Canonization in the Early Church

The modern method of canonization used by the Magisterium has provoked considerable commentary in recent decades. During the pontificate of John Paul II, traditionalist Catholics objected to the frequency with which John Paul II lifted saints to the altars. This was related to his relaxation of the canonization procedures, which made swifter canonizations possible. More recently, some have objected to the waiving of mandatory waiting periods by Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis’ common resort to “equivalent canonization,” whereby a saint is canonized without the requisite second miracle. These anomalies, troubling as they are to faith, have provoked discussion both from liberals (who see in the changes grounds for further innovation), as well as traditionalists (who are wont to question the authority of the canonizations themselves based on perceived defects in the process).

We will not attempt to solve this debate; the reader is referred to the book Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question by Arouca Press to grasp of the landscape of the contemporary debate (and in which I myself have an essay). Rather, we will go back into the earliest centuries of the Church to see what sorts of assumptions underlay the development of Catholic thinking on canonization. We will examine the nature of canonizations in the Early Church in order to draw some insights on current disputed points.

The Importance of the Question

What has the early Church to do with debates about canonization in the 21st century? The Early Church is extremely relevant to this discussion, as assumptions about this time period inevitably give rise to various theories. For example, one standard line of reasoning is that one must not read too much into changes in the procedures for canonization because the methodology the Church has used for this purpose has undergone extensive development over the centuries. The Devil’s Advocate, which was abolished by John Paul II in 1983, was only a part of the process since the 16th century; the canonization process itself did not crystallize until the 10-12th centuries. Before then, canonizations were more informal and carried out at the diocesan level. Going back still further to the Early Church, we are told that there simply were no canonizations; saints were not declared, but were spontaneously recognized by the community without any formal process. 

The latter assumption is particularly important, as it has given rise to a multitude of novelties. If there really was a time when the proclamation of saints was free from any sort of ecclesiastical oversight, then several points follow. First, on the progressive side, those who want to extend the possibility of canonization to non-Catholics—at least non-Catholic Protestant “martyrs”—can argue that these relaxations in procedure are justified because there once was a time when no procedure was recognized; and, following upon the current preference for an archaeologist reading of Tradition, it is deemed preferable to return to the “unregulated” practice of the Early Church which would seemingly allow more justification for novelty. Pope Francis said at least on one occasion:

…I knew a parish priest in Hamburg who was dealing with the beatification cause of a Catholic priest guillotined by the Nazis for teaching children the catechism.  After him, in the list of condemned individuals, was a Lutheran pastor who was killed for the same reason. Their blood was mixed. The parish priest told me he had gone to the bishop and said to him: “I will continue to deal with the cause, but both of their causes, not just the Catholic priest’s.” This is what ecumenism of blood is. It still exists today; you just need to read the newspapers. Those who kill Christians don’t ask for your identity card to see which Church you were baptized in. We need to take these facts into consideration.” (1)

This is a prime example an how an appeal to a condition when canonization was a matter of the vox populi could give impetus to further changes in the canonization process.

The canonization Mass for Charles de Foucauld and nine others by Pope Francis in 2022

On the other hand, traditionalists, too, might appeal to this alleged past when canonization was conferred solely by the community in order to push back against papal canonizations they disagree with. Such an argument was made recently by Dr. Roberto de Mattei, who argued that the canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II are not infallible. He took the position that the sanctity of a saint is not determined by papal decree of canonization, but by the universal acclamation of the Church via the existence of a cultus to a particular saint. In his interview with Catholic Family News, he invoked St. Hildegard of Bingen as an example:

You can be sure that St. Hildegard of Bingen is in the glory of the saints, and can be proposed as a model, not because she was solemnly canonized by a Pope, seeing as in her case there has never been a formal canonization, but because the Church recognized her cult, without interruption, since her death.” (2)

Historically speaking, both positions are problematic; the liberal position forgets that, even when canonization standards had not been crystalized, it was never the practice to venerate those who died outside formal communion with the Church. Thus the Council of Florence taught:

No one, no matter how much he has given in alms and even if he has shed blood for the name of Christ, can be saved, unless he has persevered in the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church” (3).

If the Council specified that one who has shed blood for Christ cannot even be saved unless they persevered in the unity of the Church, how much less could such a one be declared a saint?

Dr. Mattei’s position contains much more truth. Nevertheless, it is our humble belief that he inverts the relationship between the cultus and the bull of canonization. He seems to suggest that the canonization serves to simply ratify the cultus—as if the stable cultus is what makes the veneration of a saint authoritative, the canonization becoming simply a pro forma measure to ratify it. In actuality, while the cultus serves as one piece of evidence in favor of canonization, it is the formal approval of the Holy See in the form of the bull of canonization which renders the cultus legitimate. Mattei sees the endurance of the cultus itself as the source of the saint’s auctoritas; it is more accurate to say that the endurance of the cultus serves as evidence for why the Holy See ought to establish the saint’s auctoritas.

In support of the position that auctoritas comes through the positive action of the Holy See and not through the endurance of the cultus alone, we could cite the acts of Pope Alexander III, who chastised a bishop in 1173 for allowing a man unsuitably scrutinized to be honored as a saint, going so far as to declare:

“You shall not therefore presume to honour him in the future; for, even if miracles were worked through him, it is not lawful for you to venerate him as a saint without the authority of the Catholic Church.” (4)

That is not to say that a lack of procedure in the Early Church necessarily implies either the progressive position elaborated by Pope Francis or the position of Dr. Mattei, although it is true that each argument is strengthened if it can be shown that canonization was not hierarchically controlled in the Early Church. An environment in which who is and is not recognized as a saint is determined by the community rather than by ecclesiastical authority strengthens arguments that procedure can be set aside (progressives) or that the infallibility of canonizations is not ultimately grounded in papal decree or ecclesiastical declaration (certain traditionalists). Therefore, the nature of canonization in the Early Church is very relevant here.

Procedure for Recognizing Saints in the Early Church

Conventional wisdom has it that the Early Church had nothing approximating to a formal canonization procedure. Saints were more or less declared by spontaneous popular acclaim. The theory is that this was because the cult of the saints evolved from the cult of the martyrs, and as martyrdom was usually a very public affair, it was unnecessary for any prolonged inquiry, since it was public knowledge that the saint had suffered martyrdom. In other words, when half the city is standing around witnessing St. Lawrence being roasted to death on a gridiron, an episcopal investigation into the fact of his martyrdom is redundant. It was only with the end of the persecutions and the rise of saints who were not martyrs that the need for formal procedures arose. Therefore, at least in the age of the martyrs, episcopal investigation or approval of the veneration of the martyrs was not necessary. Or was it?

While it is certainly true that the acts of the martyrs were public knowledge, there were other considerations beyond the mere fact that so-and-so was put to death—and, as we shall see, these other considerations fell under the purview of ecclesiastical review. Despite changes over time, there have always been essentially two aspects to a canonization, which we might call investigation and declaration. The former is some sort of verification of the details of the saint’s life and death, including their virtues; the latter corresponds to the approval of the cultus by some legitimate authority. There was never a time when one of these elements was lacking.

There was a time, however, when the two functions were carried out in different ways. In the early Church, the investigation into the details of a martyr’s death were undertaken by the community. Companions of the martyr wrote memoirs narrating the death; sometimes this was clergy who were close to the deceased (St. Cyprian, whose martyrdom was recorded by his deacon Pontus); sometimes they were related by fellow lay-Christians and then committed to writing by a notable or erudite member of the Christian community (the martyrdom of Polycarp, written by a wealthy Christian named Evarestus); sometimes by an eyewitness (St. Ignatius). Sometimes all we know is that someone in the local church interviewed witnesses and compiled the facts but remained anonymous (the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity). These various narrations have come down to us as the Acta of the martyrs, which formed the backbone of so much later devotion.

Lest it be presumed that these Acta were written only for purposes of edification, we must note also the investigative function of these documents. Look at this excerpt from the epilogue of the martyrdom of Polycarp:

Now, the blessed Polycarp suffered martyrdom on the second day of the month Xanthicus just begun, the seventh day before the Kalends of May, on the great Sabbath, at the eighth hour. He was taken by Herod, Philip the Trallian being high priest, Statius Quadratus being proconsul, but Jesus Christ being King for ever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty, and an everlasting throne, from generation to generation. Amen.” (5)

The burning of Polycarp (c. 155)

What is the purpose of this detail? It is not just for edification, but for verification. The epistle is addressed to the church at Philomelium, and this detail is included so that the Bishop of Philomelium will have all the details necessary about the virtues and death of Polycarp in the event that he wants to allow the veneration of the martyr in his diocese. It is a report from one church to the bishop of another church. That this is the case is made clear from the statement that the purpose of the epistle is “to make you [the bishop of Philomelium] acquainted with what really took place” (6). Presumably, the Bishop of Philomelium needed this information in order to properly evaluate whether the veneration of the cultus of Polycarp would be permitted in his church. The Church of Smyrna, where Polycarp was martyred, served as the investigator and promoter of his cause, telling the Bishop of Philomelium that, after he has had time to evaluate the facts, he should “be pleased to send it to the brethren at a greater distance, that they also may glorify the Lord” (7).

We see a like purpose behind the text of the Martyrdom of Ignatius, the famous Bishop of Antioch. In the narration of his martyrdom, there is a similar solicitude on the part of the author, an eye-witness of the martyrdom, to accurately convey all the facts for the benefit of other churches who may want to venerate Ignatius:

“Now these things took place on the thirteenth day before the Kalends of January, that is, on the twentieth of December, Sura and Senecio being then the consuls of the Romans for the second time…and now we have made known to you both the day and the time [when these things happened], that, assembling ourselves together according to the time of his martyrdom, we may have fellowship with the champion and noble martyr of Christ.” (8).

So we see that, far from a spontaneous cry of santo subito!, the ancient churches were very careful to preserve all the relevant details of a martyr’s death, which in fact constituted a primitive investigation that included all the fundamental elements of our investigations today: interviews with witnesses, narration of the pertinent details of the saint’s life and death, summaries of his or her writings, deeds, miracles, etc. This investigation was carried out by the community or members of it. Only in this sense can we say that an ancient cultus sprang “from the community”, but it was not spontaneous, not unorganized, and certainly not without ecclesiastical review.

This brings us to the second aspect of canonization; declaration. We see in the acta of Polycarp and Ignatius that all relevant data was carefully recorded and then forwarded to the bishops of other churches; in the case of Polycarp, we are told that the details of his martyrdom were specifically requested by the bishop (9). Once the Christian community at Smyrna, Antioch or wherever had done the investigative research and forwarded the details on to the bishop of another city, it fell to that bishop to authorize the veneration of that saint. Usually this took the form of declaring the commemoration of the martyr on a particular feast day, which is another reason why the churches were so careful to communicate the details of what day a martyr suffered, that the churches might be unified in their liturgical celebrations.

That bishops had to declare a cultus authorized is well attested; they even had designations corresponding roughly to our categories (venerable, blessed, saint). There were many martyrs, but not every martyr had an authorized cultus: those who received the necessary episcopal approval were called martyres vindicati, or sometimes just the vindicati—that is, those whose martyrdom had been investigated and attested by the Bishop.

Episcopal Declaration as the Ground of Authority

In his epic 1913 work The Early Church in Light of the Monuments, English priest and antiquarian Arthur Stapylton Barnes (who also contributed fourteen articles to the Catholic Encyclopedia) explained how seriously the veneration of the martyrs was taken and how it fell to the authority of the bishop to include any martyr in the official roll of those venerated in the diocese:

The title of martyr with all that it conveyed to the minds of the faithful was not given lightly We are far enough of course in those early times from the modern rules concerning canonization of the saints. Usually the title to religious veneration was based simply on popular acclamation, but in the case of the martyrs care was exercised by the Church authorities from a very early time. Lists were kept in every church of those who had died for Christ and whose memory was worthy of honor. No heretic or schismatic or one who had sought his own death might be inscribed upon these lists even if his death for Christ was undisputed. The right of placing a name thereon was reserved to the Bishop and till this had been done the title of martyr could not be given. This process was called vindicatio and was very strictly demanded. So at Carthage during the time of the persecution of Diocletian a certain matron called Lucilla was called in question for having paid religious honor to one who though a martyr had not yet been vindicated (cujusdam mortui etsi Martyris sed necdum vindicati) Nor could any stronger proof be brought of the rigor with which the discipline was enforced than is afforded by the tombstone of Pope St Fabian which is still in situ in the catacomb of St Callixtus. There the title, as any one can see, was not inscribed at the time although space was left for it. There was no doubt of his martyrdom the clergy of Rome made it the subject of an encyclical letter but there was no bishop to sign the vindicatio for the see was vacant and remained vacant for eighteen months. When at last Cornelius had succeeded and the vindicatio could be carried through the relics had long been buried and the stone was already in situ. Hence when the title of martyr was added the two MR were cut less deeply into the slab lest the should be split by the force which was then applied. Nothing could speak more eloquently either as to greatness of the honor that was thus held to be to him or the care of the Church that such should not be given to any that were not worthy receive it.” (10)

The bishop thus had a pivotal role in determining who could and could not be venerated as a martyr in his diocese—and recall, in the Early Church, it was only martyrs who received veneration as saints. Thus we see that at no time was the ever a purely popular “canonization.” The community may have undertaken the role of investigation and evidence gathering, but the vindicatio, the declaration of martyrdom, was always reserved to the bishop. 

Fr. Barnes mentioned a case of a woman named Lucilla in Carthage who was rebuked for venerating a saint who was not properly approved. This tale is found in the work of St. Optatus against the Donatists and is worth quoting at length:

No one is unaware that the Schism, after the consecration of Caecilian, was effected at Carthage through a certain mischief-making woman named Lucilla. When the Church was still in tranquility, before her Peace had been disturbed by the storms of persecution, this woman could not put up with the rebuke which she received from the archdeacon Caecilian. It was said that she kissed a bone of some martyr or other—if he was a martyr—before she received the spiritual Food and Drink. Having then been corrected for thus touching—before she touched the Sacred Chalice—the bone of a dead man (if he was a martyr, at least he had not yet been acknowledged as such), she went away in confusion, full of wrath. This was the woman upon whom, whilst she was angry and afraid that she might fall under the discipline of the Church, on a sudden, the storm of persecution broke.” (11)

St. Optatus here demonstrates why the vindicatio was so important: this woman Lucilla was venerating a martyr whose status as a martyr had not been conclusively proven. This also gives further insight into the role of the bishop: he not only took the positive step of granting the vindicatio, but he also was responsible for taking the negative step of rebuking the faithful who venerated saints lacking the vindicatio, as in the case of Lucilla.

We have already explored one rationale for the vindicatio: to make bishops of other churches aware of the details of particular martyrdoms of which they might not have been acquainted. But the vindicatio had a further purpose even within the diocese where a martyrdom occurred and the community was already familiar with the identity of the martyr. This was to ensure that the martyrdom was a “true” martyrdom and not the result of some imprudent excess of zeal. In the Early Church there were always some, who in a fit of fanatical zeal, had surrendered voluntarily to the persecutors, thus forcing martyrdom upon themselves. The Church never tolerated nor encouraged this practice, and those who had been guilty of it, far from being considered martyrs, were looked upon by Catholics as disobedient and self-destroyers. It was the role of the bishop, in examining the details of a martyr’s “cause,” to make sure that this was not in fact the case.

In other words, the Early Church understood that individuals who might look like saints did not in fact meet the standards for religious veneration. It fell to the bishop to determine who had met the bar. And so we see that the local ordinary was the point of reference for issuing a declaration proclaiming a martyr to be a vindicati and authorizing veneration. Note also the logical order: the bishop’s job is not to simply approve an existing cultus; rather, it is the bishop’s formal approval which brings a local cultus into existence. Religious veneration apart from the bishops’s vindicatio is ipso facto invalid, as we saw in the case of Lucilla.

The investigative process and the authoritative declaration of sainthood were both present in the first centuries of the Church. The forms of these procedures were much more rudimentary than the formal canonization process that followed in the Middle Ages, but the documentary evidence is sufficient to disprove the idea that the establishment of a cultus was ever purely popular affair. Then, as today, popular piety certainly fueled investigation and lent weight to a bishop’s decision, but never apart from or in contradistinction to an official episcopal decision.

Early Canonization and Liturgy

An interesting question arises when we consider the infallibility of these early canonizations. While it is not within our competency to discuss the precise authority of the vindicatio in the strict theological sense, it is indisputable that the early Christians at least thought they were infallible, though of course they did not use this terminology. We know that they interpreted the vindicatio such simply by the fact that the beatific vision and intercession of particular martyrs were never questioned in the least. In fact, it is assumed with such conviction that we deduce the early Christians possessed an absolute certitude on this point.

The assumed beatific vision of the vindicati  makes the cult of the martyrs possible; in fact, if the status of a vindicati were not known with absolute certitude, the nature of the cult of the martyrs would be called into question. In the modern Church, the canonization process is often viewed solely in terms of a theological question—namely, whether or not so-and-so is among the saints in glory. This is certainly one aspect of canonization, but the modern emphasis is somewhat unbalanced. For the early Church, the “canonization” of a martyr by the process of vindicatio was primarily a liturgical reality, not a theological or pietistic one.

When a bishop declared that a certain martyr was a vindicati, the primary act of the local church in response was to inaugurate a liturgical commemoration, usually on the date of the martyr’s death. At these annual liturgies, the example of the martyr would be called to mind, the congregation exhorted to imitate his or her virtues, and the martyr’s intercession would be solemnly invoked. This liturgical veneration of the martyrs is, in the strictest sense, what constitutes a formal cultus. Individual Christians might privately invoke the intercession of the martyr (and we know from catacomb inscriptions that this was common) but the public homage to a martyr by specified liturgical celebrations is what the Catholic Church has always meant when speaking of an established cultus to a particular saint. This is why it is right to say that patristic canonizations were more liturgical than theological in character.

Several elements come together here: the theological fact of the saint’s place in heaven, the liturgical practice commemorating the martyr, and the private, pietistical devotions surrounding the cultus. There is a logical progression, though: the establishment of the liturgical cult presupposes the theological fact of the saint’s place in heaven as an antecedent, while the private devotions follow from the establishment of the cult as a consequent. The pietistical flows from the liturgical, which is in turn based on theological assumptions.

The picture that emerges is that the whole edifice stands or falls with the veracity of the theological fact of the saint’s place in heaven. In honoring the saints in her liturgy, the Church presupposes the efficacy of their intercession, and by extension their place in glory. The whole rationale for particular liturgical commemorations is bound to it. Were a particular saint not to actually be among the blessed, it would have disastrous consequences for the Church’s public worship. Would it be pleasing to God to honor a saint with a liturgical commemoration who was in fact not in heaven but in hell? If not, it would call into jeopardy the Church’s understanding of the Mass as an act of worship that is always pleasing to God. If so, how could such an act be pleasing to God when offered in honor of a person actually among the damned? If the public prayers of the Church to a particular saint offered in the liturgy could not be answered, in what sense is the public prayer of the Church diminished in its efficacy? Since certain saints might be in heaven while others could potentially be in hell, would only certain Masses be pleasing to God and others not? If so, how are the faithful to discern which are which?

Perhaps we could say, “It is not the faithful’s problem if the Mass is offered in good faith in honor of someone not among the blessed; God can still be pleased with the good intention and reward the faithful accordingly. Prayers offered to the putative saint can be answered by other saints, etc.” This is certainly true, but it could also be asked if God’s design for His worship allows situations where the spiritual reality of the liturgy bears no actual correlation to what is stated in the rites and what the faithful believe they are participating in? Is this worship “in spirit and truth”? (cf. John 4:24)

As can be easily demonstrated, all sorts of difficulties arise from this position, which is why St. Thomas Aquinas affirms the infallibility of canonizations. St. Thomas says that in some degree, when we confess a certain member of the Church to be among the blessed, this belief is an extension of the confession of faith (Quodl. 9,16). If we can say in the Creed that we believe in the “communion of saints”, it necessarily follows that the Church must maintain some means for distinguishing who is among the saints that we believe in and confess. This is why the canonization of saints is bound up with the Church’s infallibility; or, as Dr. Ludwig Ott notes, “If the Church could err in her opinion [of canonized saints], consequences would arise which would be incompatible with the sanctity of the Church” (12).

Whether we consider the ancient vindicatio or the modern canonization, the declaring of a saint has never been merely stating that so-and-so is worthy to be venerated, but is rather establishing a liturgical commemoration. This means that the fact of the saint being among the blessed is intimately connected with the Church’s public worship. As such, it pertains to the Church’s holiness (one of the four marks) that these saints that are connected with the Church’s worship be actually among the blessed of heaven. This is why an actual inerrant certitude—not just a moral certitude— is necessary. When looking at this question, the 1913 Catholic Encyclopedia states that, “It must be obvious, however, that while private moral certainty of their sanctity and possession of heavenly glory may suffice for private veneration of the saints, it cannot suffice for public and common acts of that kind.” (13)

Further Considerations: Form vs. Fact

The preceding comments have taken us a little far afield from our original historical considerations, but it is necessary knowledge for understanding how and why early saints were canonized, what degree of certainty these declarations conferred, and by virtue of what authority they possessed this certainty. We have seen that the canonizations had primarily a liturgical import (but incorporating theological presuppositions), and that common practice of the early Church and the theological implications for the Church’s common worship necessitate their infallibility. It is further worth noting that these requirements exist regardless of the particular time in history we are discussing. The necessity for this infallibility always exists if the Church is to maintain her Four Marks; for this reason it is dangerous to suggest that only canonizations of a certain historical period meet the qualifications for infallibility. (14)

Pius II canonized St. Catherine of Siena

If the episcopal determinations of these vindicati were infallible, by virtue of what were they infallible since they were not decreed by the pope? We shall proceed next to this consideration, but before doing so, two preliminary points:

First, we are speaking obviously only of those martyrs whose veneration was more or less universal; this is self-evident, since if a martyr was not venerated somewhere, either the local church had no knowledge of him and hence no cultus, or the establishment of the cultus was positively rejected by the bishop, and hence the martyr was not a vindicati. We are considering only those vindicati whose veneration was more or less universal.

Second, when mentioning these saints were established without papal decree, it might be objected that this was at least not the case with the martyrs of the Church of Rome, where the Bishop of Rome would have been the bishop declaring the vindicatio. This is certainly true but beside the point; while the Roman martyrs were among the most popular martyrs, the vast majority of vindicati were found outside Rome, and the ecclesiastical recognition of their cultus had nothing to do with the Roman pontiff.

There are two schools of thought on the authority of canonizations in general (and, as we have established above by noting the presence of an investigation and declaration, we are treating the patristic era vindicatio process as a canonization). The canonization either derives its certitude from the integrity of the process, that is, the form; or, on the other hand, from the decree of ecclesiastical recognition, that is, the fact of the canonization. The form and the fact correspond to the two aspects of canonization we examined earlier, investigation and declaration. From which element did the certitude of patristic canonizations proceed from? 

In looking at the patristic vindicatio relative to the later developments in the canonization procedures, we see that the process of investigation has undergone tremendous changes over the centuries. both in terms of how the investigation was conducted to who carried it out. Yet the fact of the ecclesiastical declaration has remained fundamentally stable, even through the monumental shift in the 10th century when the pope assumed the power of declaring saints. Given the historical continuity of the ecclesiastical declaration relative to the constant changes in the investigation process (even once this was assumed by the papacy), locating the source of our certitude in the fluid investigation process seems very tenuous. It would make much more sense to ground it in the fact of the canonization over the form of the investigation.

As further evidence, let us return once more to the case of Lucilla in the letter of St. Optatus. Recall that any cult without the approbation of the bishop was ipso facto invalid, while a cult with episcopal approval was simply taken for granted as not only legitimate, but absolutely certain, since liturgical feasts were erected around the martyrs with all the attendant theological implications. The sole difference between the unnamed and illicit “martyr” venerated by Lucilla and the cult of St. Lawrence or St. Agnes was the fact of an ecclesiastical declaration.

The Infallibility of Early Canonizations

But how can a merely episcopal declaration, even one broadly accepted by all of the churches, possess the charism of infallibility? 

First, recall that we are not talking about a single vindicatio carried out by one bishop and subsequently accepted by all the bishops. Rather, we are talking about multiple bishops all carrying out their own vindicatio procedures. Remember the acts of the martyrdom of Polycarp; after the Bishop of Philomelium had read the acts of the martyr, carried out his investigation and made his decision, the pertinent evidence was to be passed on to other churches so additional bishops could carry out their own vindicatio investigations, if needed. Thus, the authority does not rest on any single bishop, but on the unanimity of the bishops, who collectively can make infallible judgments. It is not until the Holy See assumed control of canonizations that the authority of a single bishop (i.e., of Rome) would stand behind canonizations. Thus, if the bishops in their unanimity agreed that such-and-such is a saint and his cultus receives a universal recognition, we have good grounds for invoking the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium of the Church, when the bishops “proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” (15)

Second, recalling the liturgical focus of early canonizations, perhaps it is more consistent to look for solutions in a liturgical rather than theological context. Rather than attempting to compare the infallibility of canonizations to other infallible statements, perhaps we should be looking for liturgical-sacramental comparisons of a cause that infallibly produces an effect.

The efficacy of sacramental efficacy comes from the promise of Christ Himself, who promises that one who is baptized will be saved, who confesses their sins to the apostles will have them forgiven, and upon whom hands are laid will receive the Holy Spirit. Similarly, the patristic rationale for why martyrs went straight to heaven was the words of Christ, “Whosoever therefore shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven” (cf. Matt. 10:32) (6). “Confession” was here understood as fidelity to the Christian witness in the face of physical martyrdom, but this same principle was extended to all the saints who faithfully “endure till the end,” confessing Christ in a hostile world. The fact of a particular saint’s place in heaven is not a matter of the Deposit of Faith; but it is part of the Deposit of Faith that the Church hierarchy can declare who is among the blessed.

For example, by what authority do we know that a baptism infallibly produces its intended effect or remission of sins? That the Church has always believed this is beyond dispute, and furthermore, this belief predates any papal teaching on the question. Similarly, by what authority did the early Church know that those upon whom hands were laid had infallibly received the Holy Spirit, or that those who stood in legitimate line from the Apostles well able to validly exercise the powers proper to Holy Orders?

Just as it falls to the bishop to decide who is ready to be received into the Church, who can be admitted to communion, or who has done sufficient penance to be readmitted to the Church, so it fell to him to decide when an individual had sufficiently confessed Christ before men. As we have seen above, the bishop’s vindicatio is what renders a cultus licit. The concurrence of all the bishops of the universal Church assenting to the veneration of a vindicati roots these early cults deeply in the sensus catholicus and gives them the stamp of infallibility, not by virtue of being part of the Deposit of Faith, but by being theological conclusions derived from formally revealed truths by aid of the natural truth of reason, which are known as the “secondary objects of infallibility” and can command the assent of our mind and will with infallible certitude.

If this is true, then it means that canonizations did not become any more certain when taken over by the papacy, at least as regards their final certitude. Here many will object by pointing to the many cases in which local canonizations were halted or reversed by papal decree in the Middle Ages; these cults, however, were never more than local and never attained the universal acceptance necessary to render them authoritative. There are many historical reasons for this (lack of education in the Middle Ages relative to late antiquity, less communication between dioceses and hence less common knowledge of the deeds of various saints), but it is sufficient to point out that there was never a situation where a universally accepted saint had his or her cultus overturned by Rome; (Rome, alarmed by the genesis of cults whose origins were suspect, intervened in order to prevent them from ever attaining universality, which is an entirely different matter.

When Rome took over the canonizations, the nature of their infallibility did not change: as facts of history, canonizations of saints will always be part of the secondary object of infallibility. The source of its infallibility changed, however, when the popes assumed this duty. Instead of each bishop doing his own vindicatio and the cultus growing organically, the Holy See assumed control of the vindication process and utilized its supreme power of jurisdiction to mandate the acceptance of their vindicatio by all the bishops of the world, invoking their own personal infallibility. The infallible nature of the canonizations has never changed, but history shows that this infallibility can find its source either in the collective infallibility of the episcopate or the personal infallibility of the Successor of Peter.


Let us sum up our points:

First, a canonization procedure, either ancient or modern, consists of two main aspects: investigation and declaration.

Second, there was never a time in Church history when this process was lacking or absent. Therefore, it is not correct to say that canonization was not “invented” until the early Middle Ages.

In the early Church, investigation was carried out by various members of the local church community; declaration that a particular martyr was worthy of veneration was done by the bishop.

This declaration—the vindicatio—did not simply recognize a valid cultus but actually established it. The liceity of a particular cult was grounded in this act of the bishop. The authority was in the fact of the canonization, not the form of the process.

Each bishop was responsible for conducting his own vindicatio, although bishops often recognized saints from other churches based on the word or testimony of other bishops.

The vindicatio allowed for liturgical rites to develop in honor of a saint. The theology of the liturgy took for granted that the saint was in heaven and hence that the vindicatio was certain.

If the formal acceptance of the cultus reached a point of relative or absolute universality, it was considered infallible by virtue of the infallibility of the episcopacy universally agreeing on a theological conclusion intimately bound up with revelation (in this case, the efficacy of the particular saint’s intercession in the liturgy) pertaining to the secondary object of infallibility.

The presence of a particular saint in Heaven is not part of the Deposit of Faith, but an infallible theological conclusion; it is part of the Deposit of Faith that legitimate authority in the Church can make these judgments infallibly, however.

As there is not only one “kind” of infallibility but various sources of infallibility, the assumption of the canonization process by Rome did not alter the infallibility of the canonizations but rather grounded them in the personal prerogatives of the Pope rather than that of the episcopate.

Two conclusions follow from these truths: In the first place, since the procedures for investigating the causes of saints have changed so much over the centuries, it is not tenable to try to locate the source of their infallibility in the procedure. Nor is it correct to say that the authority of a cult was derived from the community itself; the devotion of the community was taken into consideration, but legitimacy was always conferred by positive acts of the hierarchy, either of the episcopate or papacy. Second, the historical continuity of the structure of investigation with subsequent declaration means that we are not free to simply change the fundamental rules for canonization by, say, opening it up to non-Catholics.

There will certainly be much more discussion about this in light of the upcoming canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II, at this point still four days in the future (18). May God grant us all wisdom here and may He forgive me if I have written amiss.

(1) Pope Francis, Interview with Andrea Tornielli, Dec. 10, 2013
(2) Roberto de Mattei, “The “Canonizations”: CFN interviews Professor Roberto de Mattei”, , Apr. 15, 2014 <accessed 18 Apr. 2014>
(3) Pope Eugene IV, Council of Florence, Cantate Domino, Session 11, Feb. 4, 1442.
(4) Prospero Lambertini, De Servorum Dei, “On Heroic Virtues”, c. 1:21 and Gregory IX, Decretales, III, “De reliquiis et veneratione sanctorum” 
(5) Martyrdom of Polycarp, 21
(6) ibid., 20 
(7) ibid.
(8) Martyrdom of Ignatius, 7 
(9) Martyrdom of Polycarp, 20
(10) Arthur Stapylton Barnes, The Early Church in Light of the Monuments, (Longmans, Green and Co: 1913), 51-52
(11) St. Optatus, Against the Donatists, 1:16
(12) Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books, 1974, p. 299
(13) Beccari, Camillo. “Beatification and Canonization.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 20 Apr. 2014 <>.
(14) We are, of course, addressing this point to those who suggest that canonizations were only infallible from the high middle ages (when the Holy See assumed oversight of them) to the abolition of the Devil’s Advocate by John Paul II in 1983. Such a position is untenable; canonizations have either always been infallible or they never have, in our humble opinion.
(15) Lumen Gentium, 25. This position is not without its difficulties, as the same passage from Lumen Gentium states that the infallibility of the ordinary Magisterium “extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends”; this is problematic, as the common consensus of theologians is that the infallibility of canonizations pertains not to the deposit of faith itself but to what is called the “secondary object of infallibility”: those truths of Christianity that are not formally revealed but are so intricately bound up with divine revelation that to deny them would lead to a denial of some aspect of divine revelation itself. Dr. Ott specifically cites historical judgments like the canonization of saints and the identity of the reigning pope in this category. (Ott, Fundamentals, 299).
(16) Ott also sees the veneration of the saints as rooted in this promise.
(17) Even in the cases of those saints “demoted” by Paul VI in 1969, their cultus was not overturned or suppressed; their feast days were removed from the universal calendar.
(18) This article was originally published in 2014.

Phillip Campbell, “Canonization in the Early Church,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, April 18, 2014. Available online at