; on the other, the free and responsible decision of the person concerned who, in seeking the good of society, follows the dictates of his conscience correctly formed. The Church therefore can never canonize a concrete political system nor can it, obviously, give preferences to any particular party. The politician who, in his work, practices the virtues to a heroic degree, among them the proper exercise of his own freedom, is a subject for canonization.
Alberto Marvelli, member of Catholic Action and Christian Democrat town councilor of Rimini in the immediate post-war years, beatified on 5 September 2004

Alberto Marvelli, member of Catholic Action and Christian Democrat town councilor of Rimini in the immediate post-war years, beatified on 5 September 2004

On 3 October a political figure of other times, Karl of Hapsburg, the last emperor of Austria, was beatified. Was the fact that he was a noble an advantage or a disadvantage in his cause for beatification?
SARAIVA MARTINS: All the members of the Church are sons of God invited to live the life of Christ and participants in the same universal call to sanctity. That is the only nobility that counts before the Lord. Hence there was no particular deference of a worldly nature in his regard.
Might not the beatification of Karl of Hapsburg cause doubt in peoples who don’t have pleasant memories of the Austrian empire?
SARAIVA MARTINS: The proclamation of Charles of Hapsburg as blessed declared the sanctity of life of a faithful Christian who practiced the virtues in his situation as emperor. It doesn’t involve any judgment on the merit of his concrete choices in political matters. The cause does not concern the Austro-Hungarian empire, but a person. Nor does it have to do with a particular political system. The Church, I repeat, does not canonize any institutional form …
Not even democracy?
SARASIVA MARTINS: Not even democracy is perfect. It is enough to remember the simple fact that Adolf Hitler was elected democratically … The Church, as the Pope says in Centesimus annus, respects the legitimate autonomy of the democratic order and is not entitled to express preferences for one institutional solution or another.

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