Rorate Caeli

Follow-up Article - Paul VI: The Infallibility of Canonizations and the Morals of the Faithful

Last August, Rorate posted an original article by Dr. John Lamont on the infallibility of canonizations.

The article generated considerable debate, which prompted Dr. Lamont to write the following piece on canonizations and the morals of the faithful. Scrupulosity has never been a Catholic virtue.

The infallibility of canonisations and the morals of the faithful

John Lamont

A number of discussions of the infallibility of canonisations have appeared recently in connection with the canonisation of Paul VI. Some of these, including a discussion of my own,[1] have argued that the act of canonisation is not necessarily an infallible pronouncement, and therefore that the canonisation of Paul VI does not require Catholics to believe that he is a saint in heaven if they have serious reasons for holding that he was not a saint. This conclusion has been rejected by many Catholics who consider themselves to be conservatives or even traditionalists. The basis for this rejection has not been a conclusive proof of the heroic virtue of Paul VI, but rather the assertion that canonisations are always infallible. This rejection is not theologically well-informed, but it is presented with an air of authority that can take in Catholics who are not familiar with the theological issues involved. It is thus worthwhile to provide in more detail the theological reasons that establish that not all canonisations are infallible, and that Catholics are not required to accept that canonisation is necessarily an infallible act of the magisterium.

We should begin by explaining the scope of the infallible teaching authority of the Church. This authority extends to all divinely revealed truths that form part of the deposit of faith, and also to all those truths whose acceptance is necessary in order that the deposit of faith can be effectively defended or proposed with sufficient authority. The latter category of truths are termed the secondary object of the infallibility of the Church.

Next, we should define the question being addressed. It is beyond question that the  sanctity of some individuals is infallibly taught. It is divinely revealed, for example, that the good thief is a saint in heaven. Other canonisations can undoubtedly be judged to belong to the secondary object of infallibility. The teaching that St. Paul lived a life of heroic virtue after his conversion and is now a saint in heaven is necessary for the credibility of the inspired teaching that the Church has received from him, and hence forms part of the secondary object of infallibility.

The question about the infallibility of canonisations is thus not whether the Church is sometimes infallible in teaching that a given individual is a saint in heaven, but whether the Church is always infallible in teaching that a given individual is a saint in heaven. The question arises because it is not evident that the sanctity of every person who has been proclaimed a saint by the Church is divinely revealed or has any connection to divine revelation. If Pope John XXIII is not in fact a saint in heaven, for example, this would make no difference to divinely revealed truth or to the truths that are connected to divine revelation. It would not cast doubt upon the truth of his teachings or the legitimacy of his acts of government, because a pope does not have to be a saint in order to teach truly or govern wisely. Pope John XXIII could have failed to achieve sanctity simply because of an excessive and disordered attachment to the cigarettes that he smoked. If this had in fact been the case, and if the investigation into his sanctity had concluded that he was not a saint for that reason, it would have been completely irrelevant to divinely revealed truth. Of course it is possible to think of other reasons why he might not have been a saint. But this hypothetical example is chosen to make the point that sanctity is not the same as being a good person. Sanctity means showing heroic virtue in every aspect of life. It is very difficult and very rare, and it is because it is very difficult and rare that an extremely careful investigation has been required by the Church in the past before a person’s sanctity is officially accepted.

There is no magisterial teaching that states that all canonisations are infallible. There has however been a general consensus of theologians in favour of the view that all canonisations are infallible magisterial acts. Advocates of the infallibility of canonisations have appealed to this consensus in support of their claim. There are two aspects of this consensus that need to be considered. The first is the authority of the consensus in itself. The second are the reasons for the infallibility of canonisations that are given by the theologians included in this consensus.

Theologians do not, as theologians, possess any magisterial authority. However, we can reasonably hold that they have the capacity, at least over time and after proper investigation, to determine the content of Catholic doctrine by reflection on pronouncements that do have magisterial authority. If they did not have this capacity, the profession of theologian would be useless, and the judgment of the Church is that it is not useless, but valuable and worth fostering. Accordingly, a theological censure has been devised to condemn propositions that are rejected by the general consensus of theologians. This censure is the term ‘temerarious’. We can therefore ask if the consensus of theologians in favour of the infallibility of canonisations means that denying this infallibility is temerarious, and is therefore to be avoided by Catholics.

The answer to this question is no, for two reasons. The first reason is that the simple fact of the existence of a consensus of theologians in favour of some proposition does not suffice to make the denial of that proposition temerarious. The rejection of a proposition is only temerarious if either the proposition is rejected without providing a serious reason, or the theological censure of ‘temerarious’ has been applied to that proposition by magisterial authority. Neither of these circumstances apply to the assertion that not all canonisations are infallible. Serious reasons have always existed for denying the infallibility of canonisations; these reasons have been proposed by a number of theologians who have argued that canonisations are not in fact infallible. The Church has never taught that the censure ‘temerarious’ applies to the claim that canonisations are not infallible.

The second reason is that an unanimous consensus of theologians does not in fact exist in favour of the infallibility of canonisations. A majority of theologians is not the same thing as an unanimous consensus of theologians, and such an unanimous consensus does not exist. This can readily be ascertained by examining the theological works that argue for this infallibility. If we look at the discussion of the infallibility of canonisation in ch. XLIII of Prosper Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV)’s De beatificatione servorum Dei et canonisatione beatorum, we will find several arguments against the infallibility of canonisations, and the names of a number of serious theologians who advanced these arguments. The existence of serious arguments for a theological position, advanced by reputable theologians, means that Catholics are permitted to hold that position unless the position has been condemned by magisterial authority. This point is often not understood by writers who lack a proper grasp of theological method. Such writers will cite a downright pronouncement in favour of their position made by some respected theological authority like Bellarmine, and then conclude that this downright pronouncement settles the question at issue. They do not realize that these downright pronouncements are being made in the course of a theological dispute, in order to counter other downright pronouncements made for an opposing position; and that sometimes their imperious character has the function of disguising a lack of compelling arguments, rather than being the result of such arguments. Such pronouncements are not rulings that settle the matter in dispute.

The question of the infallibility of all canonisations must thus be settled by considering the arguments for holding it. Before considering the arguments for this infallibility that have been advanced by earlier theologians, we should keep in mind the context in which these arguments were advanced. Canonisation, as they addressed it, took two forms; equipollent canonisation, and formal canonisation. Equipollent canonisation happens when a Pope decrees the universal veneration of a person to whom devotion has existed since time immemorial, and whose holiness and miracles are recorded by historians who are worthy of belief. Formal canonisation happens when a Pope decrees the universal veneration of a person whose heroic virtue and miracles have been established by a juridical process undertaken by the Holy See.

These are still the forms of canonisation that exist today (Pope Francis canonized the Canadian saint Marie de l’Incarnation in 2014 through the process of equipollent canonisation). The canonisations whose infallibility is now in question are formal rather than equipollent canonisations. The process for formal canonisation that is now used is very different from the process that existed when these theologians formed their judgment on the infallibility of canonisation. The investigation of the miracles, life, and writings of the person being proposed for canonisation was much stricter in the older process. The life and writings were scrutinized by the promoter of the faith, more popularly known as the devil’s advocate, and any objections raised by him had to be given a satisfactory answer before the person was beatified, let alone canonized. Four miracles were required for canonisation, and the standards of evidence for accepting that a miracle had occurred were extremely high. In general, the sanctity of the person proposed for canonisation had to be proved by human means beyond a reasonable doubt before a decree of canonisation would be emitted by the Holy See. The current process for formal canonisation has abolished the devil’s advocate, reduced the number of miracles required for canonisation from four to two, lowered the standards of evidence required for accepting a miracle, and made the scrutiny of a person’s life and writings much more lenient. It is now possible for a person to be canonized even if the evidence does not demonstrate their sanctity beyond a reasonable doubt, or, indeed, even if the total available evidence makes it reasonable to believe that the person was not a saint.

This is not to say that the older theologians argued from the thoroughness and reliability of the process of canonisation to the infallibility of its results. They did not. But it is inevitable that their approach to the question was influenced by a justified confidence in the honesty and reliability of the investigation of the sanctity of a person proposed for canonisation. They did not seriously examine whether or not a canonisation based on insufficient or even misleading evidence would be infallible, because they did not suppose that such canonisations would ever occur. The fact that such canonisations are now possible, and in some cases actual, provides a proper reason for revisiting the arguments that they alleged in favour of the infallibility of canonisations, and for examining whether these arguments were as strong as they thought they were.

Nicolau and Salaverri[2] have argued that the formula used in canonisations proves that canonisations are infallible. They cite decrees of canonisation pronounced by Pius XI and Pius XII where the decree explicitly states that it is an infallible act (‘superno lumine iterum ferventiusque implorato, infallibilem Nos, uti Catholicae Ecclesiae supremus Magister, sententiam in haec verba protulimus: Ad honorem etc.’ … ‘Nos universalis Catholicae Ecclesiae Magister, ex Cathedra una super Petrum Domini voce fundata, falli nesciam hanc sententiam sollemniter hisce pronunciavimus verbis: Ad honorem etc.’).[3]

This argument fails to grasp the nature of an infallible definition. In order for a papal teaching to be infallible, it is not enough for it to say that it is infallible; it has to actually satisfy the conditions for an infallible statement. Such statements must be exercises of the teaching authority of the Apostolic See, and they must definitively and finally bind all the faithful to assent to the assertions that they are making. In the case of an infallible truth that is divinely revealed, the faithful are required to believe (credere) the truth that is being taught. In the case of an infallible truth that belongs to the secondary object of the infallible magisterium, the faithful are required to hold (tenere) the truth that is being taught. The term ‘belief’ is used for divinely revealed truths, not because truths belonging to the secondary object of the magisterium do not also need to be believed to be true, but to underline that divinely revealed truths must be believed  with an act of the theological virtue of faith.

In the decrees of canonisation that are cited, the faithful are not told that they are required to believe or to hold that the person being canonized exhibited heroic virtue, was martyred for the faith, or is a saint in heaven. No assertion is to be understood as infallibly defined unless this infallibility is manifestly evident (cf. Canon 749). Since this necessary condition of binding the faithful is absent in these decrees of canonisation (and in all decrees of canonisation), the content of the decree of canonisation itself cannot be given as a reason for the infallibility of canonisations. The assertions of Pius XI and Pius XII to the effect that their decrees of canonisation are infallible simply mean that they shared the common opinion of theologians to the effect that canonisations are infallible. Neither the particular claim that the particular canonisations in question are infallibly taught, nor the general assertion that all canonisations are infallibly taught, are themselves being taught with authority in the decrees of canonisation that are cited. Of course one might assume that popes would not advance undecided theological positions as certain in their official documents, and it is certainly irresponsible of them to do so; but in this case, this assumption would be mistaken, as our examination shows.

Many supporters of the infallibility of canonizations have argued that it is impossible for a canonisation to be in error, because the public veneration of someone in the liturgy who is in fact not worthy of it would be displeasing and dishonouring to God, and the Church's public liturgy is guaranteed to be pleasing and honouring to Him.

This argument is far from being convincing. Of course the Church’s public liturgy ought to be pleasing and honouring to God. But we cannot infer from the fact that it ought to be pleasing to God that it always in fact is pleasing to God. And it is not difficult to find instances where officially sanctioned liturgical practices are irreverent and hence dishonouring and displeasing to God. Communion in the hand is one example. (The reasons why communion in the hand should not be permitted are set forth in Memoriale Domini, the indult of 1969 that addresses this matter. The indult sets out all the reasons why it is an abuse, and actually decrees that communion on the tongue should be retained, before allowing bishops’ conferences to permit communion on the hand.[4])

This argument can also be applied to beatifications as well as to canonisations, since in a beatification the commemoration in the Mass of the person beatified is officially permitted by the Church. But it is universally accepted that beatifications are not in fact infallible. A good example is the purported saint Simon of Trent. Simon was a Christian child whose dead body was discovered by some Jewish residents of Trent in 1475. The entire Jewish community of Trent confessed under torture to having put Simon to death as part of a ritual murder ceremony. Fifteen Jews were burnt at the stake for having murdered him. A papal commissioner sent by Pope Sixtus IV concluded that there were no grounds for believing in the charges against the Jewish community of Trent, or in the miracles attributed to the intercession of Simon, but he was expelled from Trent by a mob instigated by the local bishop, who continued with the trial and execution of Jews. Pope Sixtus V approved an office for Simon for use by the diocese of Trent, and entered him in the Roman Martyrology as a martyr murdered by Jews for the faith (he was removed from the Martyrology in 1965). In this case, a person was officially commemorated in the Mass as a martyr on the basis of evidence obtained by torture; as a result of this commemoration, a grave slander against Jews was given credibility. This was displeasing and dishonouring to God. Nonetheless, it happened.

Better, or at least more representative, arguments for the infallibility of canonisations are set forth in Fr. T. Ortolan’s article ‘Canonisation dans l’Église romaine’, in the authoritative Dictionnaire de théologie catholique. Fr. Ortolan claims that the infallibility of canonisations is indicated by the fact that no canonisation has ever been mistaken, although beatifications in individual dioceses have been found to be in error. Since the evidence upon which canonisations are based is human and fallible, even when the greatest care is taken, this perfect record can only be explained by a special assistance of the Holy Spirit that preserves canonisations from error.

If the premise of this argument is accepted, it has some force. Obviously however it cannot be used when doubt about the infallibility of canonisations is motivated by reasons for thinking that a particular canonized individual was not a saint. If it were to be so used, a circular argument would result - canonisations are infallible because no canonized person has ever been shown not to be a saint, and we can know that every canonized person is a saint because canonisations are infallible.

Fr. Ortolan also gives the most commonly used and most influential argument for the infallibility of canonisations, which is that it is not possible for the Supreme Pontiff to lead the universal Church into error in matters that concern faith and morals; but this is what would happen if he were to canonize someone who was not a saint in heaven. This is the argument offered by Newman for the infallibility of canonisations:

The infallibility of the Church must certainly extend to this solemn and public act [sc. the Canonisation of Saints]; and that, because on so serious a matter, affecting the worship of the faithful, though relating to a fact, the Church, (that is, the Pope,) must be infallible. This is Card. Lambertini’s decision, in concurrence with St. Thomas, putting on one side the question of the Pope’s ordinary infallibility, which depends on other arguments. “It cannot be,” that great author says, “that the Universal Church should be led into error on a point of morals by the supreme Pontiff; and that certainly would, or might, happen, supposing he could be mistaken in a canonisation.” This, too, is St. Thomas’s argument: “In the Church there can be no damnable error; but this would be such, if one who was really a sinner, were venerated as a saint,” &c.—Card. Lambert. de Canon. Diss. xxi. vol. i. ed. Ven. 1751.[5]

Now it is certainly true that the Supreme Pontiff cannot lead the universal Church into error by any infallible act. But to give this as a reason for the infallibility of canonisations is simply to beg the question. Upon examination, this entire argument can be seen to rest upon a begging of the question. Those actions where ‘it cannot be that the universal Church should be led into error on a point of morals by the Pope’ are actions that are infallible. Inability to be in error is what infallibility means. So if you say that canonisations are infallible because the Pope cannot lead the Church into error through canonizing someone who is not in heaven, you are simply saying that canonisations are infallible because they are infallible.

We can presume that the assertion that popes cannot lead the faithful into error should be understood as saying that popes cannot lead the faithful into error through some official exercise of the papal office. It would not be claimed that popes cannot lead the faithful into error through some disedifying act committed by them as private persons, as, e.g., by keeping mistresses. But the premise that the Pope cannot lead the faithful into error by some official act is known to be false. Such acts have not only occurred, but have been pronounced by the Church to have occurred. The most notorious example of such an act is the letter of Pope Honorius to the Patriarch Sergius of Constantinople. In this letter, Honorius gave some endorsement to the monothelite heresy that Sergius was advancing. We need not determine with precision exactly what sort of endorsement he gave, because any sort of endorsement constituted leading the faithful into error. His letter was not an infallible pronouncement, but it was an official reply to a formal consultation, not a private communication, and as such constituted an official papal act. The third ecumenical council of Constantinople in 680-81 condemned this letter and Honorius as a result of it:

After we had reconsidered, according to our promise which we had made to your highness, the doctrinal letters of Sergius, at one time patriarch of this royal god-protected city, to Cyrus, who was then bishop of Phasis, and to Honorius some time Pope of Old Rome, as well as the letter of the latter to the same Sergius, we find that these documents are quite foreign to the apostolic dogmas, to the declarations of the holy Councils, and to all the accepted Fathers, and that they follow the false teachings of the heretics; therefore we entirely reject them … we define that there shall be expelled from the holy church of God and anathematized Honorius who was some time Pope of Old Rome, because of what we found written by him to Sergius, that in all respects he followed his view and confirmed his impious doctrines.

The acts of this council, including this condemnation, were ratified by Pope Leo II. The anathematizing of heretics by ecumenical councils is a part of their teaching and must be accepted by all Catholics; rejection of this view falls into the Jansenist error that denies that the Church can make an error of doctrine, but maintains that the Church can make an error of fact in attributing heresy to the writings of a given individual. The heretical nature of the letter of Honorius is thus itself a papal teaching at the highest level.

The situation whose possibility this argument denies, viz., that of the faithful’s being led into error by the Church through the canonisation of a person who is not a saint, deserves further consideration. How is it that this error could be produced by such a canonisation? It would not happen by the canonisation of a sinner whose misdeeds could not be known through publicly available evidence. In such a case, all the faithful would know about the supposed saint would be his public actions. Presenting this person as an exemplar of heroic virtue would not lead the faithful into moral error, because they would not know about his misdeeds, and would only have his blameless actions presented to them as models to follow.

In order for a canonisation to lead the faithful astray, the sins that excluded the person canonized from sanctity or even from heaven would have to be public knowledge. If the faithful came across evidence of these sins, they could either reject this evidence as not proving that the canonized person actually sinned, or accept it as showing that the  purported saint really was a sinner. Only in the latter case would a threat to their morals arise. But they would have a simple remedy available to them for this threat; they could conclude that because the person was a sinner, their canonisation must have been erroneous, and that the purported saint is not in fact a model of virtue worthy of emulation.

In this latter case, they would also have a remedy available for the evil that arises from the commemoration in the Mass of a person as a saint, when that person is not a saint. Both priests and faithful can and must refuse to reverence persons of this kind as saints, and to celebrate masses that commemorate them as saints. If they do their duty under these circumstances, then no unpleasing and offensive worship of God will take place.

A real threat to the morals of the faithful will arise only if they accept that canonisations are infallible. In this case, they would have to choose between morals—by accepting sinful conduct as good—and faith—by holding that a magisterial act that satisfies the conditions for an infallible teaching is in fact false.

It is thus the acceptance, rather than the denial, of the infallibility of canonisations that threatens the morals of the faithful. And this threat is being realized right now. If we accept that John Paul II and Paul VI were saints, we must accept that their catastrophic failures in carrying out their duties of state did not interfere with their possession of holiness and exemplification of heroic virtue. It means that Paul VI’s protection and promotion of heretical clergy and illegal suppression of the traditional Latin rite, and John Paul II’s inaction in the face of clerical pedophilia —  to name only a few of their failures — made no difference to their going straight to heaven after death. Current bishops can thus follow these policies with no qualms of conscience and no fears for their salvation. As is well known, many bishops at the present time are doing just that; and the canonisations of Paul VI and John Paul II play a non-negligible role in their doing so. The faithful, in turn, are hamstrung in criticizing these disastrous policies by these canonisations. This whitewashing of moral failure and dereliction of duty in these popes also produces a general moral confusion and demoralization among all the faithful.

Since the arguments offered by theologians for the infallibility of canonisation lack force, and there are now clear examples of canonized persons who did not display heroic virtue in their lives, we should conclude that not all canonisations are infallible acts of the magisterium. In the light of the disastrous consequences that can now result from the acceptance of the infallibility of canonisations, we should add that this conclusion needs to be generally accepted by Catholics.

[2] P. Michaele Nicolau and P. Ioachim Salaverri, Sacrae Theologiae Summa, vol. I, Theologia Fundamentalis, 3rd ed., 725.
[3]See Pius XI: AAS 25 (1933) 425-426; 26 (1934) 539s; Pius XII: AAS 39 (1947) 209, 249, 281, 329, 377. Pius XII: AAS 33 (1941) 105; 41 (1949) 137.
[4] See
[5] J. H. Newman, ‘Preface to the 3rd edition of the Via Media’, 27, at