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
Bhatti said he was grabbed and beaten, even tortured, on several
occasions to try to compel him to renounce his activism, but he
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
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
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
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
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