Rorate Caeli

So... Canonizations... Infallible or not?

Bishop Giuseppe Sciacca, a remarkable prelate and Canon Lawyer and current Adjunct Secretary of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, granted days ago the following interview to La Stampa (posted here for the record of current events):

Bp. Sciacca and Pope Benedict XVI

Is the Pope infallible when he proclaims a new saint?

“According to the prevailing doctrine of the Church, when the Pope canonizes a saint his judgment is infallible. As is known, canonization is the decree with which the Pope solemnly proclaims that the heavenly glory shines upon the Blessed and extends the cult of the new saint to the universal Church in a binding and definitive manner. There is no question then that canonization is an act carried out by the Petrine primate. At the same time, however, it should not be considered infallible according to the infallibility criteria set out in the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic constitution “Pastor aeternus”.”

So, according to you, this means the Pope can make a mistake when he proclaims someone a saint?

“That’s not what I said. I am not denying that the decree issued for a canonization cause is definitive, so it would be rash and indeed unholy to state that the Pope can make a mistake. What I am saying, is that the proclamation of a person’s sainthood is not a truth of faith because it is not a dogmatic definition and is not directly or explicitly linked to a truth of faith or a moral truth contained in the revelation, but is only indirectly linked to this. It is no coincidence that neither the Code of Canon Law of 1917 nor the one currently in force, nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church present the Church’s doctrine regarding canonizations.”

Monsignor, it has to be said though that the majority of those who support the infallibility idea have an important ally on their side: St. Thomas…

“Of course, I am well aware of that. Thomas Aquinas is the most prestigious author supporting this theory. But it should be said that the use of the concept of infallibility and of language relating to it, in a context that is so far from that of the 19th century when the First Vatican Council was held, risks being anachronistic. St. Thomas placed canonization half way between things that pertain to the faith and judgments on certain factors that can be contaminated by false testimonies, concluding that the Church could not make mistakes: in fact, he claimed that: “thinking that judgment is infallible, is holy.” As I said before and I repeat again, the “Pastor aeternus” rigorously defines and restricts the concept of papal infallibility which could previously also encompass and contain or be likened to the concepts of “inerrancy” and “indefectibility” in relation to the Church. Canonization is like a doctrine which cannot be contested but which cannot be defined as a doctrine of faith as all faithful must necessarily believe in it.”

And what about the words which Pope Benedict XIV, born Prospero Lambertini, used in the “De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonisatione”, about the non-infallibility theory “smelling of heresy”?

“His theory is not binding as it forms part of the work he did as a great canonist, but as part of his private studies. It has nothing to do with his pontifical magisterium.

But there was a doctrinal text issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in May 1998 which also mentions infallibility in canonizations.

“It is patently clear that the purpose of the passage in question is purely illustrative and is not intended as a definition. The recurring argument according to which the Church cannot teach or accept mistakes is intrinsically weak in this case. But saying that an act is not infallible does not mean to say that the act is wrong or deceiving. Indeed, the mistake may have been made either rarely or never. Canonization, which everyone admits does not derive directly from faith, is never an actual definition relating to faith or tradition…”

Is there are any historical evidence to support your stance?

“The “protestatio” formula used until Leo X’s pontificate seems to me to be particularly revealing regarding the Pope’s awareness of infallibility which was problematic at the very least. Immediately prior to proceeding with the act of canonization, the Popes solemnly and publicly declared that they had no intention of acting against the faith, the Catholic Church or God’s honour. Then there are the brief prayers which Mgr. Antonio Bacci-turned-cardinal who cultivated the “stylus Curiae” pronounced on behalf of the Pope during the canonization rites in St. Peter’s after the peroration of the consistorial lawyer. These included expressions which don’t do much to bolster the infallibility theory, for example: "inerrans oraculum" (inerrant, non infallible oracle), "immutabile sententiam" (unchangeable, non infallible decree) and "expectatissimam sententiam" (long-awaited, non infallible decree). Furthermore, a historian like Heinrich Hoffmann admitted that one objection towards infallibility could stem from the fact that the Popes expressed hesitation - "mentem vacillantem" - just before the solemn declaration, invoking "specialem Sancti Spiritus assistentiam", the special assistance of the Holy Spirit. This was within the canonization rite celebrated up until the reform introduced by Paul VI.

Sorry, what exactly is canonization then?

“It is the definitive and immutable conclusion of a process; it is the final decree issued at the end of a historical and canonic process which relates to a real historical question. To incorporate it in infallibility means extending the concept of infallibility itself way beyond the limits defined by the First Vatican Council.”

And yet today, at the moment of the proclamation, the Pope says “decernimus e definimus”, in other words “we decree and define”. It basically sounds like a “definition”…

“This is why I agree with some important canonists who suggest setting aside the formula currently used to define the truths of faith, proposing instead a more suitable formula: “declaramus”, “we declare”. As one “classical” theologian of last century’s Roman school of thought, Mgr. Antonio Piolanti, one of the conditions for infallibility requires the Pope through the style of the formula used, to demonstrate a clear intention of presenting as dogma some truth within the revelation to the entire Church. As was the case with the definition of the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854 and the dogma of the Assumption in 1950.