I’m going to dare to disagree with more knowledgeable Catholics and say “no”, although my mind isn’t really made up, and I could easily be persuaded otherwise. My reasons are similar to those of Professor de Mattei:
The judgment of canonization is not infallible in itself, because it lacks the conditions for infallibility, starting from the fact the canonization does not have as its direct or explicit aim, a truth of the Faith or morals contained in Revelation, but only a fact indirectly connected with dogma, without being properly-speaking a “dogmatic fact.” The field of faith and morals is broad, because it contains all of Christian doctrine, speculative and practical, human belief and action, but a distinction is necessary. A dogmatic definition can never involve the definition of a new doctrine in the field of faith and morals. The Pope can only make explicit that which is implicit in faith and morals, and is handed down by the Tradition of the Church. That which the Popes define must be contained in the Scriptures and in Tradition, and it is this which assures the infallibility of the act. That is certainly not the case for canonizations. It is not an accident that the doctrine of canonizations is not contained in the Codes of Canon Law of 1917 and of 1983, nor the Catechisms of the Catholic Church, old and new.
What most traditional Catholics are saying about the appalling decision to canonize John XXIII, the worst pope in the papacy’s history, is that it means no endorsement of any of his actions. It only means that he repented his sins before dying and is now in heaven. Of course, I hope that it is true that Roncalli is in heaven now. However, that the Church is privy to this information, in spite of a tenure as pope marked above all else by sinful acts to recklessness and negligence, is problematic.
De Mattei gives the theological argument. Catholicism is quite clear that the deposit of revelation is fixed; the only role of papal infallibility is to facilitate the extraction of truths in sacred Tradition from the implicit to the explicit level. One can sensibly say that the Immaculate Conception of Mary was implicit in the faith of the Apostles; to say that the private end-of-life holiness of John XXIII is implicit in the faith of the Apostles (or of anybody before JXXIII’s death) would be silly.
If canonizations are not infallible, then given the historical record it is likely that some of the Church’s recognitions of sanctity are inaccurate, that the person thus venerated is in hell or purgatory or perhaps is entirely fictional. Avoiding this conclusion seems to be the main reason for regarding canonizations as infallible. Surely God would not allow His Church to be so mocked, or for trusting souls to venerate and ask intervention from someone who is not a real saint. How can it not be a terrible blow to the Church’s credibility if the men and women she holds up to us as saints are not certainly so?
One possible resolution would be to say that what the Church judges is not the actual person, but that person’s story as we have received it. For example, we cannot really know that John XXIII was a holy but spectacularly stupid man who never intended any of the harm he did and left this Earth in a state of humble charity and devotion. However, this is the accepted story about the man, and the Church could make a judgement that “Yes, a man who lived, or at least died, as the story of this man tells would be a saint indeed.” This would be a proper explication of the Church’s Tradition, and a useful one too, for what could be more useful to the faithful than exemplars of the particular forms a life (or at least death) ordered by charity might take?
One big objection to this resolution is that it would suggest that the Church would be better off restricting herself to canonizing explicitly fictional characters like Jean Valjean. Surely that would make a farce of the whole thing. Against this objection I would say that an explicitly fictional character would be too much the creation of a single mind to be an outworking of Tradition. The lives of real people as remembered in folklore and even the development of invented folkloric characters by a long organic process have the quality that they are not the invention of a single human mind of merely human imagination and intent. They are “bigger” than this, giving them something of the supra-rational symbolic power I have recently been discussing as a key to the Church’s doctrines and practice.
There’s still the objection that unless canonizations are infallible, good people have been allowed to pray to false saints. It is, of course, possible for God to answer the prayers of these people himself without any participation by an interceding saint, so that pious Christians don’t suffer for these honest mistakes. However, I agree that this is a very unpalatable resolution, because it means God leaving not just righteous gentiles but righteous members of His own true Church in a state of partial illusion, albeit not in a matter of fundamental faith or morals.
So these would seem to be the only two possibilities:
- What is infallible about canonizations is only the fact that the person in question is in heaven, not whether they were particularly saintly prior to their deathbed holiness.
- What is infallible about canonizations is only the Church’s understanding of sanctity and heroic virtue, not whether the person in question really manifested these qualities or even existed.
Fortunately, both protect the Church from theological consequences to any embarrassing revelations that might arise regarding a recognized saint. On the other hand, both would probably be pretty shocking to most of the devout Catholics in the pews. In the future, the Church should try harder not to make us think about these sorts of things.
Filed under: Catholic doctrine | 10 Comments »