Are Canonizations Based on Papal Infallibility?

A few days previously Catholic Family News published an interview with Italian professor Roberto de Mattei.  The subject of the interview, which one should certainly read before perusing my own thoughts, is on the subject of the upcoming canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II.  In particular, de Mattei discusses his concerns regarding recent canonizations, and challenges the accepted theological consensus on the infallibility of the pope in the proclamation of saints.  Professor de Mattei is an expert on the Christian foundations of Europe, and I myself am grateful for his scholarship defending the Christian roots of Western society. As regards this piece, though, I wanted to offer an alternative perspective.

There is much I agree with in the short interview, which give a summary of the positions held by some thinkers on the traditionalist side of the Church.  As an historian of saints and sainthood, I agree with many of his assessments about the current state of the canonization process.  In particular I too would very much like to slow the process down, and provide greater scope for careful meditation and scholarly analysis.  While I approve of the shift from a simply juridical mechanism to an historical and contextual analysis in the reforms of 1983, I too fear that the transition away from an adversarial process has reduced its thoroughness somewhat.  The professor also raises a concern about the constant impetus to recognize the holiness of recent occupants of the papal office, while so few in the past 700 years have been raised to the honors of the altar.  Such recent pressure raises questions about the motivations of those pursuing the causes.  All of these are valid questions raised by Professor de Mattei.

As an historian of sainthood, my greatest hesitation with the current process stems from the canonizations done by John Paul II himself.  While his laudable intention was to provide models of holiness drawn from all cultures and states in life, he tended to divorce canonization from its original and fundamental purpose.  This was to have an official, public, and formal recognition of an existing cult of the Christian faithful, one that had been confirmed by the divine testimony of miracles.  Cult precedes canonization; it was not meant to be the other way around.  We are in danger then of using canonization as a tool to promote interests and movements, rather than being a recognition and approval of an extant cultus.  It is a similar case with doctrines of faith and morals.  For example, Bl. Pius IX didn’t pull the Immaculate Conception out of the air.  His definition of 1854 was a recognition of the immemorial faith of the Christian people, slowly developed and unfolded by theologians over centuries.

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These things said, it is perhaps understandable where Prof. de Mattei’s criticisms flow from.  The problem is that his critiques draw him away from the very theological tradition that he is attempting to defend.  In the first place he contends that a canonization is a certification of personal holiness, presented by the Church to the faithful.  He disregards out of hand the traditional position that what the Church actually declares is that a person so proclaimed currently enjoys the Beatific Vision.  Personal holiness and valid miracles are merely the preconditions of such a definition.  As St. Thomas says in Quodlibet 9, q. 16 “the honor we pay the saints is in a certain way a profession of faith, i.e., a belief in the glory of the Saints.”  When the Pope solemnly canonizes a saint he certifies that a man or woman is in heaven.  While this definition is certainly rooted in holiness and miracles, such are not the object of the definition.

As a result of his position, de Mattei proposes that when the Church so honors a bishop or pope, they are proclaiming that such an individual was a “perfect pastor” or that their period of ministry was one of unqualified prosperity for the Church.  This is not the case at all.  It is not required for sanctity that one find worldly success, or produce unlimited good spiritual fruit in others.  Holiness in not predicated on such success.  Any number of saints were failures in their tasks, sometimes miserably, and yet they persevered in heroic virtue until the end, which is what makes a saint.  Further there are any number of saintly bishops and popes whose tenure damaged sections of the Church.  St. Peter Celestine was a horrible pope, but he was an exceptionally saintly man.  His papacy was a disaster (he is the Pope of Dante’s “Great Refusal”), yet he was canonized for his sanctity mere decades after his death.  Likewise there were many popes whose papacies were unqualified successes in strengthening the Church of God, who have not received the recognition of canonization, men like Alexander III, Innocent III, and Leo XIII.

Having done this, De Mattei then proceeds to undermine the theological consensus for the infallibility of the Pope in canonization, an opinion so common since Thomas and Bonaventure as to constitute unanimity.  In his classic study, Die Unfehlbarkeit des Papstes in der Heiligsprechung, Max Schenk traces this unanimity through 1965, a period it would seem that de Mattei would respect.  Between the late 1300s and the 1600s, there are only four thinkers who dissented from the teaching.  After Pope Benedict XIV’s (r. 1740-1758) definitive 7-volume work on canonization, there was total unanimity.  While de Mattei is correct that Benedict XIV taught as a private theologian on the matter, nonetheless he is the greatest authority in history on the subject (indeed one could even call him the “Thomas Aquinas” of canonization).  His opinion obtained universally.

Further the careful investigation of candidates and the assertion of infallibility prevailed for nearly a half-a-millennium before Benedict XIV, having its origins in the early 1200s.  The principles laid down in the medieval practice of canonization laid the foundation for the doctrine of personal infallibility of the Pope (as I argue in an upcoming book from Cornell University Press).  The language used, for example, in the dogmatic decree Unam Sanctam of Boniface VIII (1302), in Benedictus Deus of Benedict XII (1336), or Ineffabilis Deus of Pius IX (1854) are drawn from the canonization bulls of the late 12th and early 13th centuries.  Canonizations, one could say, are the places where theologians first discerned the personal infallibility of the Roman pontiff.

It is the act of canonization that is the infallible act of the pope since, as Thomas argues, it is no mere disciplinary decision, but the quasi-profession of faith in the glory of a saint.  It is not the investigation, but the inspiration of the Holy Ghost that certifies this reality for us (Quod. 9, q. 16, ad 1).  Popes are not infallible because of the quality of investigations that precede the definition, they are infallible precisely because of the act they perform in the liturgical setting of canonization. De Mattei is misinterpreting Thomas here (as the liberal historian Brian Tierney tried to do in the 1970s), first by attributing infallibility to the Church alone and also not to the Pope himself, but also by admitting the possibility of exceptions.

If infallible acts admitted of exceptions, then how would the Christian faithful know if any dogmatic declaration were true?  We know that Francis and Dominic are in heaven, because this fact is dogmatically asserted by the Church in the infallible act of canonization. Thomas again provides the reasoning: (Quod 9, q. 16, contra 1) “In the church there is not able to be a damnable error.  But it would be a damnable error if she would venerate a saint who was a sinner, because anyone knowing their sin, might believe the church to be false; and if this were to happen, they might be led into error.  Therefore the church is not able to err in such things.”  By the year 1300 it was clear to everyone that to deny the sanctity of a canonized saint in the Church was a heresy.  While it is true that opposition to this or that saint is possible and open to debate before a formal canonization, after such an act, doubt is precluded and must be received with religious submission of intellect and will.

Since the early 1300s the Popes themselves have understood their act of canonization as infallible.  Some, such as Sixtus IV, Sixtus V, and Clement VIII have explicitly cited this infallibility in the contexts of their own acts of canonization.  One cannot dismiss this theological consensus simply because procedures develop and emphases shift.  On April 27, in a liturgical formula fixed since the canonizations of John XXII in the early 1300s (and very probably before, those are our first records) three petitions will be made.  The first will beseech the aid of Mary and the saints in the “solemn act we undertake.”  The second will invoke the Holy Spirit “that he might not permit the Church to err in a matter of such importance.  Then the Veni Creator will be sung (as before any solemn definition, papal or conciliar).  The third will beg the Pope to enroll the saints, in the name of the Spirit “who in every age preserves the supreme magisterium from every error.”  The pope will then utter the ancient words of canonization, the prototype for all dogmatic definitions:

To the honor of the Holy Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith, and for the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and Our own, after due deliberation and having implored the Divine Assistance by prayer, and by the counsel of many of our brothers, we declare and define Blessed John XXIII and John Paul II to be saints, and we enroll them in the catalog of the saints, commanding that they be held among the saints by the universal Church, and to be invoked as such by pious devotion. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

This is not unclear language; in act and in intention the Popes define these things to be held by all the faithful.  We cannot simply discount nearly a 1000 years of theological development in this case, particularly to suit one’s own discomfiture with certain recent happenings.  For to be Catholic is to stubbornly maintain, as St. Thomas did, that in the Church there can never be a “damnable error.”


  • Donald S. Prudlo

    Donald S. Prudlo is Chair and Warren Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Tulsa. His specialty is saints and sainthood in the Christian tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).

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