Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Infallibility of Canonizations

Every time I do a post on here regarding a modern saint or beata, or discuss the modern canonization process, there are many readers who leave comments questioning whether or not a canonization is infallible. In this post I will attempt to show that canonizations are infallible pronouncements of the Church (in fact, the most common kind of infallible teachings). This infallibility is related to two distinct elements: the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff and the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass as a worthy and acceptable offering to God.

In the first place we must remember that there are two objects of the infallibility guaranteed to the Church by the Holy Spirit. The primary purpose or object of infallibility is the formally revealed truths of the Faith concerning faith and morals. This infallibility is necessary for the Church to fulfill its mission as guardian of the depositum fidei, as Vatican I taught in the "Dogmatic Constitution concerning the Catholic Faith", Chapter 3:

[I]n order that we may satisfactorily perform the duty of embracing the true faith and of continuously persevering in it, God, through His only-begotten Son, has instituted the Church, and provided it with clear signs of His institution, so that it can be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word (D 1793).

However, there is a secondary object of infallibility, which is not revealed dogma per se but truths of Christianity on faith and morals which are not formally revealed, but are so intricately bound up with divine revelation that to deny them would mire us in innumerable difficulties and lead to a denial of some aspect of divine revelation itself. It is under the second object of infallibility that the canonization of saints belongs.

Dr. Ludwig Ott lists four types of teachings to which the second object of infallibility can be applied:
  • Theological conclusions derived from formally revealed truths by aid of the natural truth of reason

  • Historical facts on the determination of which the certainty of a truth of Revelation depends (so-called "dogmatic facts", for example, "Is Pope Benedict XVI truly the duly elected and rightful successor to the throne of Peter?)

  • Natural truths of reason which are intimately connected with revelation (e.g., that in vitro fertilization is immoral).

  • The canonization of saints (see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books, 1974, p. 299)

St. Thomas says that in some degree, when we confess a certain member of the Church to be among the blessed, this belief is an extension of the confession of faith (Quodl. 9,16). If we can say in the Creed that we believe in the "communion of saints", it necessarily follows that the Church must maintain some means for distinguishing who is among the saints that we believe in and confess. This is why the canonization of saints is bound up with the Church's infallibility; or, as Dr. Ott says, "If the Church could err in her opinion [of canonized saints], consequences would arise which would be incompatible with the sanctity of the Church" (ibid).

Remember, the canonzation of a saint means two things: that the person is among the blessed in heaven and that they possess virtues that are worthy of imitation; i.e., they are a role model. Can you imagine the mess that would arise if, through errant canonizations, Catholics were led to admire and imitate persons who were among the damned? It is because of the confusion that would arise in the public worship of the Church as well as the devotional lives of private Catholics that canonizations of saints are considered a particular subset of the general infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. This comes to bear especially in the second part of the argument, that canonizations must be infallible because of the sacrifice of the Mass as an intrinsically acceptable offering to God.

The Mass is the most perfect form of worship, and by virtue of the fact that it is Christ Himself who is offered, we can say that the Mass is always intrinsically pleasing to God in the highest degree. Some of the extrinsic elements about the Mass may be displeasing to God (choice of music, decorum, etc), but the sacrifice of the Mass considered instrinsically will always be pleasing to God insofar as it is Christ Himself who acts as both priest and victim. This truth is bound up with the Church's eminent holiness.

The canonization of saints is primarily a liturgical matter. To be canonized means to be quite literally inserted in "the canon", that is, the canon of those invoked and commemorated liturgically. In the decree of canonization of any saint, the following formula is read:

"In honor of . . . we decree and define that Blessed N. is a Saint, and we inscribe his name in the catalogue of saints, and order that his memory by devoutly and piously celebrated yearly on the . . . day of . . . his feast."
Notice the liturgical import of the canonization; it is not merely stating that so-and-so is worthy to be venerated, but is rather establishing a liturgical commemoration. This means that the fact of the saint being among the blessed is intimately connected with the Church's public worship. As such, it pertains to the Church's holiness (one of the four marks) that these saints that are connected with the Church's worship be actually among the blessed of heaven.

The Church is holy. Part of this holiness has to do with the holiness of her sacrifices, as mentioned above. Could the holiness of the Church's sacraments be preserved if the sacrifice of the Mass was offered in memory of men and women who were not actually in heaven? How could this be squared with the imminent holiness of the sacrifice of the Mass? Can you imagine a scenario where a saint is invoked in the Mass who is actually not a saint but in hell? (that's what it would mean if a canonization were errant) If this were the case, could such a thing be pleasing to God? Would it be consonant with the holiness and perfection of the sacrifice of the Mass for the Church itself to ordain the commemoration liturgically of men who are not really in heaven?

These are but some of the liturgical difficulties we would find ourselves in if canonizations were not infallible. This is why a certainty beyond simple moral certainty is needed when we talk about the formally defined saints, especially when their veneration is connected to the Mass. The "Catholic Encyclopedia" states:

It must be obvious, however, that while private moral certainty of their sanctity and possession of heavenly glory may suffice for private veneration of the saints, it cannot suffice for public and common acts of that kind (entry for Canonization).

Following the liturgical argument, it is interesting to notice that this is also implicit in the fact that Rome does not recognize saints from orthodox communions who are not among her own. We share many saints with the east, like St. Athanasius, St. Anthony of Egypt, etc. However, there are many saints of the eastern calendar (or the Russian Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) whom we do not recognize. An example is Emperor Constantine, who is revred as a saint among Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and also Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who is invoked as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. We could also cite Pontius Pilate, who was considered a saint by certain Ethiopian Orthodox at one time.

The fact that the Catholic Church does not embrace these saints but at the same time mandates the commemoration of her own demonstrates two things: that Rome regards the cults of the saints of other Christian communions to be somewhat dubious at times, and that it also regards her own judgments about her saints to be certain; otherwise how could she mandate their liturgical celebrations?

I think, as a caveat however, that this infallibility extends only to canonized saints (not beata or venerables), and that it pertains only to the final fact of canonization, not the motives for the canonization or the methods involved in the process. I think it possible that somebody can be declared a saint for the wrong motives; it is equally possible that someone can be declared a saint despite an insufficient amount of inquiry or improper procedure. I do not think these elements cancel out the canonization, however. At the end of the day, whatever else might be said, if so-and-so gets canonized, the decree of canonization is infallible (that is, they are certainly among the blessed) even if the procedures that led to the canonization may have been errant or misled. I think this is what we see in many modern canonizations.

To recap: canonizations must be considered infallible teachings of the Church's Magisterium because (1) their declarations are an extension of the infalbility of the Roman Pontiff due to their intimate connection with revealed dogma and the difficulties they would mire us in if they were not theologically certain, and (2) because of their connection to the sacrifice of the Mass, which is always holy and pure, inasmuch as if canonizations could be errant it would do damage to the intrinsic holiness of the sacrifice of the Mass, something that could not occur without imperiling the holiness of the Church's sacraments.


Curtis said...

1) Is the date of certain liturgical events infallible? Ie. Christmas being December 25th, the Annunciation being nine months prior, the dates associated with saints, etc...

2) Does canonization prove de facto the existence of the saint? Or is liturgically celebrating a non-historical saint less blasphemous than mistakingly celebrating the damned? cf. St.Christopher or Job (who, I believe, is in the Martyrology)

Boniface said...


1) The date sof liturgicla events are not infallible, especially when we take into the degree the many differing calendars that have been in effect throughout the world since ancient times.

2) I would say canonization does prove de facto a saint's existence, though this only applies to those saints who have been formally canonized, not those who were just "acclaimed" years before canonization procedure was set.

Athanasius said...

The criterion in the early Church to the sanctity of the saint was whether or not a liturgical feast could survive for over a generation.

That is why removing St. Christopher or St. Philomena from the calendar is blasphemous since it calls into question the tradition. We know they exist because God would not allow error to persist universally in the Church for more than a generation. The existence of the feast through successive generations (particularly in the case of St. Christopher) is proof enough of the saint's existence.

Boniface said...

I think I would agree with Athanasius on this and alter my previous opinion...the fact that a saint was acclaimed as such before the formal canonization proceedings does not mean that their existence is up for debate, although (and I think this is what I was getting at with my above comment) there is liable to be more confusion on the identity of the saint - classic example is St. Dionysius. Sometimes with these old saints, all we know is that they exist.

Curtis said...

It seems prudent to me to discourage devotion to saints whose historical details are suspicious, even if their canonization proves their existence and their beatitude at a minimum. "Blasphemous" seems a little harsh. It seems like it was scandalous to leave them on the calendar and scandalous to take them off.

PS. I think I meant ipso facto in my original question... How embarrassing.

Alexander said...

What about Mr. Grant’s claim that since there has been a removal of the “Devil’s Advocate” in the canonization process the infallibly pertaining to their worthiness of veneration and devotion could be lost?

Boniface said...

I don't think this is possible. Infallibility of a canonization does not seem to be dependent upon the process or procedure. Whiel abolishing the Devil's Advocate opens the door to certain difficulties, I don't think the Church can lose the power to infallibly proclaim saints just because of a procedural change (albeit a foolish one). Otherwise, we could have no certainty about early saints from before this office was established.

Athanasius said...

What about Mr. Grant’s claim that since there has been a removal of the “Devil’s Advocate” in the canonization process the infallibly pertaining to their worthiness of veneration and devotion could be lost?

I've modified my original claim, though not formally, I'm still researching the subject. Canonization basically means they are in heaven, the question surrounding the devil's advocate and other things would seem to me to ask, what kind of veneration is due?

Athanasius said...

It seems prudent to me to discourage devotion to saints whose historical details are suspicious, even if their canonization proves their existence and their beatitude at a minimum. "Blasphemous" seems a little harsh. It seems like it was scandalous to leave them on the calendar and scandalous to take them off.

The objection assumes that there are two truths, religious and natural, which is fictitious. If it is true in one sphere it is true in both because God created the world, and we observe it. Just because one sphere is lacking in information does not deny its truth in the other. There is little information in the bible about gravity, but that doesn't call into question the law of gravity. There is not a lot of information in historical records about Our Lord but references here and there in some contemporaneous documents, far less than certain saints. That does not call into question a truth asserted by the Church, that our Blessed Lord exists.

The same is true for a saint. If there is a lack of historical evidence, that does not disprove the existence of the saint. The liturgical cult is a question of divine providence. To start summarily removing saints from the calendar by discounting the Divine indicator and trusting the human indicator is blaphemous. It is highly imprudent to begin wholesale removing saints because this can become harmful to people's faith in giving the idea that the Church can change her teachings.

Ben said...


Would you be interested in a follow-up article "Is Vatican II infallible?" or "just how much authority did Vatican II have?" along the same lines as this one?

Boniface said...


I'd be happy to do a post on that, though it would involve a lot fo research and would inevitably piss off 50% of my readership no matter what I said! LOL

Ben. said...

Thanks. Looking forward to it. Promise I won't get pissed off. :-)

Joe of St. Thérèse said...

I won't be pissed, lol

Ben G said...


Would the criteria in this article apply to "St Simon of Trent"?

I've also heard from a Zionist Jewish site (not something I'd normally trust for Catholic info!) which said that Gregory XIV added "Beatus Andreas" to the Martyrology (who I've never heard of) who was apparently an Austrian boy murdered by Jews. But he was apparently never formally canonised. Would this be infallible and prove his existence, or could Catholics consider him an anti-Semitic legend? (Here's the site:

Boniface said...


On that one I simply don't know. I do know that if a canonization is completed, then in the end the Saint must be among the blessed, even if the process is flawed.

Ben Vallejo said...

The Catholic Church does not pass judgment if the saints of the Orthodox are worthy of veneration or not. She just knows that her saints are raised primarily for the edification of her faithful. Thus in one post Vatican II moment, the Lutherans went to Rome and asked a congregation of the causes of the saints to raise Reverend Dr Dietrich Bonhoeffer for veneration. The cardinal in charge did not object to the idea (knowing Bonhoffer's heroic virtue) but suggested that it would be better if the Lutherans did the honours themselves. Rome would not object nor tell her faithful not to emulate or be inspired by Pastor Bonhoeffer.

So if a Roman Catholic is brought to conversion and thus to Jesus by a bloke named Pontius Pilate, the Church would be happy!

And nothing prevents a Catholic from seeking the intercession of Saint Andrei Rublev of the Russian Church or St King Charles I the Martyr (the only formally canonized saint of the Anglican Church).

God can lead us to conversion by unexpected means!

Boniface said...


And nothing prevents a Catholic from seeking the intercession of Saint Andrei Rublev of the Russian Church or St King Charles I the Martyr (the only formally canonized saint of the Anglican Church).

Indeed you are mistaken here; it would be sacrilegious for a Catholic to seek the intercession of "St King Charles I." He may be in heaven, but the criteria of who can be venerated as a saint is not whether or not they may be in heaven, but whether the Church authoritatively declares it to be so. The fact that the Russians, Anglicans or Lutherans make these claims about their "saints" does not make the claims true; this is the difference, in that when the Roman Catholic Church makes a canonization, it is most certainly true that the saint is among the blessed. Also, I can't see the Church endorsing the practice of the faithful asking for the intercession of persons belonging to schismatic/heretical groups since heresy/schism is objectively sinful.

Ukumbwa said...

How can this concept of infallibility then be related to the canonization of Junipero Serra who created an abusive mission system and lorded over the enslavement of peoples like the Kizh nation and instituted practices of rape and torture? How is that someone catholics should emulate? Doesn't this prove that the canonization process is inherently fallible?