Argument for the Infallibility of Canonizations

The canonization of Pope Paul VI on October 14, 2018 has thrown traditional Catholics into a maelstrom of anxiety. Indeed, the very notion that the pontiff ultimately responsible for the destruction of the traditional Catholic liturgy and the chaos of the post-conciliar period could be raised to the altars of sainthood is a very hard pill for traditionalists to swallow. The exaltation of Pope Paul VI to sainthood for the veneration of the universal Church runs counter to the deeply held beliefs of traditional Catholics that the pontificate of this man was one of the most destructive in history. 

It is not surprising, then, that there have been strong arguments put forward to the effect that the canonization of Pope Paul VI is invalid. Most of these arguments hinge on two arguments (1) defects in the modern procedure of canonization, and (2) the failures of Pope Paul VI. The specific objections against the procedure are legion, but to cite a few common causes for concern: reducing the amount of miracles required,  the degree of clarity required from each miracle, the elimination/reduction of the office of advocatus diaboli (the "Devil's Advocate", a common name for the Promoter Fidei), the relative haste with which canonizations are concluded, and the lack of a substantially robust criticism of relevant documents for psychological issues, the sheer volume of new canonizations, lack of a strong cross-examination for non-supernatural explanations for phenomenon, and general red flags.

I personally have never been convinced by these procedural arguments, though I understand that the procedural changes can be damaging to faith. My own position has always been that papal canonizations are infallible, not because of the integrity of the process, but because of the fact of the declaration that a particular person is among the blessed. In this article, I will argue for the infallibility of canonizations based on the theological arguments of some of the great theologians and manualists of the pre-conciliar era.

Before I proceed, I want to offer some other resources on this site for background on canonization in general and particular points of interest regarding the subject:

I recommend beginning with "The Infallibility of Canonizations" which offers my basic arguments as to why a canonization is infallible by its very nature. "Canonizations: Old vs. New" presents a detailed analysis of the pre and post-conciliar procedures for canonization with a handy side-by-side chart for comparison. "History of the Devil's Advocate" traces the origin of the Promoter Fidei and his changing role throughout Church history (this article is a PDF essay). Of more arcane interest might be "Canonization and the Early Church" which offers a detailed analysis of how saints were declared in the patristic era and debunks the notion of a spontaneous "popular" canonization without ecclesiastical sanction. Similarly, "Roman Frescoes and the English Martrys" uses the example of the Benedictine martyrs of 16th century England to explain the process of equipollent canonization, which is canonization in lieu of traditional documentary evidence. Also, for those of you who listen to podcasts, "Canonizations: Infallible or Not?" with Ryan Grant on the Reconquest program with Brother Andre is another great resource.

Regarding the person of Paul VI, I will prescind from the question of his particular virtues (or lack thereof) and deal only with the theological question of the infallibility of a solemn canonization. Let us open with the statement of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758), who wrote:

"If anyone dared to assert that the pontiff had erred in this or that canonization, we shall say that he is, if not a heretic, at least temerarious, a giver of scandal to the whole Church, an insulter of the saints, a favorer of those heretics who deny the Church's authority in canonizing saints, savoring of heresy by giving unbelievers an occasion to mock the faithful, the assertor of an erroneous opinion and liable to very grave penalties." [1]

It has often been debated whether a canonization meets the qualifications of an ex cathedra statement. There are interesting arguments to be made for and against. Ultimately, it is a moot point, however, for two reasons (1) internal religious assent does not require an infallible act in pronouncing it, but more importantly (2) regardless of whether or not a canonization is ex cathedra specifically, they have always been held to be infallible in general. 

Let us turn to the writings of Cardinal Johann Franzelin (1816-1886). Cardinal Franzelin was one of the most renowned theologians of the age. He served as a peritus as Vatican I and was instrumental in drafting the conciliar document Dei Filius. Franzelin thus offers a valuable and unique insight into the intention of the fathers of Vatican I in the Council's decree on Papal Infallibility.

In his treatise De Divina Traditione, Franzelin comments on the teaching of Benedict XIV, affirming that papal infallibility does indeed extend to solemn canonizations:

"It should be permitted to add to these an argument taken from the doctrine of Pope Benedict XIV, although he treated on it as a private theologian, yet in that matter, all assent nearly without exception that it is of greater authority. Our principle, which we have so long defended is this: to oblige an internal religious assent in some theological matter does not necessarily require the infallibility of the authority that proposes it. Moreover, Benedict XIV teaches two things a) in the beatification of the servants of God the judgment of the pope is not infallible, as it ought to be considered in canonization, the final judgment of the blessed. b) Just the same, in this or that formal beatification, that the Pope could err in act, and to the extent that the one that was declared blessed is not actually blessed, or the cult conceded to him by the Pope ought not be furnished to him, then he "must be affixed with note of temerity or of a more grave theological censure" [2]

This becomes clear if we examine the language of the decrees of canonization. For example, in the 1726 canonization of St. John of the Cross by Pope Benedict XIII, we see the following language:

"For the honor of the holy and undivided Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the growth of the Christian name, by the authority of the almighty God Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and of the most blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by Our authority, from the counsel and unanimous consensus of our venerable Cardinal brethren...We define Bl. John of the Cross a Saint, We decree that he be inscribed to the canon of Holy Confessors not a Pontiff, just as in the course of the present things We define, decree, and declare, and the same We have commanded and do command is to be honored among all the faithful of Christ as truly a the entire Church." [3]

The form was also used by Pope Pius XII on 22 June 1947:

"To the honor of the holy and undivided Trinity, to the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the augment of the Christian religion, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and by Our authority; mature deliberation having been had and the divine help often having been implored, and by the counsel of Our venerable Cardinal brethren; the Blessed John of Britto, Martyr, and Joseph Caffaso and Bernardine Realino, Confessors, We decree and define to be Saints, and enroll in the Catalogue of the Saints; establishing that their memory ought to be cultivated afresh by the Universal Church with pious devotion. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen." [4]

Any Catholic with even a modicum of knowledge about the formulae of infallible statements should immediately recognize the intent of the pontiff with the language "decree and define" or "define, decree, and declare." The sentence of canonization utilizes the same sort of declaratory language as other ex cathedra statements.

The Pontiffs have declared this sentence of canonization to be infallible many times with express words. For example Pius XI: "...divine illumination having been implored repeatedly and fervently, We, as supreme Teacher of the Catholic Church, declare infallible sentence according to these words: “Ad honorem etc. [To the honor...etc.”" And elsewhere: "We, from the cathedra of blessed Peter, as the supreme Teacher of the universal Church of Christ, have solemnly pronounced infallible sentence with these words: “Ad honorem etc.” Of especial interest is this formula of Pius XII: "We, the universal Teacher of the Catholic Church, from the one Cathedra founded upon Peter by the word of the Lord, have pronounced this sentence, incapable of being mistaken, in these words: “Ad honorem etc.”" And elsewhere: "We...seated on the Cathedra, discharged the inerrant Magisterium of Peter, solemnly have pronounced: “Ad honorem etc.”" [5]

Note Pius XII's statements "incapable of being mistaken", "infallible sentence", and "inerrant Magisterium of Peter" referring to his pronouncements of canonization. Clearly, Pope Pius XII both believed and intended his decrees of canonization to be infallible exercises of his papal Magisterium. 

When we look at the language Pope Francis used in the canonization of Bl. Paul VI, we see the same language:

"For the honor of the Blessed Trinity, the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, and of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and our own, after due deliberation and frequent prayer for divine assistance, and having sought the counsel of many of our brother bishops, we declare and define Blessed Paul VI, Oscar Arnulfo Romero Galdamez, Francis Spinelli, Vincent Romano, Mary Catherine Kasper, Nazaria Ignacia of Saint Teresa of Jesus March Mesa and Nunzio Suprizio to be Saints and we enroll them among the Saints, decreeing that they are to be venerated as such by the whole Church. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" [6]

His intent is to formally "declare and define" Paul VI et al. to be among the saints by virtue of his papal authority. This is substantially no different from previous papal formulas.

We should turn for further clarity to the comments of Fr. Joachin Salaverri. Fr. Salaverri was a theologian of the mid-20th century and author the excellent text De Ecclesia Christi. None other than Msgr. Fenton praises Salaverri as the best author of ecclesiology after Cardinal Billot. Fr. Salaverri argues convincingly that the infallibility of the Magisterium itself requires that such decrees concerning the saints must be infallible. The following excerpt comes from Salaverri's 1955 theological manual Sacræ Theologiæ Summa, Volume I:

"With respect to decrees of the solemn Canonization of the Saints. A. The end of the infallible Magisterium requires infallibility regarding decrees of this sort. For the end of the infallible Magisterium requires those things which are necessary for directing the faithful without error to salvation through right cult and imitation of exemplars of the Christian virtues. But infallibility regarding decrees of Canonization of the Saints is necessary for such scope. Therefore the end of the infallible Magisterium requires infallibility regarding decrees of solemn Canonization of the Saints.

The major is clear from the Church’s presupposed power of sanctifying, to which are immediately ordained the other powers of the Church. The minor stands, because in the solemn decrees of Canonization of the Saints the Church not only tolerates and permits, but also commends and commands to the entire flock of the faithful, that certain determinate Saints whom she canonizes are to be venerated, and she proposes the same as exemplars of virtue worthy of imitation. But the mere possibility of error in so solemn a judgment would destroy any trust of the faithful and would render the entire cult of the Saints destitute of foundation; because it would be able to happen that the Church would solemnly propose to all and would command that wretched and vicious men be perpetually venerated. Therefore, for directing the faithful without error to salvation through right cult and imitation of exemplars of the Christian virtues, infallibility is necessary regarding solemn decrees of Canonization of the Saints" [7].

Fr. Salaverri goes on in the same passage to teach that the infallibility of canonizations is "implicitly defined", based not only on the statements of the popes but also on the implications the certitude of canonizations has for the spiritual and liturgical life of the Church as a whole.

One other point of interest is that in all of these teachings of the great theologians of the past, in all the commentaries in the manuals and treatises, the subject is always treated from the perspective of the authority of the pontiff to declare these pronouncements, as well as the theological necessity of their certitude. No theologian ever argues the infallibility of canonizations based on the integrity of the process of investigation. It is simply not mentioned. The theologians and manualists do not consider it of ultimate import.

It may be asked, if the authority of the canonization does not depend upon the integrity of the process, then what is the use having a process at all? Why not just canonize people willy-nilly based on pure sentiment?

The Church asks us to accept her authoritative teachings on faith, which is belief based on the authority of somebody else—but our faith is not blind. While assent to the propositions of faith is based on the authority of Christ and the Church and not on the inherent credibility of the propositions themselves, the Church has always acknowledged rational arguments in favor of her teachings. These arguments, called "motives of credibility", are meant to buttress faith with an appeal to reason. They are meant to strengthen our human assent to the supernatural truths of faith.

The integrity of the canonization process is very important from the perspective of motives of credibility. It is a great benefit to faith when a believer can stand behind the human credibility of the Church's institutions and procedures. Conversely, it is a detriment to faith when a Catholic loses confidence in the Church's institutions, even if faith ultimately does not depend upon the human management of the Church. For example, our belief that Christ will not let the Church fall into error is not based on the excellent administration of the Church by its human leaders, but rather on the promise of Jesus Christ Himself. Nevertheless, we can see from Church history how beneficial it is to faith when the Church's administration is just and efficient; and we have also seen (through the current round of abuse scandals, for example) how the incompetent or criminal administration of the Church damages faith. No one would ever reasonably suggest the Church doesn't need efficient, just governance just because our faith in its indefectibility doesn't depend on such things.

Similarly, the reality that the validity of canonizations doesn't depend upon procedure does not at all imply there is not great value in having a sound procedure. And there are very serious arguments to be made against the way canonizations are currently handled. The new procedure is inferior to the old in terms of its rigor. The real difference between the old and new procedures is not in their length, but in their character. In the pre-1969 procedure, the care with which the integrity of the process itself is safe guarded. The Sacred Congregation must attest to the validity of the methodology used by the diocesan tribunals. The Promotor Fidei must sign off on the canonical form of every act of the Postulator and the Congregation. The validity of the inquiries into the candidate's miracles are scrutinized. There is a very strict attention to form and methodology in the pre-1969 procedure which is simply lacking in the post-1983 system. Please read our article on old vs. new canonizations to learn more about these changes.

Essentially, while the modern canonization procedure maintains the nuts-n'-bolts of the pre-1969 system, the aspect of "checks and balances" that characterized the pre-1969 procedure is weakened. The rigid oversight is missing in the contemporary system. Weakening the rigidity of the process opens the Church's pronouncement up to criticism and disturbs the faith of Catholics, which is precisely what we are seeing right now. As Ryan Grant argued in his podcast, the canonization of Paul VI, though theologically valid, is extremely imprudent. I also want to add, as far as I can see, the infallibility of canonizations applies solely to the fact of the canonization, not to the reasons put forth for the canonization. The Church's judgment might be errant about the veracity of a particular miracle, or about a specific virtue, as those are determined simply by human scrutiny.

Nevertheless, the theological basis for the infallibility of canonizations has never been the process itself, but rather about the authoritative pronouncement of the Roman pontiff.

One final consideration. In his article on the subject for Rorate Caeli, Dr. John Lamont proffers the following statement:

"The purpose of papal infallibility sets limits to the contents of infallible papal definitions. If a papal statement is not concerned with either a religious truth contained in divine revelation, or some matter that is 'so closely connected with the revealed deposit that revelation itself would be imperilled unless an absolutely certain decision could be made about them', then it cannot be an infallible definition. The upholders of the infallibility of canonisations however do not make any effort to explain how canonisations are connected to the revealed deposit of faith; it is as if they consider papal infallibility to be a prerogative of the papal office that is intended to put the pope above the danger of being discredited by error, rather than a gift made by God to protect the faith he has given to the Church" [8].

From my perspective, it is actually surprising how people don't see that canonizations are connected intimately to the deposit of faith. This connection becomes especially clear when considering the public worship of the Church, to which the veneration of the saints is profoundly connected. 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. How some of the accidental externals of the Mass are handled may be displeasing to God (choice of music, decorum, etc), but the sacrifice of the Mass considered intrinsically 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.

Now, what is often forgotten is that 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 doing so in the context of establishing a liturgical commemoration. This means that the fact of a saint being among the blessed is directly relevant to the Church's public worship. As such, it is essential to the Church's holiness (one of the four marks) that these saints who are intimately connected with the Church's public worship actually be among the blessed of heaven.

The Church is holy. Part of this holiness has to do with the holiness of her sacrifices. 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 reconciled with the imminent holiness of the sacrifice of the Mass? Can we imagine a scenario where a saint is invoked in the Mass who is actually not a saint but is rather 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? How could that be reconciled with Canon VI of the Council of Trent's Twenty-Second Session which said, "If any one saith, that the canon of the mass contains errors, and is therefore to be abrogated; let him be anathema"? Would it be consonant with the holiness and perfection of the sacrifice of the Mass for the Church itself to ordain the liturgical commemoration of men who are not really in heaven but rather in the domain of Satan? For the Canon of the Mass to promulgate errors? Trent condemns the idea that even the external aids to worship of the legitimate Mass could be incentive to impiety [9]. If so, how much less could the prayers and structure of the Canon of the Mass themselves be so impious as to venerate men and women who could actually be in hell?

One final issue with Lamont's article. One of his two central claims is that the formula of canonization does not constitute a definition in the relevant sense, which claim he bases on a complete inversion of the words of Bishop Vinzenz Gasser at Vatican I. Here is Lamont:

"Nor can we suppose that the use of the Latin word 'definimus' necessarily signifies the act of defining a doctrine of the faith. The word has a more general, juridical sense of ruling on some controversy concerning faith or morals. This general sense was recognised by the fathers of the First Vatican Council, and explicitly distinguished by them from the specific sense of 'definio' that obtains in infallible definitions" [11].

Now let us compare this to Bishop Gasser's statement from his Official Relatio on Infallibility issued at the time of Vatican I for the purpose of clarifying the concept of an infallible definition prior to the final vote approving the text of Pastor Aeternus:

"Certainly the deputation on faith is not of the mind that this word [‘defines’] should be understood in a legal sense, such that it would signify only putting an end to controversies which concern heresy and doctrine which is properly speaking de fide; rather, the word ‘defines’ signifies that the pope directly and conclusively pronounces his judgment about a doctrine which concerns matters of faith and morals in such a way that each one of the faithful is able to be immediately certain of the mind of the Apostolic See, of the mind of the Roman pontiff." [13]

Gasser distinguishes a broader and a narrower sense of the word definition and applies the broader sense to infallibility; whereas Lamont claims that Gasser applies only the narrower sense to infallibility. It is a complete inversion of how Gasser uses the term and a serious flaw in Lamont's argument.

In conclusion, I do not see any justifiable reason to question the validity or infallibility of the current canonization, of Paul VI or whomever. This does not mean to deny there are serious problems with the current process, nor dos it assert that we must affirm that everything Paul VI or any other saint did was good or that every aspect of their lives was is worthy of imitation. But I think the problems of admitting Paul VI is among the blessed pale in comparison to the difficulties we would find ourselves in if we began to assert that canonizations are not infallible.


[1] BENEDICTUS XIV, De Canoniz. Sanctorum 1.I c.43 n.3; c.45 n.28. Cf. DIECKMANN, n.851s; F.SPEDALIERI, De Ecclesiae infallibilitate in Canoniz. Sanctorum (1949).
[2] Cardinal Johann Baptiste Franzelin, De Divina Traditione, Thesis XII
[2] Benedict XIII, Bullar. Roman ed. Taurinen, 22 (1871) 483, 486, 489
[4] Pius XII AAS 39 (1947) 209, 249, 281, 329, 377
[5] Pius XI AAS 12 (1933), 425-426, 26 (1934) 539s; Pius XII AAS 33 (1941) 105; 41 (1949), 137. Special thanks to Timothy Gerard Aloysius Wilson for his translations of Fr. Salaverri's Sacrae Theologiae Summa, from whence these quotes are taken.
7] Rev. Joachim Salaverri (1955) Sacrae Theologiae Summa, vol. I, Theologia Fundamentalis: Introductio in Theologiam, De revelatione christiana, De Ecclesia Christi, De S. Scriptura; 3rd ed., pg. 746-748
[9] Council of Trent, Session 22, Canon VII
[10] Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books, 1974, p. 299
[12] Bishop Vinzenz Gasser, Official Relatio on Infallibility, cited by Dr. John Joy in