I was recently made aware of a fascinating text from the pontificate of Pope Sixtus IV (1471-1484) with import to the infallibility of canonizations. The text in question is the 1482 Superna caelestis, the canonization bull for St. Bonaventure.
After relating the virtues and miracles of the saint, Pope Sixtus relates how petitions had reached the Holy See from all orders of Christendom requesting the canonization; he specifically mentions Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, King Louis XI of France, and King Ferdinand of Sicily among the royal sponsors, as well as a host of Italian nobles. He also mentions petitions from the cities of Florence, Siena, Lyons, Paris, Venice, and Bagnoregio, places where the cultus of St. Bonaventure was thriving. The Bishop Protector of the Franciscans, as well as the Minister General, were also petitioning for canonization. Recognizing the existence of such widespread devotion to the saint from so many quarters, Sixtus said the Christian people "with such earnestness and such perseverance requested it [canonization] from Us that We would think it hard and impious to resist them in a thing so pious, which they even seemed to request as having been moved by God." (§13)
There was a slight complication, though. Pope Sixtus was himself a lifelong member of the Franciscan Order and expressed concern lest the canonization seem to be motivated from Franiscan partisanship rather than proper devotion. He therefore wished extra diligence to be taken in the inquiries of the saint's virtues and miracles. The pope says, "lest in this We seem more ably moved by our own affection than in due devotion, We applied that diligence and gravity, which the magnitude of the matter demanded. For We committed to three of Our venerable brothers, the Cardinals of the Holy Roman Church, to order an inquiry into the truth of the miracles." (§14)
Pope Sixtus must have experienced some scruple on this point, because he relates that he was unhappy with the first report: "Nor content with this, when the process itself had already nearly been completed, and those who had been delegated had reported most faithfully; We however, to whom it did not seem that in proceeding such solemnity, as is required, was observed, ordered it to be begun anew." (§15) It is difficult to say what Sixtus meant that the report had not proceeded with appropriate solemnity; given the concerns stated in §14, we may presume the pope did not consider the report sufficiently thorough. Perhaps the cardinals treated the report as a mere formality, whereas Sixtus desired something more substantial. Whatever the case, the pope felt compelled to order the process to begin again, this time observing greater attentiveness.
The second report met the pope's expectations, and Sixtus reported that "it had been thoroughly proven from more abundant reporting and the faith of more worthy witnesses concerning this undertaking, that many and great miracles were worked by God through this Saint" (§16). The time was ready to move on to canonization.
We must pause to appreciate the balanced approach taken by the pope. In the first place, note that he takes care to point to a preexisting cultus for justification of the canonization, even listing the various centers where Bonaventure's cultus was flourishing. The cultus attested to the veneration of the saint, and the pope's canonization is the acknowledgement of a matter of fact. So well attested was the cultus that the pope thought "it hard and impious to resist" moving forward with the canonization. He was not interested in using canonization to fabricate a cultus, but rather as a means of affirming one that already existed.
Second, the pope's desire to avoid even the appearance of partisanship is praiseworthy. He was aware that the canonization could elicit gossip; perhaps the canonization of a Franciscan saint by a Francsican pope would constitute a conflict of interest? "But mindful, that We had entered in same Order of Minors by vow...[and] lest in this We seem more ably moved by our own affection than in due devotion," the pope ordered extra diligence in the investigation of Bonaventure's life, going so far as to command a second investigation when he found the first insufficiently solemn. Sixtus had a pastor's mind; he wished to avoid the mere appearance of impropriety, ensuring that the canonization proceedings were unassailable as far as human prudence was concerned.
But this was still not sufficient for Sixtus. Before canonization, Pope Sixtus summoned a public consistory of clergy and laymen and imposed a triduum of prayer and fasting to seek God's will on the matter. The rationale for this consistory is fascinating. We shall quote the pope at length:
And since one and the same had been the opinion of all, namely that he should be registered among the number of the Saints, We thereupon held a public consitory, in which, with a great multitude of bystanders, We publicly proclaimed a triduum of prayers and fasting, so that God might enlighten us as to the correct course to pursue, and preserve His Church from falling into error, who strove to conform Herself to that [Church] Triumphant. (§16-17)
From a plain reading of this text, it does not seem that Sixtus believed canonizations are infallible. Why pray and fast for three days in order to "preserve His Church from falling into error"? This language strongly implies that Pope Sixtus believed it was fully possible for the Church to err in canonizing Bonaventure.
The case is not so cut and dry, however, for shortly thereafter, when Sixtus moves on to the actual decree of canonization, he says:
Confident that God will not allow us to fall into error in the canonization of this saint, by His divine authority and that of His holy apostles Peter and Paul, we decree that Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, of blessed memory, Professor of Theology, of the Order of Friars Minor, who was raised from the office of Minister-General to that of Bishop and Cardinal, is a saint, and is to be inscribed in the catalogue of saints, and joined and associated with them. (§19)
In this section Sixtus seems to be implying the opposite of what he stated prior, for here he expresses confidence that "God will not allow us to fall into error in the canonization of this saint." The inability to fall into error is infallibility. Yet immediately prior he stated that he ordered three days of prayer and fasting so that God might "preserve His Church from falling into error" in the matter of the canonization.
What is the solution to this apparent contradiction?
There are several possibilities that come to mind:
(1) Sixtus's latter statement that the canonization could not be errant is seen as a consequent of the prayers and investigations carried out previously. Since it would be possible for the canonizationtmo be errant, Sixtus wished to ensure it wasn't by means of careful deliberation and prayer, essentially saying, "After all the public devotion, all the inquiries, all the prayer and fasting, God would not permit an error."
(2) It is possible that Sixtus did not know or was not sure whether infallibility would extend to protect canonizations. That would not be incompatible with theologians later concluding with certainty that they do. His latter statement could then just express confidence that God has heard his prayer in the particular case.
(3) Pope Sixtus may have believed in the infallibility of canonizations and prayed for preservation from error anyways. It is not inappropriate to pray for what God has promised to grant, since God commands us to pray and desires to work through our prayers. For example, we know that the Mass, offered according to the Church's rite, is always pleasing to God, yet the rubrics contain prayers that it may be acceptable nonetheless.
As to which is correct, if any, I could not say. With age I have become keenly aware that I am not competent to speculate on the finer points of theology, so I must profess ignorance as to the correct solution. In this essay I mean only to bring this document to the attention of minds wiser than my own, who may perhaps shed light on the proper interpretation of this document.
I want to thank my friend dom Noah Moerbeek, CPMO for drawing my attention to these passages. The official Latin text of Superna caelestis can be found in the Opera Omnia S. Bonaventurae, ed. by the College of St. Bonaventure, Ad Claras Aquas, Florence, 1882: vol. I, p. XXXIX-XLIV. I used the English translations of the relevant texts as found in Saint Bonaventure: The Serpahic Doctor and Minister General of the Franciscan Order, Cardinal Bishop of Albano, by Fr. Laurence Costelloe, O.F.M. (Longman & Greens, 1911), pages 119-120, but the English document is also available on Papal Encyclicals.net, albeit with a slightly different rendering, though the meaning conveyed is the same.