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Why are modern popes becoming saints?

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

This Sunday, Popes John XXIII and John Paul II are expected to be made saints at the Vatican. This may seem normal—surely most former popes are canonized, right? In fact, as a post on the Yale University Press blog notes, for much of the Catholic Church’s history it was extremely rare. Only recently has the track to sainthood turned into almost a guaranteed honor—and that shift, it suggests, is driven by something important about how the Catholic Church’s place in the world has changed over time.

Michael Coogan, a lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and author of a new book, “The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text,” observes that from the beginning of the 14th century to the mid-20th, only two popes were canonized. Now, he writes, “Remarkably, all of the popes since the mid-twentieth century, except of course those still alive, are on the path to canonization.” (John Paul II and John XXIII are the first two of those to be made saints; Pius X, who died in 1914, has also been sainted.)

Coogan argues the Church has turned to canonization as a way to elevate a diminished office. For centuries of Catholic history, popes were monarchs as well as spiritual leaders—they commanded armies, controlled huge swaths of land, and didn’t need any spiritual augmentation to establish their power. But by the end of the 19th century, the Catholic empire had been whittled down to just tiny Vatican City, and popes had lost most of their political power.

What they replaced it with was absolute spiritual authority. In 1870 Pope Pius IX introduced the doctrine of papal infallibility, and not long afterward popes began regularly to set their recent predecessors on the road to sainthood. In a time when the Vatican feels embattled by modern secular culture and its own well-publicized scandals, Coogan has a pointed take on how we should see this trend: “The Vatican is locked in a time warp of absolute monarchical authority,” he writes, “and popes canonizing their predecessors is an attempt to preserve and enhance it.”


A crystal-clear case of forgery

In the running battle between counterfeiters and security experts, researchers at MIT may have gained a decisive edge for the law-abiding side. Their technique? Nanoparticles that come in a mind-boggling range of customizable colors, can be embedded invisibly just about anywhere, and can be authenticated using nothing more than an accessorized smartphone.

The technique, detailed in the April 13 issue of Nature Materials, relies on a special type of microparticle—about the width of a human hair—made up of different nanocrystals, which can be dyed using rare elements like ytterbium, gadolinium, erbium, and thulium, and applied to any number of commonly counterfeited products. The “dye” color can be very precisely tuned, and the colored crystals themselves are invisible until placed under a microscope-style reader attached to a smartphone. If the correct set of colors shows up on your smartphone screen, you know you’re looking at a genuine Gucci bag, or $100 bill, or blister-packaged drug. This technique surely won’t end the counterfeiting wars, but it does draw a new line in the sand: All right, you forging fiends, let’s see you get this granular.


Jiseok Lee

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at kshartnett18@gmail.com.