Beatification and canonization since Vatican II: 2

Part I: The traditional principles

In order to proceed with order, we shall begin this part by defining beatification and canonization before demonstrating that canonization is infallible as such, leaving aside the circumstances that have arisen with the aggiornamento of Vatican II.

1. Some Definitions

(a) Beatification
Beatification is an act by which the Sovereign Pontiff grants permission to render public honor to the beatified in certain parts of the Church until canonization. This act is therefore not a precept; it is a temporary, not definitive, act; it is reformable. Beatification amounts to authorization of public veneration. The act of beatification does not directly assert either the glorification or the heroic virtues of the servant of God.[4]

(b) Canonization
Canonization is the act by which the Vicar of Christ in an irreformable judgment inscribes a previously beatified servant of God in the catalogue of saints. The object of canonization is threefold, for this act does not involve the cultus only.

Firstly, the pope declares that the faithful departed is in the glory of heaven; secondly, he declares that the faithful departed merited to reach this glory by the exercise of heroic virtues which serve as an example for the whole Church; thirdly, in order to better set these virtues as an example and to thank God for having made them possible, he prescribes that public veneration be rendered to the faithful departed.

Regarding these three points:

  1. canonization is a precept;
  2. it obliges the whole Church;
  3. it constitutes a definitive and irreformable act.

The catalogue of saints is not the Martyrology; and, moreover, the expression “inscribe in the catalogue of saints” does not refer to a physical document, but it merely evokes the intention of the Church, which by the act of canonization henceforth counts among the number of saints the newly canonized person and commands all the faithful to venerate him as such.

The act of canonization declares definitively the sanctity of the canonized person as well as his glorification, and consequently it prescribes the cultus for the whole Church. (It is another thing to prescribe the celebration of a Mass and recitation of an office in honor of the saint: this is a determination that requires a supplementary act, specific and distinct from canonization.)

The enrollment of a person in the Martyrology does not signify the infallible canonization of the individual. The Martyrology is the list that includes not only all the canonized saints, but also the servants of God that could have been beatified, either by the Sovereign Pontiff or by the bishops before the 12th century, the date at which the pope reserved to himself the privilege of conducting beatifications and canonizations. The titles of “sanctus” and “beatus” do not have in the Martyrology a precise meaning which would enable us to distinguish between canonized saints and blesseds.

(c) Similarities and Differences
Beatification and canonization both have as object to make possible the cultus of one of the faithful departed, which supposes that during his lifetime this person exercised exemplary virtues and attained glory.

The difference is that beatification only makes the cultus possible (it is a permission), while canonization renders the cultus obligatory (it is a precept) and imposes on the faithful the duty to believe explicitly in the reality of the glory and the heroic virtues of the saint.

In all of that, the essential is the exemplary (or heroic) virtue of the faithful departed, and this is what one seeks to verify in the two inquiries, that of the beatification and that of the canonization. In effect, the cultus presupposes this virtue as the effect presupposes its cause. The miracles of themselves are only taken into account as signs that attest the heroic virtue. Without heroic virtue, there can be no sanctity and no veneration.

(d) Consequences
There is a difference between a saint and a canonized saint. Canonization does not cause, but indicates a person’s holiness, and it indicates it as a model. This explains why neither all nor many people are canonized. Good example, to make an impression, must be unique or rare. Inflating the number of saints reduces their value as models.[5]

Indeed, even if saints were numerous, only a small number of them and not the majority should be elevated to the honor of the altars. Then again, the Church has always given the examples of which the faithful are in need in their particular era. In this sense, canonization is a political act in the best sense of the term: not an act of partisan demagoguery, but an act that procures the common good of the whole Church, an act benefitting the commonweal, an act that takes into account present circumstances.

St. Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920, more than 500 years after her death; St. Therese of the Child Jesus was canonized in 1925, less than 30 years after her death. These two examples were beneficial to the Church, but the first would have been hard to comprehend had it occurred earlier, or too soon, before the passage of time had blurred the context and the aftermath of a century-long conflict…

There is another difference to be noted, the one between salvation and sanctity. A person who dies in the odor of sanctity is saved, but one can be saved without having lived like a saint. In the eyes of the faithful, the chief purpose and immediate effect of canonization is to point out (to set as an example) holiness of life. Even if they have been saved and gone to heaven, one is not going to canonize people who have not given the example of holiness during their lifetime.

2. Infallibility

The question of infallibility is twofold.

  • First, is the sovereign pontiffTs judgment infallible when he canonizes a saint (2.1)?
  • Then, is it of faith that this judgment is infallible, such that denying it would be heretical (2.2)?

Each of these questions could be answered preliminarily following the indications given by Pope Sixtus V (1585-90) during the final consistory that preceded the canonization of St. Didacus in 1588:

Basing his arguments upon Holy Scripture, theological reasoning, and all manner of proofs, the pope demonstrated that the Roman Pontiff, the true successor of St. Peter and prince of the Apostles for whom Christ prayed, asking that his faith fail not, who is the veritable head of the Church, foundation and column of truth directed and led by the Holy Ghost, cannot be mistaken nor induce into error when he canonizes saints. And he affirmed that this truth must be believed not only as a pious belief, but as the object of a very certain and necessary act of faith; and to establish this point he adduced all the weighty arguments of reason and divine authority. To which he added also, something quite obvious, that the laws of the Church and of the pope are certain and guaranteed whenever they concern the discipline of faith and morals and rest upon sure principles and solid foundations."[6]

Nevertheless, these words of the pope proceed from him in his capacity as a private doctor. That is why this twofold question must be examined in greater detail and take into consideration the hypotheses of different theologians.

2.1. Canonization is infallible

The infallibility of canonizations is today held to be a common and certain doctrine by the majority of theologians.[7] All the manuals after Vatican I (and before Vatican II), from Billot to Salaverri, teach it as a common thesis in theology.[8]

The chief representative of the adversaries of the infallibility of canonizations is Cajetan (1469-1534) in the eighth chapter of his treatise on indulgences. According to him, the infallibility of a canonization is neither necessary nor possible.[9]

This opinion had already been defended before Cajetan by Agostino Trionfo, or Augustine of Ancona, (1243-1328) in his Summa on the Power of the Church. His fundamental reasoning is identical to that of Cajetan. It consists in saying that, since it is impossible to directly judge the internal forum of consciences, the Church cannot infallibly discern a person’s sanctity.

Since Vatican II, some conciliar theologians have adopted this anti-infallibilist position. Some of them have alleged difficulties of an historical nature to call in question the infallibility of canonizations.[10]

The opinion defended by Augustine of Ancona and Cajetan was recently reprised by Fr. Daniel Ols, O.P., professor at the Pontifical University of the Angelicum and a relator for the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in a study on the theological basis for the cultus of saints.[11]

Lastly, Msgr. Brunero Gherardini in an article published in Divinitas drew up an assessment of the controversy over this subject.[12] This study revived the issue insofar as it takes into account the various reactions prompted by the recent canonizations by John Paul II.[13] The end of the article presents a series of objections contrary to infallibility.

Following St. Thomas,[14] the great majority of canonists[15] and theologians[16] defend the thesis of the infallibility of canonizations.

Let us remark that the proposed question is very precise: St. Thomas does not ask if the pope is infallible when he canonizes a saint. The focus of his questioning is to know whether all the saints who have been canonized by the Church are in glory or if some of them may be in hell. This way of asking the question already affects the answer.

For St. Thomas, canonization calls for infallibility not in the first place as discipli­nary law, but as the profession of a truth that is virtually revealed. This does not exclude the other two aspects: the example of the saint’s life and the prescribed cultus.

But there is an order among the three judgments the pope makes when he canonizes a saint.

  • The first judgment bears upon a theoretical fact and states that a deceased person persevered to the end in the heroic exercise of supernatural virtue and is at present glorified in eternal beatitude.
  • The second judgment gives the heroic virtues practiced during the canonized person’s lifetime to the whole Church as a model to imitate.
  • The third judgment is a precept that imposes public veneration of the saint on the whole Church.

Canonization gives the heroic virtues of the saint as a model and makes his cultus obligatory. But it assumes the fact of the saint’s glorification. Benedict XIV, who quotes and adopts these reflections of St. Thomas, considers that, in the last analysis, the judgment of canonization rests upon a statement of a speculative truth deduced from revelation.[17]

It remains to prove that this threefold judgment is infallible. To do so, we do not have at our disposition any argument of the supreme teaching authority, for the infallibility of canonizations has not been defined as a dogma.

St. Thomas limits himself to giving what would be the equivalent of an argument from authority: a reductio ad absurdum, which is, if you will, the authority of the first principles of reason and of logic. There are two reductions: denial of the infallibility of canonization would incur an unlikely, twofold detriment, one in the practical order, and the other in the speculative order.

The first reductio ad absurdum on the practical level: if canonization were not infallible, it might happen that the faithful would venerate a sinner as a saint; those who had known him in his lifetime would be led to believe on the Church’s authority that his sinful state was not in reality what it was; but that would result in confounding virtue and vice in the minds of the faithful, and this would be an error deleterious to the Church.

The second reductio ad absurdum is on the theoretical level: St. Augustine says that if there were an error in the teaching of divine revelation consigned to the Scriptures, faith would be deprived of its foundation; but just as our faith is based on the teachings of Sacred Scripture, it is also based on the teaching of the universal Church; hence, if an error were found in the teachings of the universal Church, our faith would likewise be deprived of its foundation; now God cannot deprive the faith of its foundation; hence, like the teaching of Sacred Scripture, the teachings of the universal Church, including canonization, must be infallible.

Dominic Bannez completes this argument by specifying that if one affirms the possibility of error in the canonization of saints, the Church Militant would be scandalized in its morals, its profession of faith would be made suspect, and the Church Militant in heaven would be insulted.

To corroborate these defensive arguments, St. Thomas then uses an argument of theological reason.

The judgment of canonization is a judgment of the pope in a matter that implies a certain profession of faith, since to venerate a saint and imitate his virtues is to say implicitly that one believes he has attained the glory of heaven. Now, in these matters that touch upon the profession of faith, the pope’s judgment is infallible because of God’s promise. The judgment of canonization is hence infallible.

It is at this point useful to turn to clarifications given by John of St. Thomas in order to understand why the divine assistance is here required in particular.

The judgment of canonization can be understood as a conclusion resulting from two premises.

  • The first is a formally revealed conditional: whoever perseveres to the end in the heroic exercise of supernatural virtues obtains an eternal recompense in glory.
  • The second is a probable fact attested by human testimony: such a one of the faithful did persevere to the end in the heroic exercise of the supernatural virtues.

The conclusion that flows from these two premises is thus obtained by means of testimony, and that is why it does not flow from a real, absolutely compelling, scientific demonstration.

The judgment of canonization involves a line of argument which the classical logicians would have considered as probable. We find there what must normally be proved in every theological reasoning, since the proposition stated in the conclusion in this case is linked, albeit indirectly, to a truth of faith.[18]

This link is only indirect, for between the truth formally revealed and the conclusion intervenes the mediation of a truth the certitude of which is not that of faith. Though only indirect, the link exists, and the conclusion is rooted despite everything in a formal and explicit profession of faith.

The difference that leads one to say that this argument is only probable is that, to establish a theological conclusion, one reasons from an evident and certain proposition of reason, whereas to establish the judgment of a canonization one reasons from testimonies. That is why divine assistance is necessary, precisely at the level of the discernment of the testimonies: infallibility cannot accompany an act in which one appeals to contingency and of which the certitude remains only probable.

One could object that if canonization is considered as infallible, it is placed on the same level as solemn, ex cathedra definitions, which seems inconceivable. Benedict XIV answers, with all of the most assured theological tradition,[19] that such assimilation is, on the contrary, in the order of things.

Certainly, one cannot univocally reduce canonization to an infallible dogmatic definition; but one may nonetheless consider that the act of the infallible solemn magisterium happens in analogically various ways. An act of the pope having as its end the conservation of the common good of the entire Church is an act of infallible definition.

Now, the pope conserves the common good of the whole Church not only when he acts strictly as supreme Doctor in teaching, but also when he acts more broadly as supreme Pastor in governing. The teaching of the doctor does not exhaust all the activity of the pastor. And it is incumbent on the pastor to make the laws that provide for the common good of the whole Church; as such these laws do not express formally revealed truth; but insofar as they are given for the good of the unity of faith, these are analogues of an infallible definition.[20]

Let us add one additional reason to justify this analogy: we have shown above, based upon St. Thomas and his commentators, that if canonization is in consequence a model and a law, it is also formally and foremost a mediate profession of faith. One could already rightly assimilate it to a definition.

Canonization could be reduced to the exercise of the infallible and personal solemn magisterium of the sovereign pontiff as its secondary object. Among other authors, Fr. Salaverri cites several examples in which one sees that the terms employed by Popes Pius XI and Pius XII express without the least doubt their explicit intention to exercise a solemn, infallible act.[21]

Archbishop Lefebvre would often say that Pope St. Pius V had “canonized the rite of Mass”: he meant thereby to signify the infallibility of liturgical laws by analogy with that of canonizations; and he thus supposed the latter as very probably equivalent to a personal act of the pope’s solemn magisterium.

2.2 The doctrinal value of this infallibility

Benedict XIV shows that the theologians are not unanimous when it comes to pronouncing on the doctrinal value of the infallibility of canonizations.

Some think this infallibility is not a defined dogma of faith: among these are the Dominicans John of St. Thomas and Dominic Bannez, the Jesuit Francis Suarez and the Carmelites of Salamanca.

Others think this conclusion is equivalent to a dogma of faith. Let us remark that the question is twofold: two aspects of the doctrinal value of the infallibility of canonization can be discerned.

  • There is the value of the faithful’s assent called for by the theoretical fact on which the judgment of canonization bears: is it of defined faith that a canonized saint is indubitably in the glory of heaven?
  • There is also the value of the infallibility of the act of canonization: is it of defined faith that the pope cannot be mistaken when he proceeds to an act of canonization? The authors (Benedict XIV, John of St. Thomas, and Bannez) are interested in both aspects, but give priority to the first.

Is it of defined faith that a canonized saint is indubitably in the glory of heaven? The most common thesis in theology is that in which one demonstrates that the glorification of a canonized saint can be infallibly defined not as of faith, that is to say as formally revealed, but as virtually revealed.

Denial of this truth does not entail the note of heresy because it is not a formally revealed truth and because its negation would only indirectly be detrimental to faith. If this virtually revealed truth is the object of an infallible definition in the context of an act of canonization, it will be defined, not as of divine and catholic faith, but as certain or of catholic faith; its denial would thus be erroneous or false; and according to John of St. Thomas, it would also be scandalous for the whole Church, for one would induce the faithful to sin by giving them a damned person for a model; impious, for it would go against the worship due to God; insulting, for it would go against the honor due to the canonized saint.

Is it of defined faith that the pope cannot be mistaken when he canonizes a saint? Benedict XIV affirms that the infallibility of the act of canonization is not yet defined as of faith but that it could be. In favor of this eventuality, one might consider that the Council of Trent teaches in its decrees that cultus must be rendered to the canonized,[22] and that their relics are to be venerated.[23]

In the Bulls of canonization the sovereign pontiffs pronounce an anathema against those who would call in doubt their declaration.

John of St. Thomas thinks that denying the infallibility of an act of canonization merits the censure “sapiens haeresim et proximum errori in fide,” for it would amount to calling in question the ecclesiastical power and good government of the society of the Church, and to denying the infallibility of the universal laws which have as their end the safeguard of faith and morals.

Benedict XIV affirms that denial of this infallibility would warrant, if not the note of heresy, at least that of temerity; this negation would imply an insult to the saints and scandal for the Church. It would merit the gravest sanctions.

Part III: The difficulties raising from the Council>


4 Billot, L’Eglise, No. 600, n. 152, p. 206.

5 “John Paul II carried out more canonizations than did all the popes of the 20th century. But so doing, the dignity of canonization has been diminished. If canonizations are numerous, they cannot be, we do not say invalid, but highly esteemed, nor can they be the object of veneration of the universal Church. If canonizations abound, their value diminishes” (Romano Amerio, Stat Veritas [Italian], Glose 39 on §37 of the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millenio Adveniente, p. 117).

6 Quoted by Benedict XIV, On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints, Bk. I, Ch. 43, No. 2.

7 Billot, L’Eglise, No. 601, pp. 208-9; Arnaldo Xavier da Silveira, “Appendix: Laws and Infallibility,” La nouvelle messe de Paul VI: Qu’en penser? (DPF, 1975), p. 164.

8 Salaverri in his De Ecclesia, Thesis 17, §726, affirms that it is a theologically certain truth, if not implicitly defined.

9 Cajetan, “Treatise 15 on Indulgences,” Chapter VIII in Opuscula Omnia (Hildesheim: Georg Olms Verlag, 1995), p. 96.

10 For example, the Benedictine De Vooght cites the famous case of St. John Nepomucene [about whom some historical controversy exists] to conclude: “I believe that we can draw from the story of John of Pomuk the conclusion that the pope is not infallible in the canonization of saints” (“The Real Dimensions of Papal Infallibility,” Infallibility: Its Philosophical and Theological Aspects, Acts of the Colloquium of the International Center for Humanist Studies and of the Institute for Philosophical Studies, Rome, February 5-12, 1970, pp. 145-49).

11 Daniel Ols, O.P., “Fondamenti teologici del culto dei Santi,” AA. Vv. Dello Studium Congregationis de causis sanctorum, pars theologica (Rome, 2002), pp. 1-54. Hypothesizing an error on the part of the Church in the canonization of a non-existent or even a damned person, Fr. Ols affirms that this would not present any drawbacks for the faith. Since infallibility is necessary only if the error would be harmful to faith, canonizations do not require it. In effect, there is a disadvantage for the faith if the Church’s error in a canonization were to induce the faithful to a practical profession of either heresy or immorality; but this condition does not occur since the practice of the faithful influenced by a canonization prescinds from the existence and the glorification of the canonized saint: in case of error, the personal conviction of the faithful would be a sufficient basis for their devotion.

12 Msgr. Prof. Brunero Gherardini, Canonizzazione ed infallibilita, Divinitas, Second Semester, 2003, pp. 196-221.

13 These positions, more or less recent, are presented in ibid., §6, pp. 211-14.

14 Quodlibet 9, Article 16.

15 Cited by Benedict XIV, On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints, Bk. I, Ch. 43, No. 5. Billot, L'Eglise, No. 601, n. 157, pp. 208-9.

16 Let us cite in particular: Dominic Bannez (On II-II, Q. 1, Art. 10, dubium 7, 2nd conclusion); John of St. Thomas (On II-II, Q. 1, disputatio 9, art. 2), Melchior Cano (De Locis Theologicis, Bk. V, Ch. V, Q. 5, Art. 3, 3rd conclusion, §44).

17 Benedict XIV, On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints, Bk. 1, Ch. 43, No. 12; Billot, L'Eglise, No. 600, p. 207.

18 John of St. Thomas, ibid., No. 11: “quasi reductive pertinet ad fidem.” Cardinal Billot, L'Eglise, No. 601, pp. 208-9:

Some have thought that St. Thomas was not certain of the infallibility of the Church in the canonization of saints, given that he says in the quodlibetal question No. 9, Q. 5, Art. 16: ‘One must believe piously that the judgment of the Church is infallible in these matters.’ Firstly, we answer that, even if St. Thomas had remained undecided on this point, our conclusion would lose nothing of its certitude. In effect, it would not be something unheard of in the Church, and it has even often been seen that a doctrine at first considered as probable or more probable subsequently became absolutely certain once the question had been clarified, and even before the Church solemnly defined it. Secondly, we answer that the Angelic Doctor never hesitated on this point, for he says not ‘one may piously believe’ but ‘one must believe piously,’ and unequivocally refutes all the arguments invoked in support of the negative. As for the argument invoked in favor of the affirmative, if he does not refute it, it is that he considers it as conclusive, as does usage."

19 Ibid., Ch. 44, No. 4.

20 In the study cited above, Fr. Ols examines the classic formula used in the solemn proclamation of canonization: “Decernimus” or “Definimus.” By having recourse to expressions of this kind, he says, and contrary to what happens in the framework of dogmatic definitions, the popes never say that they are proposing a truth to be believed or that they are propounding it while requiring assent of some sort. The author concludes from this that the solemn formula of canonization expresses nothing infallible. Certainly, the formula of canonization expresses something other than a dogmatic definition, and that is why this expression is only analogous to the dogmatic definitions that express formally revealed truths. But this does not prove that only the latter express an infallible judgment or that only the latter are defining.

21 De Ecclesia, Thesis 17, §725-726:

'Infallibilem Nos, uti catholicae Ecclesiae supremus Magister sententiam in haec verba protulimus'; 'Nos ex Cathedra divini Petri uti supremus universalis Christi Ecclesiae Magister infallibilem hisce verbis sententiam solemniter pronuntiavimus' (Pius XI); 'Nos universalis catholicae Ecclesiae Magister ex Cathedra una super Petrum Domini voce fundata falli nesciam hanc sententiam solemniter hisce pronuntiavimus verbis'; 'Nos in Cathedra sedentes, inerranti Petri magisterio fungentes solemniter pronuntiavimus'." (Pius XII)

In consideration of which, Salaverri thinks the infallibility of canonizations is implicitly defined by Pius XII and Pius XII. See also Billot, L'Eglise, II, No. 601, 209.

Denzinger 1821:

Those who deny that one ought to invoke the saints who enjoy eternal happiness in heaven; or those who assert that these do not pray for men or that to call upon them to pray for each of us is an idolatry, or that this is in opposition to the Word of God and contrary to the honor of Jesus Christ, sole mediator between God and men; or that it is stupid to supplicate vocally or mentally those who reign in heaven: all those think impiously." [our translation]

Benedict XIV states that this text equals an infallible definition.

23 Ibid., DS 1822:

Also, those who assert that neither honor nor veneration should be given to the relics of saints, or that it is futile for the faithful to honor them, as well as other sacred mementos, and that it is futile to visit the places of their martyrdom in order to gain their support, must be wholly condemned, as the Church has previously condemned them and condemns them still today." [our translation]