Saint Damien’s heel bone will be enshrined in Hawaii after his recent canonization. Damien, née Joseph de Veuster, was a Belgian priest who dedicated much of his life to caring for leprosy patients in Hawaii. Eventually, he succumbed to the disease himself.
By all accounts, Damien’s work with the leper colony was instrumental in improving the quality of life for all of the inhabitants. It seems unquestionable that he believed that he would contract and die of leprosy when he volunteered for the assignment. When he did contract the disease, he worked tirelessly until his death.
Father Damien was a good man.
Still, as I read the story of his canonization and the various religious celebrations surrounding it, I am left feeling a certain amount of disquiet. There are those who will argue — fairly convincingly — that the canonization process is a useful tool that serves a very beneficial purpose. It is good that we remember those who have gone above and beyond the normal day to day altruism all of us display. Role models are one of the most effective ways to instill a heightened sense of altruism in people. We remember George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, and other historic figures not just because they did big things, but because the big things they did made life better for a lot of people. It appears that human society always has some social mechanism for remembering and encouraging emulation of heroes.
In a lot of ways, this is what canonization does. Of course, we could pick apart the process as largely political, and we would have a long list of grievances against the “intent” of canonization when we were through. A lot of saints were assholes.
Then again, there are those who remember Oliver Cromwell fondly. Andrew Jackson may be a hero to Caucasian Americans everywhere, but the natives have good reason to view his contribution to humanity with a bit less rosy tint on the lenses.
I think that what makes me cringe a little bit when I think about saints is that there’s an anachronistic and religious aura to it. These people were “more than men.” They possessed “goodness” in a way that other people didn’t. They were “above the flesh.”
History books are beginning to abandon the traditional gilding of biographies in favor of a more balanced approach, where historical figures are seen as regular humans — some of whom admittedly did do heroic things, but who were nonetheless human, with their own faults and flaws. I think this is a good thing. In general, I’m in favor of the demystification of… well… everything.
It seems to me that it’s more realistic and attainable to memorialize plain old ordinary humans, some of whom drank to excess, beat their wives, fathered illegitimate children with slaves, cheated on their taxes, and got preferential treatment because of family wealth, but still did a lot of very good things for their fellow man. The truth is, everybody does both good and bad things, and every historical story has other perspectives which might not be nearly as pretty.
When it comes down to the nuts and bolts, I guess I don’t have any major problems with canonization, aside from the praying and genuflecting before rotted body parts. We should remember our heroes. However, I wish we could move towards remembering them as fallible humans. I have known a lot of people who have done very good things for others and still felt a profound sense of guilt for not being good enough. Some have even made their own lives miserable because they were measuring themselves against an impossible standard of goodness.
This, I think, is one of the fundamental flaws in the traditional Christian position on morality. It puts an impossible standard in front of us, and tells us that anytime we do not attain it, our flawed human nature is to blame. When someone does do something really extraordinary, we still can’t give them credit, since it was God bestowing upon them a supernatural ability to be better than human.
The reality, of course, is that humans deserve all the credit for both the good and the bad things they do. Morality is relative, and there is no such thing as “perfect goodness” towards which we are striving. Those who do great good do so because they are human and have the instinctive drive to do good. Those who do great evil do so for exactly the same reason.
In truth, when we demystify morality and credit human nature for human goodness, we are doing two really wonderful things. First, we are allowing people to take credit for their own actions. Secondly, we are removing the guilt and stigma from people who ought to be proud of their own accomplishments but are instead riddled with guilt over any perceived shortcomings they see when they compare themselves to “perfect good.”