Deval Patrick, our new governor, said March 16: “When I ran, I said I would make some mistakes. I didn’t run for saint.” Of course, on one level, what he said is perfectly true and unexceptionable. He ran for governor, and the governor has a different job description than sainthood. And, of course, our constitutional system recognizes a certain separation of church and state, and the United States Constitution expressly forbids a religious test for public office (at least at the federal level).
Furthermore, to err is human; and thus we must not expect total perfection in our politicians. And so it happens rather frequently that politicians holding public office, of whatever party, will acknowledge that “mistakes were made,” even if they are usually less than forthcoming in acknowledging personal fault. Indeed, that is why there is something remarkably refreshing, honest and liberating about reciting at every Mass a “mea culpa,” acknowledging that I have personally sinned “through my own fault in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done, and in what I have failed to do.”
But at another level, what he said was misleading. For we Catholics believe that all Christians, of whatever rank or condition (yes, even politicians), are called to holiness. This was the central teaching of Vatican II, which Pope Paul VI called “the most characteristic element of the entire teaching of the council and, as it were, its ultimate purpose.” Everyone, then, is supposed to be running for saint, just as St. Paul wrote at the end of his life: “I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith. I look forward to the prize that is waiting for me, the prize I have earned.” (2 Tim 4:7-8). As Jesus told His followers: “Be perfect, as my heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48).
When in the Great Jubilee Year of 2000 Pope John Paul II made Thomas More “Patron Saint of Statesmen,” he proclaimed him to be a model for politicians:
“His life teaches us that government is above all an exercise of virtue. Unwavering in this rigorous moral stance, this English statesman placed his own public activity at the service of the person, especially if that person was weak or poor; he dealt with social controversies with a superb sense of fairness; he was vigorously committed to favoring and defending the family; he supported the all-round education of the young. His profound detachment from honors and wealth, his serene and joyful humility, his balanced knowledge of human nature and of the vanity of success, his certainty of judgment rooted in faith: these all gave him that confident inner strength that sustained him in adversity and in the face of death. His sanctity shone forth in his martyrdom, but it had been prepared by an entire life of work devoted to God and neighbor.” (Apostolic Letter issued “motu proprio” proclaiming St. Thomas More patron of statesmen and politicians.)
The governor by his comments may imply that making mistakes and becoming a saint are incompatible. If so, I would beg to respectfully disagree. Saints are sinners after all, but sinners who have repented and returned to our Lord (and those they have offended) for forgiveness. That is what the parable of the Prodigal Son is about. The important thing is not avoiding any errors, but forthrightly trying to prevent their repetition through repentance and the cultivation of virtue.
One of the most beautiful and consoling aspects of our faith is this: it’s never too late on this side of the grave to repent, be forgiven, and make a fresh start. St. Augustine had an illegitimate child. Dorothy Day, whose cause of canonization is pending, had an abortion before her conversion. Holiness is always within the reach of everyone thanks to God’s grace, since, as St. Paul says, “This is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess 4:3).
Dwight Duncan is a professor at Southern New England School of Law. He holds degrees in both civil and canon law.