Santo subito: problems for a canonization

Why is a person canonized? Has the traditional concept and process of determining declared sanctity been changed since Vatican II? Are Catholics obliged in faith to accept the new beatifications and canonizations?

With the accuracy of a theologian, Fr. Gleize analyzes the reasons for a canonization. He explains why the post-conciliar concepts and procedures allow Catholics to seriously doubt the new beatifications and canonizations, concluding with practical certitude that we are not obliged to recognize the beatification of May 1, 2011.

What about the coming canonization? The reader will easily get the answer.

Introduction: the viewpoint of the press

The beatification of John Paul II was reported by the press as an historical fact without precedent, since it took place in record time (he was beatified within six years of his death), and as an event at which one has arrived at the conclusion of a serious process.

This double affirmation contains a fundamental contradiction, since the seriousness of the traditional process of beatification is, in a large measure, founded on the extension of the delays, which is a prudent guarantee. This caution is opposed to the precipitation of an accelerated procedure.

This contradiction is a clear indication, and it represents a legitimate point to raise doubts. In the following pages we shall explain why we may doubt the seriousness of the beatification of John Paul II.

Certain elemental principles

Beatification is an act through which the Sovereign Pontiff grants an authorization so that, in certain places, a public cult be rendered to a blessedperson, until he becomes canonized. This permission is not a precept; it is something temporal and reformable. Beatification simply permits the cult. The act of beatification declares directly neither the glorification, nor the heroic virtues of a servant of God who has been beatified.

Canonization is the act by which the Vicar of Christ, judging in ultimate instance and emitting a definitive sentence, inscribes in the catalogue of the saints a servant of God previously beatified. Canonization has a triple finality and does not refer only to the worship. In first instance, the pope declares that the faithful deceased is in the celestial glory; secondly, he expresses that the faithful deceased deserved to reach this glory for having practiced heroic virtues, which set an example for the whole Church; thirdly, so as to offer more easily these virtues as an example and to thank God for having cause it, he prescribes that the faithful deceased should receive a public cult. On these three scores the canonization is a precept and obliges the entire Church, and it constitutes a definitive and irreformable act.

Both beatification and canonization have for object to admit the cult of a deceased person, which implies that during his life he practiced exemplary virtues and reached the glory. The difference is based on the fact that the beatification only permits the cult, supposing the glory and the exemplary virtues, whereas the canonization transforms this cult into an obligation and imposes on the faithful the duty to believe explicitly in the reality of the glory and of the heroic virtues of the saint. The essential element in all this falls back on the exemplary or heroic virtue of the defunct; that is what both processes of beatification and canonization intend to elucidate. Indeed, the cult presupposes the existence of that virtue, in the same way as the effect presupposes the causes. The miracles as such are taken into account as signs which ratify the heroic virtue. Without heroic virtue, there can be no sanctity and no veneration.

Between a saint and a canonized saint there is a difference. The canonization does not cause one’s sanctity, but reveals it and presents its as an example. This explains why not everybody and not many even are canonized. So as to have an impact, the example must be unique or rare: even if saints were many, few among them, and not the majority, should be elevated to the altars. On the other hand, the Church always presents those examples which the faithful need in the context of a certain period. In this sense, yes, canonization is a political act in the best meaning of the word: it is not a demagogical and partisan act, but an act that generates the common good of the whole Church, an act that has a social implication and is suited to the circumstances.

Another difference we need to elucidate is that between salvation and sanctity. A person who died in odor of sanctity was saved. But someone may be saved without having lived as a saint. To the eyes of the faithful, the first aim and effect of canonization is to signal the sanctity of a life and to present it as an example. Even if one has been saved and has gone to heaven, the one who has not given example of sanctity in life will not be canonized.
The common and certain doctrine of the majority of theologians considers canonizations to be infallible. All the treatises published after Vatican Council I (and prior to Vatican II), from Billot to Salaverri, teach it as a common theological doctrine. [1]

We observe that St. Thomas[2] asks the question most precisely: he is not asking whether the pope is infallible when he canonizes a saint. The question consists in knowing whether all the saints canonized are in glory or whether some of them may be in hell. The formulation of the question orientates from the beginning the entire answer. For St. Thomas, canonization is infallible, before all else, in as much as it implies the profession of a truth virtually revealed. This does not exclude the other two aspects: the example of the life of the saint and the cult prescribed.
In fact, there is an order between the three judgments which the pope pronounces when he canonizes a saint.

  • The first judgment falls back on the theoretical fact and states that a faithful person persevered unto the end of his life in the heroic practice of supernatural virtue and is found presently glorified in eternal beatitude.
  • The second judgment presents to the whole Church the heroic virtues practiced by the canonized person during his life as an example to imitate.
  • The third judgment is a precept which imposes the public cult of this saint on the entire Church.

Canonization presents as exemplary the heroic virtues of the saint and renders his cult mandatory. However, this presupposes the fact of the glorification of the saint. Benedict XIV (1740-1758), who, quoting and making his the reflections of St. Thomas, considers that the judgment of the canonization is based, in last instance, on the statement of a speculative truth deduced from revelation.[3]

Is it of defined faith that a canonized saint is indubitably in the glory of heaven? The most common theological position is that to deny this truth does not bring in itself the fault of heresy, since it is only indirectly opposed to faith: if this truth is presented in the context of the act of canonization, it is defined, not as of divine and Catholic faith, but as certain or of Catholic faith. To deny it would be erroneous or false.

Is it of defined faith that the pope cannot err when he canonizes a saint? Benedict XIV affirms that the infallibility of the act of canonization has not yet been defined as a truth of faith, although it could become so, and to deny it would not incur the fault of heresy but at least that of temerity. This denial would also imply an insult to the saints and a scandal to the Church. Hence, it would be deserving of the most severe punishments.

Certain problematic incertitudes

With no pretense of giving the last word (reserved to God), we may at least raise three great difficulties which render doubtful the seriousness of the new beatifications and canonizations. The first two question the infallibility and security of these acts, the third questions the definition itself.

1. The insufficiency of the procedure

The divine assistance which causes the infallibility or the security of the acts of the magisterium are exercised according to the workings of Providence. This one, far from excluding the thorough study of the pope regarding the sources of Revelation transmitted by the Apostles, on the contrary, demands by its very nature such an investigation. This is much more necessary in the case of a canonization: this one implies that one verifies seriously the human testimonies which prove the heroic virtues of the future saint and that he examines the divine proof, the miracles, which used to be two for the beatification and two more for the canonization.

The procedure followed by the Church until Vatican II was the expression of this extreme rigor. The process of canonization was preceded by a double process substantiated during the beatification: the first was performed before the ordinary tribunal and acted of its own authority; the other was exclusively in the hands of the Holy See. The process of canonization included a revision of the act of beatification, followed by the examination of two new miracles. The procedure was concluded when the pope signed the respective decree, but before doing so, three successive Consistories had to have taken place.

The new norms, sanctioned by John Paul II in 1983 with the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister, entrusted the essential part of the procedure to the diocesan bishop: he carries out the investigation of the life of the saint, his writings, his virtues and miracles, and produces the documents which must be transmitted to the Holy See. The Sacred Congregation examines these antecedents and makes a pronouncement before submitting it to the judgment of the pope. Now only one miracle is requested for beatification, and another for the canonization. The access to the documents of the process of beatification and canonization is rendered difficult today; we have hardly any way of ascertaining how seriously these new norms have been put into practice.

Despite this, it is clear that, by itself, the procedure does not have the rigor of the older one. It is much less exigent in matters of guarantees from Churchmen, so that the divine assistance may insure the infallibility of the canonization, and, with greater reason, the absence of error of fact in the beatification. Besides, Pope John Paul II decided not to follow the present procedure (which disposes that the beginning of the beatification process not take place before five years after the death of the candidate), by authorizing the introduction of the cause of Mother Teresa of Calcutta three years after her passing away. Benedict XVI did the same regarding the beatification of his predecessor. The doubt becomes much more legitimate when one considers the reasons the Church has to act cautiously in these matters.

2. Collegiality

If we examine carefully these new norms, we notice that the legislation is returning to the state which it enjoyed before the twelfth century: the pope left in the hands of the bishops the care of judging immediately the causes of the saints and reserved to himself only the power to confirm the Episcopal sentence. As John Paul II explains, this regression/return is the consequence of the principle of collegiality: “We think that, in light of the doctrine of collegiality taught by Vatican II, it is most fitting that the bishops be more intimately associated with the Holy See when it comes to examining the causes of the saints.”[4]

However, the legislation of the 12th century considered beatification and canonization as non-infallible acts.[5] This prevents us from assimilating purely and simply the canonizations resulting from these reforms with the traditional acts of the extraordinary magisterium of the pope. This is because these are acts by which the pope limits himself to authenticating the act of a residential ordinary bishop.

Behold a first motive which allows us to doubt seriously of the correct fulfillment of the conditions needed for the exercise of infallible canonizations. The motu proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem of June 28, 1998, adds more questions. This legislative text is given to explain again certain norms of the 1983 Code and to introduce others which were made necessary because of the new Profession of Faith published in 1989. In first instance, it affirms that the canonizations are, in principle, infallible. Then the text establishes distinctions which diminish the role of infallibility of the canonizations, since infallibility is not clearly understood in its traditional sense.

This is what we can draw from reading the document written by Cardinal Ratzinger which serves as the official commentary of this motu proprio of 1998.[6] The comment explains how the pope can, in the future, exercise his infallible magisterium. Until now, we knew the act personally infallible and definitory of the locution ex cathedra, and the decrees of the ecumenical Councils. In the future, we shall have also an act which would be neither personally infallible nor definitory in itself, but the act of the ordinary magisterium of the pope: this act will aim at discerning a doctrine as infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium of the Episcopal college. According to this third mode, the pope acts as a simple interpreter of the collegial magisterium.

Yet, if we look at 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 canonization, the pope—according to the needs of collegiality—will exercise his magisterium according to this third mode. If one takes 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 magisterium to proceed to a canonization, it seems as if his will consists in intervening as an organ of the collegial magisterium. This would suggest that the canonizations are not guaranteed by the personal infallibility of the solemn magisterium of the Sovereign Pontiff.

Will it be guaranteed by the ordinary universal magisterium of the episcopal college? Until now, the entire theological tradition has never said that this was the case; it has always considered the infallibility of canonizations as the fruit of a divine assistance granted strictly to the personal magisterium of the pope, assimilated to the locution ex cathedra.

With this, we hold a second motive which authorizes us to doubt seriously of the infallibility of the canonizations realized in concordance with these postconciliar reforms.

3. Heroic virtue

The formal object of the magisterial act of canonization is the heroic virtue of the saint. In the same way as the magisterium is traditional in as much as it teaches always the same immutable truth, likewise a canonization is traditional in as much as it signals always the same heroism of the Christian virtues, beginning with the theological virtues. Therefore, if the pope proposes as an example the life of a candidate who did not practice the heroic virtues, or if he presents it under a new optic, inspired more by the dignity of human nature than by the supernatural action of the Holy Ghost, it is difficult to equate this as a valid act of canonization.

The change of the object implies a change of the act. This change of perspective is present in the new theology and the postconciliar magisterium. It omits to distinguish between a common and a heroic sanctity, which is what sanctity consists of: even the term “heroic virtue” appears nowhere in the texts of Vatican II.

After the Council, when the theologians speak of heroic virtue, they have more or less the tendency of defining it by opposition to the simply natural act of virtue, instead of opposing it to the ordinary act of supernatural virtue.
This change of optic is corroborated also when we consider the ecumenical orientation of the sanctity which appeared after Vatican II.

The ecumenical orientation of sanctity was affirmed by John Paul II in the encyclical Ut Unum Sint and in the apostolic letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente. The pope refers to a communion of sanctity which transcends the diverse religions, and manifests the redemptive action of Christ and the effusion of His Spirit upon the whole of mankind. As for Pope Benedict XVI, we must recognize that he confers to salvation a definition oriented towards the same ecumenical sense, which also twists the notion of sanctity, correlative of supernatural salvation.[7]
Hence, one may seriously doubt that the acts of these new beatifications and canonizations are in real continuity with the Tradition of the Church.


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

  1. Firstly, the reforms implanted after the Council have allowed clear insufficiencies in the procedure.
  2. Secondly, they have introduced a new collegialist intention. These two consequences are incompatible with the security of the beatifications and the infallibility of the canonizations.
  3. Lastly, the judgment which takes place in the procedure is tainted with a new and at least equivocal conception, and hence doubtful, of sanctity and of heroic virtue.

In the context of the postconciliar reforms, the pope and the bishops propose to the veneration of the faithful authentic saints, but canonized at the close of a defective and doubtful procedure. No one can put in doubt the heroism of the virtue of a Padre Pio, canonized after Vatican II, but at the same time one may doubt this new type of process which raised him to the altars. On the other hand, the same procedure has rendered possible canonizations which were formerly inconceivable, by granting the title of saint to candidates whose reputation is controversial and whose heroism of virtue does not shine with the utmost brilliancy. Are we sure that the intention of the popes who have made these new types of canonization is the same as that held by the predecessors prior to Vatican II? This unheard-of situation is explained by the confusion introduced by the postconciliar reforms, and it cannot be resolved unless one goes to the bottom of the question and asks about the merits of these reforms.

Some Practical Certitudes

1. First certitude

Did John Paul II merit to be beatified? John Paul II did not give us the example of heroic virtues. He gave rather a bad example, that is to say, scandal, attitudes gravely prejudicial to the good of souls, especially by his doubtful teaching on ecumenism. Moreover he publicly condemned the work of Catholic resistance by excommunicating Archbishop Lefebvre.

2. Second certitude

Did John Paul II live saintly? Objectively—considering his acts—John Paul II was not a pope worthy of this name. Subjectively—considering his intentions—it is impossible to make a pronouncement which can be made only by God. Yet, even if John Paul II was animated by the best of intentions, the judgment of sanctity is based on acts, not on intentions.

3. Third certitude

Did John Paul II save his soul? It is possible that John Paul II was not totally conscious of the prejudicial consequences of his teaching and pastoral activity, and that this ignorance would more or less excuse him, and that his soul finally will arrive (if he has not done so yet), to the eternal glory of heaven. However, all this is the secret of God.

4. Fourth certitude

Are we obliged by the beatification of May 1st?

We have no obligation for three reasons:

  1. because it is a simple permission, and this act is in no way infallible;
  2. because the reforms which took place after Vatican II (motu proprio Divinus Perfectionis Magister, 1983) were animated by a collegialist intention, incompatible with the security of the beatifications and the infallibility of the canonizations; and
  3. because the judgment which guided the procedure was guided by a modernist conception of sanctity and heroic virtue.


1 In De Ecclesia, thesis 17, 726, Salaverri affirms that this is a truth at least theologically certain, if not implicitly defined.

2 Quodlibet 9, art. 16.

3 Benedict XIV, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione, n. 12. This speculative truth states that whoever perseveres to the end in the heroic exercise of supernatural virtues obtains an eternal recompense in glory.

4 Message to the Members of the Plenary Assembly of the Congregation for the Cause of the Saints, April 24, 2006.

5 Benedict XIV, De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione, Lib. 1, cap. 10, n. 6.

6 Art. 9 of the Note of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, AAS, 1998, pp. 547-548.

7 Benedict XVI, discourse given during the ecumenical meeting in Prague, Sept. 27, 2009, Documentation Catholique, no. 2433, pp. 971-972:

The term salvation has multiple meanings, without prejudice of which, it reflects something fundamental and universal in the human aspiration to well-being and plenitude. It evokes the ardent desire of reconciliation and of communion which is born from the depth of the human mind."