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You Can Judge the Catholic Church
by Its Heroes

By Patrick Inniss

Some American Catholics have proposed that the Pope designate an Italian saint as the patron saint of handgun owners. Canonized (perhaps in this case he should have been "pistolized") almost one hundred years ago, St. Gabriel Possenti was said to have on one occasion chased off marauding renegade soldiers with his handgun. Confronting the ne'er-do-wells, he picked off a small lizard, a display of marksmanship that made the soldiers take to their heels. Or maybe they were just revolted by the senseless killing of a harmless animal; we'll never really know. In any event, some Catholic hand-gunners think that old Possenti is a swell guy, one of their own, the perfect type of character to be their patron saint.

So far the Church (as Catholics refer to it) has been cool to the designation of a patron saint for handgun enthusiasts. I really can't understand this. Gun buffs really deserve better treatment than this. Other specialized groups can claim their own patron saints. People who make the ammunition that shooters use to put holes in things can pray to St. Elmo, also known as St. Erasmus, the patron saint of munitions workers. Arms dealers, who sell the guns used by the poor, patron-saintless hand-gunners, have their St. Adrian of Nicomedia. Now people who like really big guns, say howitzers or railway guns, of course, have their own patron saint, Saint Barbara. Why her? The only thing I can figure is that God struck down her heathen father with a bolt of lightning, in much the same manner that artillery men and women seek to put dead their victims.

"But wait," you might say, "these saints were all created way back a long time ago, when the saint standards were a lot looser. The Popes don't go around creating saints and patron saints willy-nilly any more. This isn't your father's Catholic Church." But you'd be wrong.

Let's take a look at some recent saint candidates. Pope John Paul II beatified a predecessor, Pius IX, who was nothing less than a kidnapper. In 1858, Vatican guards removed a Jewish boy from his family, using the excuse that a Catholic maid had baptized the child while he was ill and the boy was therefore a Christian. Pius raised the boy in the Vatican, adopting him as his son. So if kidnappers need a patron saint (and really, who doesn't), there's one in the pipeline. This was pretty bad, but Pius IX never contributed to the death of any Jews-not that we know of, at least.

It's a lot harder to say something even that nice about Cardinal Aloysius Stepinac, whom John Paul II beatified in 1998. Stepinac was the archbishop of Zagreb during World War II. During the war, Stepinac provided a conduit for supportive political contacts between the Vatican and various parties, most notably the Croatian terrorist group, Ustasha. This is in keeping with a long tradition of the Catholic Church playing an active role in the politics of that part of the world. In keeping with its long-term goal of blocking Communism, the Vatican no doubt felt that it was doing God's work in aligning itself against left-leaning Serbs and Jews, who were by and large non-Roman Catholics even if they were not out-and-out Communists.

The Ustashi played a key role in the formation in 1941 of Hitler's puppet state in Croatia. Some say that the brutal campaigns swiftly organized against Croatian Jews, Roma, and Serbs actually set the pattern for Nazi extermination programs. Unfortunately for the advocates of Stepinac's sainthood, the archbishop's diary is part of the historical record and documents his admiration for the murderous Croatian leader Ante Pavelic, even after he learned of Pavelic's genocidal plans. Beyond Stepinac's diary, we also have his pastoral letters praising the fascist government. In calling for the cooperation of all Catholics with the fascists, Stepinac could well be considered the patron saint of racists or right-wing nuts everywhere.

There are many, many saints who managed to achieve that honor despite dubious or even dastardly reputations. And many saints have been assigned to the patronage of tasks that are far from contributing to the good of humanity. So, Pope John Paul, give the hand-gunners a break and let them have their saint. Or give us a break and reserve sainthood for people that have done good, not just those who devotedly pursued the prejudices and superstitions of the Church.

Patrick Inniss is a columnist with The Secular Humanist Press, the newsletter of the Humanists of Washington. The following is reprinted from the Summer 2001 issue of the newsletter, with special permission of the author.]

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