Canonizations not always infallible?

April 24, 2014
Source: District of the USA

Prof. de Mattei points out some important factors about the infallibility of canonizations, even demonstrating that this is not even a dogma of the Faith, but rather the opinion of theologians.

We are please to feature this Catholic Family News interview of Prof. Roberto de Mattei (author of The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story) concerning the canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII.

SSPX.ORG thanks both CFN's editor, Mr. John Vennari, and Prof. de Mattei for allowing us to republish this interview in full.

On the proposed April 27 canonizations of Popes John XXIII and John Paul II

Note from CFN Editor: We are grateful to Roberto de Mattei, [see bio at end of interview] eminent professor of Church history, and author of The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story for this insightful, respectful interview regarding the canonizations scheduled in Rome for the Sunday after Easter—jv

Catholic Family News: Professor de Mattei, the imminent canonizations of John XXIII and of John Paul II raise, for various reasons, doubts and confusion. As a Catholic and as a historian, what judgment do you express?

Professor Roberto de Mattei: I can express a personal opinion, without pretending to solve this complex problem. First of all, I am perplexed, generally speaking, by the ease with which, in the past few years, the canonization processes begin and conclude. The First Vatican Council defined the primacy of jurisdiction of the pope and the infallibility of his Magisterium under certain conditions, but certainly not the personal impeccability of the Sovereign Pontiffs. In the history of the Church, there have been good and evil popes, and those solemnly elevated to the altars were few in number. Today, one has the impression that, in place of the principle of infallibility of the pope, there is the desire to substitute it with that of their impeccability. All popes, or rather, all the most recent popes, starting from the Second Vatican Council, are presented as saints. It is not by chance that the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II have left in their wake the canonization of Pius IX and the beatification of Pius XII, while the cause of Paul VI moves forward. It almost seems that a halo of sanctity must envelop the Conciliar and Post-conciliar eras, to “infallibilize”an historic age which saw the primacy of pastoral praxis assert itself over doctrine in the Church.

CFN: Do you hold, instead, that the last popes were not saints?

RDM: Allow me to explain myself using the example of one pope whom I know better, as a historian: John XXIII. Having studied the Second Vatican Council, I examined in depth his biography and consulted the acts of his beatification process. When the Church canonizes one of the faithful, it is not that she wants to assure us that the deceased is in the glory of Heaven, rather She proposes them as a model of heroic virtue. Depending on the case, it is a perfect religious, pastor, father of a family, and so on. In the case of a pope, to be considered a saint he must have exercised heroic virtue in performing his mission as Pontiff, as was for example, the case for St. Pius V or St. Pius X. Well, as far as John XXIII, I am certain after careful consideration, that his pontificate was objectively harmful to the Church and so it is impossible to speak of sanctity for him. Dominican Father Innocenzo Colosio, one who understood sanctity and is considered one of the greatest historians of spirituality in modern times, affirmed this before me, in a famous article in the Rivista di Ascetica e Mistica (Ascetical and Mystical Review).

CFN: If, as you think, John XXIII was not a pontiff-saint, and if, as it seems, canonizations are an infallible papal act, we find ourselves facing a great contradiction. Is there not a risk of falling into sedevacantism?

RDM: The sedevacantists apply an excessive meaning to papal infallibility. Their reasoning is simplistic: if the pope is infallible and does something evil, it means that the seat is vacant. The reality is much more complex and the premise that every action, or almost every action, of the pope is infallible, is mistaken. In reality, if the upcoming canonizations cause problems, sedevacantism causes infinitely greater problems of conscience.

CFN: And yet, the majority of theologians, especially the surest, those of the so-called “Roman School” support the infallibility of canonizations.

RDM: Infallibility of canonizations is not a dogma of the Faith, it is the opinion of a majority of theologians, above all after Benedict XIV, who expressed it moreover as a private doctor and not as Sovereign Pontiff. As far as the “Roman School” is concerned, the most eminent representative of this theological school, living today, is Msgr. Brunero Gherardini. And Msgr. Gherardini expressed in the review Divinitas directed by him, all of his doubts on the infallibility of canonizations.

I know in Rome, distinguished theologians and canonists, disciples of another illustrious representative of the Roman School, Msgr. Antonio Piolanti, these harbor the same doubts as Msgr. Gherardini. They hold that canonizations do not fulfill the conditions laid down by Vatican I to guarantee a papal act’s infallibility. 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. Referring to this subject, besides the aforementioned study of Msgr. Gherardini, is an excellent article by Jose Antonio Ureta appearing in the March 2014 edition of the magazine Catolicismo.

CFN: Do you hold that canonizations lost their infallible character, following the changing of the canonization procedure, willed by John Paul II in 1983?

RDM: This position is supported in the Courrier de Rome, by an excellent theologian, Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize. Moreover, one of the arguments, on which Fr. Low in the article on Canonizations in the Enciclopedia cattolica (Catholic Encyclopedia), bases his thesis on infallibility is the existence of a massive complex of investigations and findings, followed by two miracles which precede the canonization. There is no doubt that after the reform of the procedure willed by John Paul II in 1983, this process of ascertaining the truth has become much weaker and there has been a change of the very concept of sanctity. The argument, however, does not seem to me decisive because the canonization process has deeply changed throughout history.

The proclamation of the sanctity of Ulrich of Augsburg, on the part of Pope John XV in 993, considered the first canonization on the part of the pope was done without any investigation on the part of the Holy See. The process of thorough investigation dates back mainly to Benedict XIV: he was responsible, for example, for the distinction between formal canonization, according to all the canonical rules, and equivalent canonization, when a Servant of God is declared a saint by virtue of popular veneration. St. Hildegard of Bingen received the title of saint after her death, and Pope Gregory IX, starting in 1233, began the investigation for the canonization. However, there was never a formal canonization. Nor was St. Catherine of Sweden, daughter of St. Bridget, ever canonized. Her process was held between 1446 and 1489 but never concluded. She has been venerated as a saint without ever being canonized.

CFN: What do you think of the thesis of St. Thomas, also echoed in the article on Canonizations of the Dictionnaire de Theologie catholique (Dictionary of Catholic Theology) according to which, if the pope was not infallible in a solemn declaration like canonization, he would deceive himself and the Church.

RDM: We must first dispel a semantic misconception: a non-infallible act , is not a wrong act that necessarily deceives, but only an act subject to the possibility of error. In fact, this error may be most rare, or never happened. St. Thomas, balanced, as always, in his judgment, is not infallible to the end. He is rightly concerned to defend the infallibility of the Church and he does so with a theologically-reasonable argument, on the contrary. His argument can be accepted in a broad sense, but admitting the possibility of exceptions. I agree with him that the Church as a whole cannot err. This does not mean that every act of the Church, as the act of canonization, is in itself necessarily infallible. The assent which lends itself to acts of canonizations is of ecclesiastical faith, not divine. This means that the member of the faithful believes because he accepts the principle that the Church does not normally err. The exception does not cancel out the rule. An influential German theologian Bernhard Bartmann, in his Manual of Dogmatic Theology (1962), compares the veneration (cult) of a false saint to homage paid to a false ambassador of a king. The error does not detract from the principle according that the king has true ambassadors and the Church canonizes true saints.

CFN: So then, in what sense, can we speak of infallibility of the Church in canonizations?

RDM: I am convinced that it would be a serious mistake to reduce the infallibility of the Church to the Extraordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiff. The Church is not only infallible when She teaches in an extraordinary way, but also in her Ordinary Magisterium. But just as there are conditions for the infallibility of the Extraordinary Magisterium, there also exist conditions for the infallibility of the Ordinary Magisterium. And the first of these is its universality, which is proved when a truth of faith or morals is taught in a consistent manner over time. The Magisterium can infallibly teach a doctrine with an act of definition by the pope, or with a non-definitive act of the Ordinary Magisterium, provided that this doctrine is constantly held and passed down (transmitted) by tradition and by the ordinary and universal Magisterium. The instruction Ad Tuendam Fidem of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of May 18, 1998 (no. 2), confirms that.

By analogy, one could argue that the Church cannot err when she confirms truth, over time, related to faith, dogmatic facts, liturgical usages. Canonizations may also fall into this group of connected truths. You can be sure that St. Hildegard of Bingen is in the glory of the saints, and can be proposed as a model, not because she was solemnly canonized by a pope, seeing as in her case there has never been a formal canonization, but because the Church recognized her cult, without interruption, since her death. A fortiori for those saints who have never been formally canonized, like St. Francis or St. Dominic, the infallible certainty of their glory in a diachronic sense (developed over time) stems from the universal cult that the Church has bestowed on them and not by a judgment of canonization in itself. The Church does not deceive, in its universal Magisterium, but one can admit a mistake on the part of ecclesiastical authorities constricted in time and space.

CFN: Would you like to summarize your opinion?

RDM: The canonization of Pope John XXIII is a solemn act of the Sovereign Pontiff, which derives from the supreme authority of the Church, and that should be regarded with respect, but it is not a judgment infallible in itself. The exercise of reason, supported by a careful examination of the facts shows quite clearly that the pontificate of John XXIII was not of benefit to the Church. If I had to admit that Pope Roncalli exercised virtue in a heroic way while carrying out his role of Pontiff, I would undermine at the core, the rational presuppositions of my faith. When in doubt, I adhere to the dogma of Faith established by the First Vatican Council, according to which there can be no contradiction between faith and reason. Faith transcends reason and elevates it but it does not contradict it, because God, Truth itself, is not contradictory. I feel in conscience able to maintain all my reservations about this act of canonization.

Biography—taken from The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story

Professor Roberto de Mattei teaches Church History at the European University in Rome, where he is the head of the Faculty of Historical Sciences. He is Vice President of the National Research Council [Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche, CNR], and a member of the Boards of Directors of the Historical Institute for the Modern and Contemporary Era and of Italian Geographical Society. He is President of the Lepanto Foundation and edits the scholarly journals Radici Cristiane and Nova Historica. Moreover he collaborates with the Pontifical Council for Historical Sciences, and the Holy See awarded him the insignia of the Order of St. Gregory the Great in recognition of his services to the Church. Among his more recently published words: The Second Vatican Council: An Unwritten Story (English edition, Loreto, 2012); Blessed Pius IX (Gracewing, 2004); Holy War, Just War: Islam and Christendom at War (The Rockford Institute: Chronicles Press, 2007); La dittatura del relativismo [The Dictatorship of Relativism] (Chieti: Solfanelli, 2007), Turkey in Europe: Benefit or Catastrophe? (Gracewing, 2009).