Beatification and canonization since Vatican II: 3

Part II; The difficulties resulting from the Council

In point of fact, the difficulty has arisen undeniably so far over one canonization, that of Jose Maria Escriva de Balaguer (1902-1975), beatified on May 17, 1992, and canonized on October 6, 2002, by Pope John Paul II.

There are also two surprising beatifications (John XXIII’s and Mother Teresa’s), but since beatifications are not infallible, the problem has not thus far had the same urgency. This is no longer so since the official announcement of the imminent beatification of John Paul II, for this will palpably legitimate this pontiffIs work, which was the implementation of the Second Vatican Council, principally as regards the two crucial principles of religious freedom and ecumenism.

Then again, if it is true that a beatification is a transitory act which calls for canonization as its normal consummation, we may fear that, because of the stakes, John Paul II’s cause will not stop mid way. In this matter as elsewhere, the perplexity of Catholics is indeed justified.

Without pretending to get to the bottom of the business (which is reserved to God), one may at least raise three major difficulties which suffice to make the cogency of these new beatifications and canonizations questionable.

The first two cast doubt on the infallibility and unerringness of these acts. The third calls in question their very definition.

The first difficulty: 
inadequacy of procedure

The guarantee of infallibility does not dispense its holders from due diligence.

The divine assistance that causes the infallibility of dogmatic definitions works providentially. Far from dispensing the pope from having to examine carefully the sources of Revelation transmitted by the Apostles, it requires this examination by its very nature.

During the First Vatican Council, the bishop charged with defending in the name of the Holy See the text of the fourth chapter of the future Constitution Pastor Aeternus defining the pope’s personal infallibility, laid stress on this point:

The infallibility of the Roman Pontiff is obtained, not by way of revelation, nor by way of inspiration, but by way of divine assistance. That is why the pope, in virtue of his function, is bound to employ the means required in order to elucidate the truth sufficiently and to expound it correctly; and these means are the following: meetings with bishops, cardinals, and theologians, and having recourse to their counsels. The means will vary according to the matters treated; and we must believe that when Christ promised divine assistance to St. Peter and to his successors, this promise also included the requisite and necessary means so that the Pontiff could state his judgment infallibly."[24]

This is truer still for canonization: it supposes the most serious of human testimony attesting the heroic virtue of the future saint, as well as an examination of the divine testimony of miracles, at least two for a beatification, and two others for canonization.

The procedure followed by the Church until Vatican II was the expression of the utmost rigor.

The process for the canonization itself relied upon a double process carried out at the time of the beatification, one that took place before the tribunal of the Ordinary acting in his own name; another that depended exclusively on the Holy See.

The process of canonization comprised the examination of the brief of beatification, followed by the examination of two new miracles. The procedure concluded when the Sovereign Pontiff signed the decree; but before giving his signature, he held three consecutive consistories.

By the Apostolic Constitution Regimini Ecclesiæ Universæ of August 15, 1967, and the motu proprio, Sanctitatis Clarior of March 19, 1969, Pope Paul VI modified this procedure: the essential innovation was the replacement of the twofold inquiry of the Ordinary and the Holy See by a single inquiry carried out henceforth by the bishop in virtue of his own authority and with the reinforcement of a delegation of the Holy See.

The second reform took place following the 1983 Code of Canon Law with the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of John Paul II on January 25, 1983. This particular law, which the Code of Canon Law references, abrogated all previous laws pertaining to the matter. It was completed by a decree of February 7, 1983.

According to the new norms, the essential part of the inquiry is confided to the local bishop: he is the one who investigates the life of the saint, his writings, virtues, and miracles, and establishes the dossier sent to the Holy See.

The Sacred Congregation examines this dossier and makes its pronouncement before submitting everything to the judgment of the pope. Only one miracle is now required for beatification and, once again, only one for canonization.

Access to the dossiers for causes of beatification and canonization is not easy, which hardly affords an opportunity to assess the seriousness with which the new procedure has been implemented. But it is undeniable that by the very terms of the new procedure, it is no longer as rigorous as formerly. It realizes all the less the guarantees that should be forthcoming from churchmen for divine assistance to assure the infallibility of canonizations and, with greater reason, the absence of factual error in beatifications.

Incidentally, Pope John Paul II decided to bend the current procedure (which stipulates that a cause for canonization cannot begin until five years after the death of a servant of God) by authorizing the introduction of the cause of Mother Teresa scarcely three years after her death. Benedict XVI has acted likewise for the beatification of his predecessor. Doubt can only be the more legitimate considering the wisdom of the Church’s proverbial slowness in these matters.

Second difficulty: collegiality

An attentive examination of the new norms reveals that the legislation reverts to what was in place before the 12th century: the pope leaves it to the bishop to make a direct judgment of the causes of saints and reserves to himself only the power to confirm the judgment of the Ordinaries.

As John Paul II explained it, this regression is a consequence of the principle of collegiality: “In light of the doctrine of the Second Vatican Council on collegiality, We also think that the Bishops themselves should be more closely associated with the Holy See in dealing with the causes of saints.”[1]

But the legislation of the 12th century merged beatifications and canonizations as two non-infallible acts.[2] This is what keeps us from simply assimilating the canonizations proceeding from the [conciliar] reform to the traditional acts of the extraordinary teaching authority of the Sovereign Pontiff; in these acts the pope is satisfied with certifying the act of a local Ordinary. This constitutes a first reason warranting a serious doubt that the conditions required for the infallibility of canonizations have been met.

The motu proprio, Ad Tuendam Fidem of June 29, 1998, reinforces this doubt. The purpose of this document is to insert certain norms into the 1983 Code of Canon Law, additions made necessary by the 1989 Profession of Faith.

First, the infallibility of canonizations in principle is established. The 1989 Profession of Faith in effect distinguishes three categories of truths that constitute the object of the teaching of the supreme Magisterium: truths formally revealed and infallibly defined, truths taught authentically, and truths proposed definitively and infallibly because of a logical link or historical connection with formal Revelation.

In the Instruction Donum Veritatis of 1990, which is the authentic commentary of this Profession of Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger gives as examples of this third category: the reservation of priestly ordination to men, the unlawfulness of euthanasia, and the canonization of saints.

The 1998 motu proprio [Ad Tuendam Fidem] confers a greater authority to these two documents: the Pope teaches them as expressing his own teaching and inserts them into the Code of Canon Law. But then the text of Ad Tuendam Fidem establishes distinctions which diminish the range of the infallibility of canonizations, since it becomes clear that this infallibility is no longer to be understood in the traditional sense.

At least this is what comes across from a reading of the document drafted by Cardinal Ratzinger to serve as an official commentary of the 1998 motu proprio.[3]

This commentary specifies in what way the pope can henceforth exercise his infallible teaching authority.

Up to now we had a personally infallible and definitive act of the locutio ex cathedra as well as the decrees of ecumenical councils. Hereafter we shall also have an act that will be neither personally infallible nor definitive of itself but which will remain an act of the pope’s ordinary magisterium: the object of this act will be to discern doctrines as infallibly taught by the ordinary and universal magisterium of the episcopal College.

Consequently, under this third category, the pope exercises an act of the magisterium which is infallible by reason of the infallibility of the episcopal College; and this act will be neither definitive of itself, for it will be limited to indicating what the episcopal College teaches.[4]

Now, if one observes the new norms promulgated in 1983 by the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of John Paul II, it is clear that in the precise case of canonizations the pope, for the sake of collegiality, will exercise his teaching authority according to this third mode.

Taking into account both the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of 1983 and the motu proprio, Ad Tuendam Fidem of 1998, when the pope exercises his personal teaching authority [magisterium] to proceed to a canonization, it seems that his will is to intervene as the organ of the collegial magisterium; thus canonizations are no longer guaranteed by the personal infallibility of the pope’s solemn magisterium.

Would they be so in virtue of the infallibility of the ordinary and universal magisterium of the College of Bishops? Until the present, the entire theological tradition has never said that such was the case, and has always regarded the infallibility of canonizations as the fruit of a divine assistance granted only to the personal magisterium of the pope, which can be likened to ex cathedra pronouncements [locutio ex cathedra].

This constitutes a second reason authorizing us to entertain serious doubts about the infallibility of the canonizations carried out in conformity with the postconciliar reforms.

Third difficulty: heroic virtue

The formal object of the magisterial act of canonization is the saint’s practice of the virtues in a heroic degree.

Just as the magisterium is traditional because it always teaches the same immutable truths, so also is canonization traditional because it ought always to point out the same heroic practice of the Christian virtues, beginning with the theological virtues.

Consequently, if the pope sets forth as an example the life of one of the faithful departed who had not practiced the virtues in the heroic degree, or if he shows them under a new perspective, as inspired more by the dignity of human nature than by the supernatural action of the Holy Spirit, one cannot see in what way this act would constitute a canonization. To change the object is to change the act.

This change of perspective is indicated to us by a sign. Since Vatican II, the number of beatifications and canonizations has taken on unheard of proportions. John Paul II alone conducted more canonizations than each of his predecessors of the 20th century in addition to all those of his predecessors combined since the creation of the Congregation of Rites by Sixtus V in 1588.

The Polish Pope himself explained the reason for this increase in the number of canonizations during a speech to the Cardinals during the consistory of June 13, 1984:

Sometimes it is said that today there are too many beatifications. But besides reflecting the reality that, by the grace of God, is what it is, this also corresponds to the express desires of the Council. The Gospel is so diffused in the world and its message has so deeply taken root that it is precisely the large number of beatifications which reflects in a vital manner the action of the Holy Spirit and the vitality that He causes to spring forth in the domain the most essential for the Church, that of holiness. For it is in fact the Council that has spotlighted in a special way the universal call to holiness."

Hence this quantitative change is caused by a qualitative change. If beatifications and canonizations are henceforth more numerous, it is because the holiness to which they attest has taken on a different meaning: holiness is no longer something rare, but something universal.

This makes sense because holiness since Vatican II is considered a common gift. The idea of a universal vocation to holiness is the central theme of Chapter V of the Constitution Lumen Gentium; universal vocation brings about two consequences.

Firstly, it is remarkable that this text does not mention at all the distinction between the remote call to holiness which in principle comes to all, and on the other hand the proximate (and efficacious) call which in fact does not come to all.[5]

Secondly, it is also remarkable that the text is silent about the distinction between a common sanctity and heroic sanctity in which holiness properly so-called consists.[6] The very term “heroic virtue” does not appear anywhere in Chapter V of the Constitution Lumen Gentium. And in fact, since the Council, when theologians speak of the act of heroic virtue, they tend more or less to define it by distinguishing it from an act of simply natural virtue, instead of distinguishing it from an ordinary act of supernatural virtue.[7]

This is a first reason authorizing us to doubt that the beatifications and canonizations accomplished since Vatican II are identical with what the Church has always intended to do until then by such acts.

This change of perspective also appears if one observes the ecumenical orientation of sanctity since Vatican II. The ecumenical orientation of sanctity was affirmed by John Paul II in the Encyclical Ut Unum Sint as well as in the Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. The pope alludes to a communion of holiness transcending the different religions, manifesting the redemptive action of Christ and the outpouring of His Spirit on the whole of mankind.[8]

As for Pope Benedict XVI, one has no alternative than to recognize that he defines salvation in the same ecumenical sense, which falsifies by the very fact the notion of sanctity, a correlative of supernatural salvation.[9]

This is a second reason why one can only hesitate to see in the acts of the new beatifications and canonizations a real continuity with the Tradition of the Church.


Three serious reasons authorize the faithful Catholic to doubt the merits of the new beatifications and canonizations.

  • Firstly, the reforms that followed the Council have produced as a consequence certain inadequacies in the process[10];
  • and secondly they have introduced a new collegial intention, two consequences that are incompatible with the soundness of beatifications and the infallibility of canonizations.
  • Thirdly, the judgment that occurs in the process involves a conception of sanctity and heroic virtue at the very least equivocal and hence dubious.

In the context resulting from the postconciliar reforms, the pope and the bishops offer to the veneration of faithful Catholics authentic saints, but canonized at the conclusion of an inadequate and doubtful procedure.

Thus there can be no doubt that Padre Pio, canonized after Vatican II, practiced the virtues in a heroic degree even though the new style of process that concluded with the proclamation of his virtues can only give one pause.

On the other hand, the same procedure makes possible canonizations that would have once been unthinkable, in which the title of holiness is conferred upon faithful departed whose reputation is controversial and in whom the exercise of virtue in the heroic degree is not particularly outstanding.
Is it certain that for the popes who have accomplished these newfangled canonizations, heroic virtue is what it was for all their predecessors until Vatican II?

This unwonted situation can be explained by the confusion introduced by the postconciliar reforms. It cannot be dispelled without getting to the root cause and examining the soundness of these reforms.


24 Discourse given on behalf of the Deputation de fide by Bishop Vincent Ferrer Gasser, Prince-Bishop of Brixen, Austria Tyrol, during the 84th general assembly of July 11, 1870, in reply to the 53rd amendment of Ch. IV of the Constitution De Ecclesia in Mansi, t. 52, col. 1213. See also Billot, L'Eglise, II, No. 991, p. 486.

1 Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, A.A.S., 1983, p. 351: Putamus etiam prælucente doctrina de collegialitate a concilio Vaticano II proposita valde convenire ut ipsi episcopi magis Apostolicæ Sedi socientur in causis sanctorum tractandis. This statement of John Paul II is quoted by Benedict XVI in his Message to the Members of the Plenary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints of April 24, 2006.

2 Such is the opinion of Benedict XIV in his treatise On the Beatification and Canonization of Saints, Bk. I, Ch. X, No. 6.

3 Section 9 of the Note of the Sacred Congregation for the Faith published in the A.A.S. of 1998, pp. 547-548.

4 For example, the Apostolic Letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis of May 22, 1994, is presented by Cardinal Ratzinger as an infallible act of the infallibility of the ordinary magisterium of the College of Bishops. In the explicit intention of the Holy See, this text cannot be assimilated to a locutio ex cathedra.

5 This confusion implies a predestination of the entire People of God to sanctity and salvation. And that also implies a definition of the Church in the Protestant sense. On the contrary, as Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange remarks (Christian Perfection and Contemplation, II, 419-427 [French edition], called does not mean elect or predestined. And this is the sense of the parables in the Gospel (Lk. 18:7; Mt. 20:16, 22:14, 24:34; Mk. 13:20-22). All Christians are called to sanctity in virtue of the grace of baptism and insofar as they belong to the Church; but all are not elected, which leads to the negation of the proposition that the Church is the society of the predestined.

6 The distinction between common virtue and heroic virtue is an essential distinction: as remarks, among others, Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange, heroic sanctity corresponds to a divine mode of acting that remains specifically distinct from the human mode, and this distinction is much more than a simple difference of degree. The divine mode takes place when the intervention of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which is common to all the baptized, no longer remains frequent but hidden or rarely manifested, but becomes both frequent and manifest. See Christian Perfection and Contemplation, I, 404-405 [French edition].

7 For example, Jean-Michel Fabre in his work La Saintete canonisee (Tequi, 2003), pp. 104-105. Even in the context of ordinary supernatural life, the baptized is already under the influence of the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which is characteristic of supernatural activity in general, and not the formal element that would distinguish it from heroic action. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange points out, this element would rather be the influence of the gifts not as gifts, but as preponderant and manifest.


Perhaps the most convincing form of ecumenism is the ecumenism of the saints and of the martyrs. The 'communio sanctorum' speaks louder than the things which divide us." (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 37);

In the radiance of the ‘heritage of the saints’ belonging to all Communities, the ‘dialogue of conversion’ towards full and visible unity thus appears as a source of hope. This universal presence of the Saints is in fact a proof of the transcendent power of the Spirit. It is the sign and proof of God’s victory over the forces of evil which divide humanity. (Ut Unum Sint, 84);

Albeit in an invisible way, the communion between our Communities, even if still incomplete, is truly and solidly grounded in the full communion of the Saints—those who, at the end of a life faithful to grace, are in communion with Christ in glory. These Saints come from all the Churches and Ecclesial Communities which gave them entrance into the communion of salvation. When we speak of a common heritage, we must acknowledge as part of it not only the institutions, rites, means of salvation and the traditions which all the communities have preserved and by which they have been shaped, but first and foremost this reality of holiness. (Ut Unum Sint, 84);

The witness to Christ borne even to the shedding of blood has become a common inheritance of Catholics, Orthodox, Anglicans and Protestants, as Pope Paul VI pointed out in his Homily for the Canonization of the Ugandan Martyrs." (Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 37)

9 Benedict XVI, Speech given at the Ecumenical Meeting at the Prague Archdiocese, Sunday, September 27, 2009:

[T]hose who fix their gaze upon Jesus of Nazareth with eyes of faith know that God offers a deeper reality which is nonetheless inseparable from the ‘economy’ of charity at work in this world (cf. Caritas in Veritate, 2): He offers salvation. The term is replete with connotations, yet it expresses something fundamental and universal about the human yearning for well-being and wholeness. It alludes to the ardent desire for reconciliation and communion that wells up spontaneously in the depths of the human spirit. It is the central truth of the Gospel and the goal to which every effort of evangelization and pastoral care is directed. And it is the criterion to which Christians constantly redirect their focus as they endeavour to heal the wounds of past divisions…" []

10 [See part one of this article in The Angelus, June 2011—Ed.]