Are canonizations infallible?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

11 Responses

  1. The scope of papal infallibility is defined in Pastor Aeternus. However, the infallibility of the Church and the closely connected question of indefectibility is not touched on. Belief in the infallibility of General Councils and of the infallibilitas in credendo of the faithful (pastors and laity together), sometimes known as the sensus fidelium, necessarily rests on tradition. A Council, after all, could not define the doctrine of the infallibility of General Councils, unless we already believed General Councils to be infallible. That a particular council is ecumenical is, of course, a dogmatic fact, although no part of the Deposit of Faith.

    The liturgical honours paid to the saints certainly pertain to faith (as St Thomas has it). Not only papal canonizations, but a universal (as opposed to a merely local) cultus has been held by many theologians to make their sanctity (that they are in heaven) the object of ecclesiastical faith, resting as it does on the sensus fidelium.

    It is difficult to believe that the Church could err, when she enjoins the faithful in her public liturgies to ask God to hear our prayers “through the merits and intercession” of a particular person.

    As for John XXIII, his legacy could not well be more disastrous than that of St Cyril of Alexandria, who can be personally credited with the rise and progress of both the Nestorian and Monophysite heresies (the latter almost wholly based on his writings) Nevertheless, he has always been venerated in East and West and Leo XIII declared him a doctor of the Church

  2. I’ll bet that the “Worst (or Best) EVER” occurred in another age, when people weren’t so obsessed about the honor.

  3. The latest pope seems to be giving him a run for his money. The latest kerfuffle is over a phone call he made, apparently sanctioning communion for the divorced.

  4. I think though there are several popes throughout whose personal wickedness is perhaps more scandalous. Roncalli doesn’t himself seem to have been heretical, though his actions have certainly encouraged heresy.

  5. One wonders if this is a providential event, occurring a mere three days before the unfortunate canonization was to take place. If the contents of the phone call are confirmed to be as heretical as is claimed, could a movement now begin for his deposition?

  6. (1.) Bonald said: “If the contents of the phone call are confirmed to be as heretical as is claimed, could a movement now begin for his deposition?”

    From your lips to God’s ears, my friend, but I’m afraid its little more than wishful thinking. I mean what member of the hierarchy would actually have the courage to speak out? Indeed, my guess is many of them would buttress the Pope’s words rather than condemn them.

    While like many Traditional Catholics I am concerned over the upcoming canonizations, the Pope’s recent words leave me thinking that the upcoming synod in October will make all of this seem like small potatoes.

    (2.) Speaking of canonizations and providential signs: “An Italian man was crushed to death on Thursday by a giant crucifix dedicated to the late Pope John Paul II, just days before the Polish pontiff will be made a saint in a ceremony at the Vatican.

    In a bizarre coincidence, the 21-year-old man was reported to have been living in a street named after Pope John XXIII…”

    First and foremost, prayers to the young man who died. But this seems a bit *too* coincidental to me…

    (3.) Next up, Paul VI to be beatified in October?:

    Yes that’s right folks, the Council of Trent produced one sainted Pope, but we are now looking at the prospect of Vatican II having produced three (and I’m sure Francis will be short-tracked upon his passing…)

    (4.) This thread over at Suscipe Domine about the infalliability of canonizations may be of interest to readers:

  7. To Bonald and fellow commenters…
    Roberto de Mattei weighs in on this whole rotten situation, in the link below:

    Bonald is not too far off from de Mattei’s thought, at least with some of his propositions.

    I really don’t like the idea of Saints not being saints (as we imagine them to be), but given what’s been going on since VII…my mind is with Mattei, even if my heart is not fully there.
    I can’t remember where I read this (it was long ago), but before the Church took over the cannonization process, wasn’t a dog acclaimed a saint? Not to mention a pagan goddess, whose stories/tales/legends were merged with that of a real life saint? Granted those did take plave before the Church got hold of the saint making process…

  8. Manwe wrote, “a pagan goddess, whose stories/tales/legends were merged with that of a real life saint?”

    Perhaps, you are thinking of Sainte Victoire, whose shrine near Aix-en-Provence is the temple erected to the goddess Victoria by Gaius Marius, following his victory over the Cimbri and Teutones at Aquae Sextiae in 101 BC. All that is known of her is her name and the fact that her original funerary inscription included a palm branch. The same is true of many of the early martyrs. There are no legends about her life, however, there are a great many accounts of apparitions and of miracles attributed to her intercession and she received liturgical honours in both East and West.
    A distorted version of this was circulated by the philosophes, but here is no reason to doubt the judgment of the Church.

  9. Frank the Hippie Pope

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