Earlier this week, the House of Representatives voted to approve a resolution, H. Res. 786 giving official congressional recognition to the canonization of Joseph de Veuster, also known as Father Damien, as a saint. By all accounts that I’ve seen, Joseph de Veuster was a person with a special degree of dedicated compassion. He worked with people infected with leprosy (also known as Hansen’s disease) quarantined on the island of Molokai in Hawaii, going far beyond the few months duty that was routine for volunteers. Veuster’s work there ended only when he was infected with leprosy himself, and died as a result.
It is entirely appropriate for the U.S. Congress to pass a resolution celebrating this act of compassion, even though such a resolution doesn’t do much to actually make people’s lives better in the here and now. The second active clause of the congressional resolution as it was introduced by Representative Mazie Hirono accomplished this task, stating that the House of Representatives “honors and praises Father Damien for his legacy, work, service, and his insistence on recognizing the human rights and dignity of every individual, particularly those who lived alongside him at the Hansen’s disease settlement on the island of Molokai.”
The other active clause went further, however, declaring that the House of Representatives “recognizes the canonization of Father Damien to sainthood”. A formal government recognition of the canonization of a person to sainthood isn’t just another form of praise. It’s a statement of religious belief by the United States Congress.
Canonization to sainthood includes recognition of supernatural miracles, performed by a dead person, as fact. It is, further, a declaration that Joseph de Veuster has attained a certain theological status superior to other people, and is in a special form of contact with God, in heaven, that is denied to most human beings after death. Fundamentally, the congressional resolution would have recognized that the Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs about sainthood are correct, and an accepted part of government policy.
Should Congress start declaring which dead Roman Catholics have become saints, and which ones have not? Politically, it’s unwise to do so, as our national legislature would get wrapped up in political battles interior to the Roman Catholic Church having to deal with differences of belief about personal preferences of faith. Legally, it’s unconstitutional, as the first clause of the First Amendment declares that Congress cannot pass legislation that regards any establishment of religion. Official government recognition that some dead people, and not others, are in a special heavenly audience with the Christian God.
The House of Representatives did pass H. Res. 786. Luckily, the House had the sense to amendment original resolution, altering it to contain only one active clause, reading, “That the House of Representatives honors and praises Father Damien for his legacy, work, service, and his insistence on recognizing the human rights and dignity of every individual, particularly those who lived alongside him at the Hansen’s disease settlement on the island of Molokai.” The resolution as passed observes that the Roman Catholic Church has canonized Joseph de Veuster, without stating that the U.S. government recognizes that supernatural status.
This alteration to H. Res. 786 reflects the way that Congress, and the federal government in general, ought to deal with religion. Our government can recognize the commemorate the work of exceptional people without having to embrace or reject those individuals’ particular ideas about religion. Beliefs about religion are a private matter, not something that the government should meddle with.