ROME – Whether this should or shouldn’t be the case is a conversation for another time, but the plain fact of the matter is that politics often shapes the fate of a sainthood cause in the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Oscar Romero’s beatification, for instance, was delayed for decades out of concern that it might play into the hands of radical leftist forces in Latin America. St. Pope John XXIII’s cause, on the other hand, was accelerated by Pope Francis so that he could be canonized alongside St. Pope John Paul II, in order to make a statement about unity in the Church.
Today, politics may once again be complicating a sainthood cause in the person of Shahbaz Bhatti, who many see as the ideal patron saint for the new Christian martyrs of the 21st century.
In most ways, Bhatti seems a slam-dunk candidate for a halo. Born into a devout Catholic family in 1968 in Lahore, Pakistan, from early on Bhatti was basically intoxicated by the faith. He became an altar boy and assisted priests in celebrating Mass, giving him a chance to move around with them to villages to see how Christians truly live in a country where they’re less than two percent of the population, most consigned to illiteracy, poverty, and chronic second-class citizenship.
Bhatti would later recall that when he was 13, he heard a Good Friday sermon about the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, and says he decided then and there he would dedicate his life to defending Christians and other minorities in the country.
In college he founded an organization for Christian students to help them stand up to the pressures of Islamic radicalism, which was then just gathering force across the Muslim world, and which didn’t look kindly on the presence of Christian students even in state-run universities.
Bhatti said he was grabbed and beaten, even tortured, on several occasions to try to compel him to renounce his activism, but he steadfastly refused.
Later, Bhatti founded the group for which he became known, the “All Pakistan Minorities Alliance,” which campaigned for the rights of Christians and other minority groups, such as Hindus, Ahmadis and secularists.
In addition to political and legal advocacy, Bhatti’s alliance also had a strong humanitarian emphasis. When a devastating 7.6 magnitude rocked Kashmir in October 2005, the group was on the front lines of the relief effort, digging bodies out of the rubble, donating blood, organizing tents and soup kitchens, and teaching children whose schools had been destroyed.
All that gave Bhatti a national profile, and in November 2008 he was named Federal Minister for Minorities Affairs, making him the lone Christian in the Pakistani cabinet.
From that perch Bhatti continued to press for reform, among other things emerging as the country’s most forceful critic of so-called “blasphemy laws” used to criminalize a wide range of speech and behavior seen as “un-Islamic.” He took up the cause of Asia Bibi, an illiterate Catholic farmhand and mother of five from a village in the Punjab sentenced to death under the blasphemy law following a dispute with some village women over access to drinking water.
Bhatti knew full well his positions made him a marked man, even recording a video to be released in the event he was murdered in which he said, “I believe in Jesus Christ who has given his own life for us, and I am ready to die for a cause. I’m living for my community … and I will die to defend their rights.”
He was eventually shot to death while travelling to work through a residential district of Islamabad on March 2, 2011, executed by members of the radical Muslim group Tehrik-i-Taliban, which described Bhatti as a “known blasphemer.”
In effect, his case for a halo ticks all the classic boxes: He’s clearly a martyr, his death came in odium fidei (meaning “hatred of the faith”), and there’s no question about his sincere Catholic piety or virtuous life. As a bonus, his principled defense of freedom for all minority groups shows that the struggle against anti-Christian persecution isn’t a narrow matter of confessional self-interest but part of a broader push for human rights and dignity across the board.
It would be hard, in other words, to think of a more compelling patron for the cause than Shahbaz Bhatti. A formal sainthood cause was launched in March, when the usual five-year waiting period expired, and based on the classic criteria, the conclusion could seem a mere formality.
Yet, there’s politics to think about.
Bhatti, after all, wasn’t just a minority rights advocate, he was a politician. Specifically, he was a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party associated with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and now led by her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. It is today the country’s largest opposition force to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League.
Therein lies the rub, because many observers in Pakistan believe Sharif and his party would take a dim view of the canonization of someone so clearly associated with his rivals, seeing it as a form of interference in domestic politics. Further, it would also likely be taken as inflammatory by militant Islamic groups, and keeping those forces under control is always a national preoccupation.
For precisely those reasons, some bishops and other influential Catholic leaders in Pakistan feel somewhat ambivalent about Bhatti’s cause, worrying that it may have negative political fallout and asking themselves, “What’s the rush?”
From a theological point of view, of course, that’s absolutely right. If Bhatti is a saint, he’s already in Heaven enjoying the company of God, and his status won’t be affected in the least by whether or not the Church issues a formal recognition of it.
Yet in the here-and-now, the roughly 200 million Christians around the world exposed on a daily basis to threat of physical assault, arrest, imprisonment, torture and even death for reasons linked to the faith could badly use a champion, and it’s a fair question whether one country’s domestic political wrangles ought to be allowed to get in the way.