Canonizations and Infallibility

Author: Father Edward McNamara, LC


Canonizations and Infallibility

ROME, 23 AUG. 2011 (ZENIT)
Answered by Legionary of Christ Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

Q: When the Pope presides over an ordinary public consistory regarding the cause of canonization of three blesseds, as Benedict XVI did last February in the Vatican Apostolic Palace for Guido Maria Conforti, Luigi Guanella and Bonifacia Rodríguez de Castro, is the proclamation made at the consistory — that the blesseds are saints — an infallible proclamation? — R.J., Villanova, Pennsylvania

A: The short answer is no, or at least not yet. The reason is that the decisions emanating from the consistory are juridical and not theological in nature.

A public consistory is a gathering of cardinals convoked by the Holy Father for a specific purpose. Some others, such as apostolic prothonotaries, the auditors of the Roman Rota, and other prelates, may also attend a public consistory. The purpose is usually either to elevate new cardinals or, at least technically, to seek the cardinals' opinion regarding the canonization of blessed.

By "technically" I mean that the cardinals have usually already given their opinion and the canonization has already been decided. Thus, nowadays the consistory is a kind of legal fiction in which everybody ceremoniously votes "yes." At the end of the consistory the Holy Father accepts the opinion of the cardinals and announces the date or dates on which the canonizations will take place.

The juridical nature of the consistory can be seen from one of Blessed John Paul II's final acts as Pope. In February 2005 he wrote to his secretary of state regarding a consistory he was unable to attend. He said:

"I had convoked the Cardinals, Archbishops and Bishops living in Rome for the celebration of an Ordinary Public Consistory, for today, 24 February, in view of the conclusion of the process of the Causes of Canonization of some Blesseds. I have been advised, for the sake of prudence, to follow this event from my apartment via television link-up. Consequently, I entrust to you, Venerable Cardinal, the duty to preside at this reunion, giving you the authority to conduct in my name the scheduled events.

"Therefore, I wish to announce that, following the favorable opinion that has already been submitted in writing by the Venerable Cardinals throughout the world and by the Archbishops and Bishops who live in Rome, I intend to set Sunday, 23 October 2005, as the date for the Canonization of the following five Blesseds: Bl. Józef Bilczewski, Bishop; Bl. Gaetano Catanoso, priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Daughters of Veronica, Missionaries of the Holy Face; Bl. Zygmunt Gorazdowski, priest, Founder of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph; Bl. Alberto Hurtado Cruchaga, priest of the Society of Jesus; Bl. Felix of Nicosia (in the world: Filippo Giacomo Amoroso), Religious of the Order of Friars Minor Capuchin .…

"United in prayer to the participants in the Ordinary Public Consistory, I ask you, Venerable Cardinal, to preside at the celebration of the Hour of Sext, as I cordially impart my Apostolic Blessing to all."

As we know, it was Benedict XVI who would eventually canonize these saints during the concluding Mass of the Synod on the Eucharist.

Therefore it is clear that the consistory does not imply an exercise of infallibility. On the one hand, the Holy Father delegated the declaration to a cardinal; second, it consisted in the proclamation of a date of canonization — and not in the canonization itself.

The exercise of infallibility comes only when the pope himself proclaims a person a saint. The proclamation is made in a Latin formula of which we offer an approximate translation:

"In honor of the Holy Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, with the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and of Our Own, after long reflection, having invoked divine assistance many times and listened to the opinion of many of our Brothers in the Episcopate, We declare and define as Saint Blessed N. and inscribe his/her name in the list of the saints and establish that throughout the Church they be devoutly honored among the saints."

In the case above, Benedict XVI proceeded as planned with the canonization on the date determined by John Paul II. In theory at least, he could have postponed, brought forward or even canceled the canonization ceremony. In such a hypothetical and unlikely case, I would say that since the process of canonization had already been concluded, a future pope could simply set a new date for the canonization. However, until the actual rite of canonization is performed, the blessed cannot be accorded the title and liturgical honors of a saint.

Although beatification does not imply the same degree of commitment by the Church, it is notable that Benedict XVI did postpone indefinitely a beatification whose date had already been set by John Paul II. This was because certain new information on the candidate had surfaced in the meantime which Benedict XVI believed required clarification before proceeding with the beatification.

* * *

Follow-up: Canonizations and Infallibility [9-6-2011]

In the wake of our article on canonizations and infallibility (see Aug. 23), a reader requested further clarification. To wit:

"I read your essay on this subject; it is one that has puzzled me for some time. But there are several things unexplained in your piece. The Pope is infallible in matters of faith and morals. The canonization, much less the miracle that supports it, cannot be a matter of faith because that refers to Revelation, and the period of Revelation is over: There is nothing more to be revealed before Jesus returns. So it must be under morals that his infallibility lies. I have for some time felt that this exercise occurs when he declares a man or woman to have lived a life of heroic virtue. It would, it seems to me, be scandalous to encourage people to imitate and pray to someone who did not fit that description. The further stages, I would say, are based on God's verification that the person's cult is influential. You do not mention in your piece whether your statements are official Church teaching or, like my explanation above, your understanding of the process, which is bound to be more knowledgeable than mine. Obviously, if the Pope uses the word 'define,' that suggests his exercise of this authority, but you did say it was an approximate translation."

First, let me say that the word define (definimus) is used in the original Latin, and the Pope is thus exercising his authority.

Second, the object of canonization is that the person declared as a saint is now in heaven and can be invoked as an intercessor by all the faithful. The infallibility of this action is accepted by the majority of Catholic theologians but has not itself been the subject of a definition.

Thus, with the act of canonization the Pope, so to speak, imposes a precept upon the faithful by saying that the universal Church must henceforth keep the memory of the canonized with pious devotion.

The 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia discusses the theological foundation for the infallibility of canonization: "The dogma that saints are to be venerated and invoked as set forth in the profession of faith of Trent (cf. Denz. 1867) has as its correlative the power to canonize. ... St. Thomas Aquinas says, 'Honor we show the saints is a certain profession of faith by which we believe in their glory, and it is to be piously believed that even in this the judgment of the Church is not able to err' (Quodl. 9:8:16).

"The pope cannot by solemn definition induce errors concerning faith and morals into the teaching of the universal Church. Should the Church hold up for universal veneration a man's life and habits that in reality led to [his] damnation, it would lead the faithful into error. It is now theologically certain that the solemn canonization of a saint is an infallible and irrevocable decision of the supreme pontiff. God speaks infallibly through his Church as it demonstrates and exemplifies its universal teaching in a particular person or judges that person's acts to be in accord with its teaching."

At the same time, it is important to note that while the decree of heroic virtues and the miracle form a necessary part of the process of canonization, they are not the specific object of the declaration of infallibility.

Although the saint is proposed as a model of virtues and Christian living, it is not the specific object of canonization. For example, it is quite possible that a martyr show heroic virtue in the face of death without necessarily having lived all the virtues to an exemplary degree. Nor does canonization make the saints immune from the judgment of history insofar as hindsight might show that some of their external actions proved to be unwise or had negative consequences.

This argument therefore would place the infallibility of canonization within the area of faith insofar as the venerability of saints is a dogma grounded in Revelation, and the determination as to which persons can be thus venerated is a necessary exercise of infallible authority.

This is sometimes called the secondary object of infallibility. It is not revealed dogma per se but truths regarding faith and morals which are not formally revealed but are so bound up with divine Revelation that to deny them would lead us to many difficulties and even lead to a denial of some aspect of Revelation itself.

According to Ludwig Ott's classical manual of dogmatic theology there are four kinds of teaching involved in this exercise of infallibility: 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 N. truly the duly elected and rightful successor to the throne of Peter?"); natural truths of reason which are intimately connected with Revelation (e.g., the morality of certain medical procedures); the canonization of saints (see Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 299).

A further argument can be offered. With a canonization, the Pope mandates (rather than permits, as is the case of beatification) that a saint be venerated in the Church's liturgy and especially with the Eucharistic celebration in his honor. Considering that the Mass is the highest and most perfect form of worship, it is logical that the Holy Spirit would guard the Pope and the Church from any error regarding a canonized person's definitive state. At the same time, it must be recognized that this is an argument based on congruence and is not apodictic. The institution of a liturgical celebration does not in itself imply an exercise of infallibility.

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