Some years ago, a priest who had been a popular television personality left the priesthood under a cloud of scandal. Not long after, I was approached at a meeting of the local secular Carmelite community by a woman who knew I worked as an apologist for Catholic Answers. With tears falling from her eyes, she told me how much she’d admired this priest’s presentations of the Catholic faith on TV. If he could be so holy and fall away from his faith, she asked, what hope was there for her?
At the time, I reassured her that ultimately our hope must be in Jesus Christ and not in fellow human beings, even those among us who have been ordained or otherwise entrusted with solemn responsibility by the Church. But her question stayed with me, and I would think about it from time to time as new scandals exploded.
If you look closely at the question my inquirer posed, you might notice that it doesn’t quite follow from its premise. This woman wanted to know how a holy man could fall away from his faith. But how did she know he was “holy”? Her only experience with him was watching him give televised presentations. She assumed that because his presentations were orthodox on matters of doctrine and morals, then the priest himself must be holy.
Once I recognized that assumption, I started seeing it everywhere. “Oh, he’s such a holy priest!” some Catholics will say on social media, for example, when what they mean is that the priest they admire follows the rubrics of the Mass precisely, or that he gives theologically sound presentations on Catholic doctrine.
It’s also not uncommon for this presumption to be made of laypeople who publicly defend the Faith. I’ve seen fellow apologists and Catholic bloggers lauded by their fans as “holy” when all that is offered as proof of holiness is that they believe in and support the Church’s doctrinal and moral teachings.
You’re probably seeing the problem with this presumption: all the many times it is disproven. In my twenty-two years as a Catholic, I have seen solidly orthodox priests become embroiled in personal scandal, some of them leaving the priesthood and even the Church. Popular lay apologists and commentators, too—some have since become involved in personal scandals while others have jumped the rails of orthodoxy or have left the Faith altogether.
How did this confusion of orthodoxy for holiness get started? I think one possible explanation for the phenomenon is confusion over why orthodoxy matters in causes for the canonization of saints.
Pope St. John Paul II revised the process for the canonization of the saints in 1983. Among the steps to be taken when examining the life of a candidate for sainthood is a review of writings he published:
If the Servant of God has published any writings, the bishop is to see to it that they are examined by theological censors. If the writings have been found to contain nothing contrary to faith and good morals, then the bishop should order persons qualified for this task to collect other unpublished writings (letters, diaries, etc.) as well as all documents, which in any way pertain to the cause. After they have faithfully completed their task, they are to write a report on their investigations.
Note the conditional language: if the candidate has published any writings or left behind unpublished letters, diaries, or other manuscripts, then these are to be examined for orthodoxy to ensure that they are compatible with the doctrinal and moral teachings of the Church. The reason for this requirement is that the Church holds up canonized saints to the faithful as suitable models of Christian virtue:
Faithful to the serious duty entrusted to her of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the people of God, [the Church] proposes to the faithful for their imitation, veneration, and invocation, men and women who are outstanding in the splendor of charity and other evangelical virtues and, after due investigations, she declares them, in the solemn act of canonization, to be saints.
Nonetheless, a candidate for sainthood who didn’t leave behind writings is not for that reason excluded from consideration. The Church simply looks for other evidence that the candidate was faithful to the teachings of the Church and is suitable as a Christian role model. In cases where the writings attributed to a candidate can be demonstrated not to be the candidate’s own writings (e.g., Bl. Anne Catherine Emmerich), the writings may be excluded from consideration of the candidate’s life.
And so, theological orthodoxy is one of many tests used to determine whether a proposed candidate for sainthood ought to be canonized by the Church, but this doesn’t mean that all Catholics who are orthodox are holy, or even that holiness is entirely dependent on theological orthodoxy. Those who are orthodox may be deficient in holiness; conversely, some Catholics who can’t be considered fully orthodox might well be holy men and women.
Take the case of Catholic apologist Frank Sheed. Toward the end of a long career, during which he was considered an indefatigable defender of Catholic orthodoxy, Sheed colored a bit outside the lines on the issue of the sacraments for the divorced and remarried. In his memoir, Sheed expressed frustration with the idea that “there are no venial sins against the Sixth Commandment” and speculated that a deserted spouse who is divorced and enters into an invalid marriage perhaps ought to be given Communion:
[It] is hard for [a deserted spouse] to think he has harmed our Lord, he has not denied him, only yielded to his own weakness. If he wants to receive [Christ] bodily, he finds it hard that Christ should be refused as food to one whose weakness needs him so urgently.
Given this problematic opinion, Sheed might never be considered by the Church to be a suitable candidate for canonization. But by many accounts he was holy. Wilfrid Sheed, in a memoir of his parents, recalled how Frank Sheed’s grandson believed his grandfather to be proof of good in the Church:
“On the one hand,” said a young relative of mine with, I believe, Marxist leanings, “you have the horrors of the Catholic Church,” which he proceeded to list with bloodcurdling thoroughness. “And then,” he said, after pausing for breath, “on the other hand, you have Grandfather.”
Holiness, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “the fullness of Christian life and . . . the perfection of charity” (2013). Right understanding of and belief in the Church’s teachings on faith and morals assist us toward that goal, but don’t in themselves guarantee that we are holy. That requires not just understanding and assent but a lifetime of virtue and cooperation with grace.