The relation between the power of the Church and class power are seldom considered. In mainstream discourse the standard practice in Ireland is to talk about the Church and the State as two monolithic entities and not bother mentioning class at all. So it is of no relevance, for instance, that many of the most exclusive schools in the country whose purpose is the cultivation of an elite, demanding huge fees for entry but still receiving funding from the state, are run by Church orders. So the Irish Times sees no issue in referring to the ‘prestigious Gonzaga College‘, a Jesuit school, as though this prestige were part of the natural order of things. In fairness,that is the way many of its alumni see it. How is it that a religion whose founder was crucified by the powers that be ended up with a Church hierarchy that in many places for long periods was -and still is- a key element of those powers? This translated article by Vicenç Navarro deals with one part of the answer: the saints.
I should point out from the start that I am not a believer, that is, I do not possess what believers call ‘the gift of faith’. I belong however to a family and a tradition that always drew a distinction between religions on the one hand and the institutions that reproduce it, such as the Church, on the other. My parents taught me to respect religions and believers, but not always the ecclesiastical authorities that run the churches, which, as human institutions, configure religions and their beliefs so as to optimise the interests that keep them going. An example of this is the composition of the collective of saints and blessed in the Catholic religion, picked out by the highest authorities in the Catholic Church. The study of who is named a saint, when, how and why, says a lot about this institution and its interests during the 20 centuries of its existence. It is highly interesting (especially for those who study how power is generated and reproduced) to analyse how this is perceived by the heads of the Catholic Church and what the objectives are in naming a particular person as a saint, and their relation to this power.
In theory, the naming of saints has the objective of establishing reference points, that is, models for orienting Catholic believers, since it is part of the teachings of the Catholic hierarchy to honour and celebrate them. They are therefore exemplary individuals that should inspire the Church faithful. But to be “exemplary” also implies that we should know what they are exemplary of, and the objective behind this. And this becomes very clear when one analyses the political context that largely configured the decision to bestow sainthood on some people as opposed to others.
These thoughts arise from reading an article titled ‘Roman Catholic Sainthood and Social Status: a Statistical and Analytical Study’, published by two historians at the University of Rochester, Katherine and Charles H. George, in the Journal of Religion. This article obtained most of its data from the detailed biography of the saints by Alban Butler, along with the work of Herbert Thurston and others, published in a total of twelve volumes.
What the article’s researchers sought to know was the social class or social status of the 2,494 saints about whom there is enough biography published. Needless to say there are considerable methodological problems when trying to compare social class or status throughout history since the establishment of the Catholic Church. But the authors of the article have carried out credible and rigorous work, showing in each epoch those sectors of the population that corresponded to the upper classes (nobility in the feudal epoch and bourgeoisie in the capitalist epoch, for example), middle classes and popular [in Spanish – ‘popular’ – R] classes with lower status. It turns out the authors found that the large majority (1,950 of the 2,494, that is, 78%) belonged to upper statuses, which they define as upper class; 422 (17%) were middle status, and only 122 (5%) came from the popular classes.
The authors of the study point out that the upper classes, of high status, made up only 5% of the population of the countries studied; the classes of middle status 10-15%; and the popular classes made up the great majority (from 80 to 85%). The exemplary beings for the Catholic Church were on the whole people from ruling elites, and this in spite of the famous saying in the Bible that “it would be easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of Heaven”. Naturally not all ruling elites throughout the history of the last 20 centuries were the richest people in that society, but it is a reasonable supposition to assume that if they were not, they were at least at their service.
What is even more interesting is the social composition of the saints according to the century in which they were named. And it is only in the first century of Christianity when the saints belonging to higher status are not the majority. In the first century, people of middle and popular status had more possibilities of being named a saint. Not so from the second century on. Since then, the domination of saints among the upper classes is almost absolute, reaching its high point during the Middle Ages, a period in which the Church acquired greater power and wealth. In reality, sainthood was frequently related to the donation of riches to the Church, to the point that entire families were named saints. For example, the noble Dagobert was named a saint, as were his mother, his grandmother and his four children. The noble Dagobert and his relations donated all their properties, on dying, to the church. This domination by upper class saints diminished somewhat in the 18th,19th and 20th century, when other groups of middle ranking status emerged which the Church wished to capture. Saints among the popular classes, however, continued to be a minority.
In Spain, apart from status, what has been decisive when it comes to conceding sainthood, has been one’s position within the co-ordinates of power. Thus the naming to sainthood of Escrivá de Balaguer, the founder of Opus Dei and the defender of the military coup and dictatorship it established, as well as that of the priests killed by out of control groups (and opposed by the Government of the Republic), without ever sanctifying the Basque priests killed by the putchist State, is a clear indicator of how the Church identifies with the antidemocratic and reactionary forces in power in Spain, for which the Church was their central ideological support. And its leaders are proud of it.