Canonizations: Old vs. New Comparison

Those skeptical of modern canonizations observe that the procedures by which the Church raises saints to her altars have been “changed” since the Second Vatican Council. What were these changes? Pope Paul VI began the process in 1969. His decree Sacra Ritua Congregatio split the Sacred Congregation of Rites into two congregations: the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The latter congregation was sub-divided into three offices, which led in turn to a restructuring of the canonization process. Between 1969 and 1983, the process in a sort of flux. In 1983, St. John Paul II’s Divinis Perfectionis Magister further streamlined the procedure, eliminating much of the back-and-forth that characterized the pre-1969 procedure, as well as famously downgrading the office of Promotor Fidei (“Devil’s Advocate”) to make the office less adversarial.

But in what other ways do the pre-1969 and post-1983 procedures differ? How much has really changed in this process?

To help answer this question, we have prepared a side by side comparison of the pre-1969 procedure (which had remained relatively unchanged since 1588) with the post-1983 restructuring. Please note, because the years between 1969 and 1983 were a kind of interim period where the process was in flux, this period is not included here, although a study of the changes in procedure during this period would be very illuminating. We present merely the pre-Paul IV system contrasted with the revisions made by John Paul II in 1983, revisions which characterize the current procedure followed in beatifications and canonizations.

Pre-1969Post 1983
The bishop of the diocese in which the individual died, by his ordinary authority, forms a tribunal for handling the Cause. Witnesses are called before the tribunal to testify to the reputation of sanctity. A careful scrutiny is also made of the writings of the candidate. The candidate is now considered a “Servant of God.”The bishop of the diocese in which the individual died petitions the Holy See to open a Cause for Beatification and Canonization. In the case of religious, the petition is made by his or her religious institute. The candidate must be dead for at least 5 years.
When these inquiries are completed, their results are bound and sent to the Sacred Congregation of Rites. The Congregation reviews the documents of the diocesan tribunal. If the review is favorable, they proceed to form a commission for the Cause of the candidate.The appropriate dicasteries, especially the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, review the petition. If they have no objections, they issue a nihil obstat to the bishop, allowing the process to begin. The individual us now known as a “Servant of God.”
The Congregation appoints both a Postulator General (who is in charge of promoting the Cause) and a Promotor Fidei, more commonly known as the Devil’s Advocate. The role of the Promotor is to bring up objections to the Cause, as well as ensure proper canonical form is observed in all proceedings.The bishop of religious institute appoints a Postulator, whose job is to promote the Cause, as well as gather testimony about the life and virtues of the Servant of God. All public and private writings of the Servant of God must be gathered and examined. This documentary phase may take several years.
The Promotor Fideo formulates his objections. The Postulator General has an opportunity to answer the objections, either directly or through an advocate appointed by him.After the documentary phase has concluded, the Postulator presents all his documentation to the diocesan tribunal, which decides whether the heroic virtues of the Servant of God have been demonstrated. If the bishop judges in the affirmative, the bishop’s judgment, along with the bound volumes of documentation (Acta) are sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.
The Cardinals of the Sacred Congregation of Rites, taking into account the arguments of the Promotor Fidei and the Postulator General, render an opinion. If the opinion of favorable, it is sent to the Holy Father for his signature. The pope signs the document in his baptismal name—not his pontifical name.The Acta of the documentary phase are committed by the Congregation to a Relator appointed from among the Congregation’s College of Relators, whose task is to superintend the Cause through the rest of the process.
At this point, a general positio is composed by an advocate and set before the Congregation. This includes a full statement of the Cause, a summary of the objections put forth by the Promotor Fidei with the advocate’s replies, as well as an overview of the canonical process to be followed. The Congregation gives the positio their affirmation and a declaration is issued that the Cause go forward.Working with a theological commission established by the Congregation, the Relator uses all the available documentation to prepare a positio summarizing the life and virtues of the Servant of God. When it is finished, the positio is presented before the theological commission, who render a vote affirmative or negative.
The pope sends a remissorial letter to the bishop of the diocese where the Servant of God died. This requires the bishop to convene a tribunal no later than three months after receiving the letter and conclude it within two years.The commission’s results are passed up to the senior members of the Congregation, who are all bishops, archbishops, and cardinals for judgment. If they vote negative, the Cause dies. If they vote affirmative, the Decree of Heroic Virtue is sent to the Holy Father for his judgment.
The bishop’s tribunal is formed, consisting of five judges, two sub-promotors, and a notary. Witnesses to the Servant of God’s sanctity are interviewed according to pre-prepared interrogatories drawn up by the Promotor Fidei. Evidences of special virtues and of miracles are duly recorded. If the Holy Father agrees with the Congregation’s findings, the candidate is declared Venerable.
A copy of this whole process (Acta) is drawn up and sent to the Sacred Congregation. The Congregation considers the validity of the diocesan tribunal. It is presented with a second positio, this one summarizing the procedures used at the diocesan tribunal, the purpose being to demonstrate that all rules have been complied with.The candidate remains Venerable until a demonstrable miracle has taken place that can be attributed to their intercession. The miracle must be scrutinized by tribunals both scientific and theological. The purpose of the scientific tribunal is to rule out any natural explanation; the theological tribunal’s purpose is to determine whether the phenomenon is a miracle in the strict sense (attributable to God), and second, whether it is due to the intercession of the Venerable alone. The evidence of the miracle is presented from the diocese where the miracle occurred (not necessarily the diocese of the Cause). It is the job of the diocese to vet these miracles.
A discussion is then held in the general session of the Congregation on the validity of the procedures at both the diocesan and apostolic levels. If the judgment is affirmative, it is confirmed by the pope, who publishes a Decree of Validity attesting to the soundness of the method.The documentation of the miracle is sent tot he Congregation for the Causes of Saints, which establishes its own scientific and theological tribunals. The scientific tribunal must render an affirmative vote before moving on to the theological tribunal. The affirmative vote of the theological commission is then transmitted to the general meeting of the cardinal and episcopal members, whose affirmative judgment is forwarded to the Holy Father. Note, the miracle may be waived in the case of martyrdoms.
Next come the sessions to determine the proof of heroism in the exercise of particular virtues (or of proof of martyrdom). This takes three sessions: an ante-preparatory attended only by officials of the Cause; the preparatory, with all the cardinals of the Congregation present; and finally, the general session, attended by all the cardinals and the officials of the Cause in the presence of the Holy Father. If the Holy Father approves the Congregation’s vote on the authenticity of the miracle, the Venerable is beatified and is henceforth known as Blessed. Blesseds may receive public veneration at the local or regional level, usually restricted to those dioceses or institutes closely connected with the Blessed’s life.
If the three sessions all confirm the presence of heroic virtue, a decree to this effect is drawn up by the Holy Father. Henceforth, the candidate may be called Venerable, though public veneration is not yet allowed. After beatification the Church looks for a second miracle before proceeding to canonization. The process is the same as it was for the miracle that made beatification possible. The alleged miracle is studied by scientific and theological commissions in the diocese in which it is alleged to have occurred.
Miracles are required for beatification, but their number depends on a few factors. Two are required if eye-witness testimony can be produced; three if eye-witnesses were available at the initial documentary phase but have since passed away; four miracles are required if evidence is based entirely on tradition and textual sources.After the diocesan process has concluded, the alleged miracle is studied by a scientific and theological commission of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. The vote of the commission is forwarded to the episcopal members of the Congregation whose affirmative vote is communicated to the Holy Father.
The evidence of the miracles is compiled by the competent diocesan authorities in the dioceses where the miracles took place. They are sent to the Congregation, which passes judgment on the validity of the procedure at the diocesan level, as well as the facts of the cases themselves. If the miracles are credible, a decree is issued to that effect.The consent of the Holy Father to the decision of the Congregation results in a Decree of Miracle. Canonization is now possible.
After this, the Congregation debates whether or not the Cause should proceed to beatification. It is customary to allow a short period to elapse before the Holy Father takes action on the case.By the rite of canonization, the Holy Father declares the candidate to be a saint.
The Holy Father issues and apostolic brief in which he announces a date for the solemn beatification, at the same time establishing a Mass and Office in honor of the beatus, as well as special festivities, usually a Triduum. At the appointed date, the candidate is beatified.
Before the Cause can proceed to canonization, the beatus must be attributed with two more miracles (if he has been formally beatified) or three miracles (if he has been given equivalent beatification). This may happen years of even centuries after the beatification.
As soon as at least one miracle can be submitted, the Postulator may apply to the Holy See for a commission for “reassumption of the Cause.” The Postulator prepares a positio for re-opening the Cause.
The Postulator’s arguments are considered at the next general meeting of the Congregation. If the judgment is affirmative, it recommends the Holy Father issue a decree re-opening the Cause, which the Holy Father does.
The curia of the dioceses where the miracles occurred institute procedures for documenting all the facts relating to the miracles. These procedures are dictated by the Congregation.
These new Acta are submitted to the Sacred Congregation of Rites for review. If their judgment is affirmative, the Holy Father issues a decree constare de miraculis, stating that the miracles have been proven and are credible.
The pope requests a judgment from the Sacred Congregation of Rites on whether or not the beatus should proceed to canonization. If the opinion is favorable, the pope issues a decree “De tuto,” stating that the process can safely proceed to its final stage. The canonization is announced, though no date is set.
The Holy Father holds several consistories, in which the entire matter is discussed again. This is the time for a summary of all the evidence in favor of the canonization. Finally, the date for canonization is announced in public or semi-public consistory.
The solemnity of canonization takes places in St. Peter’s basilica. The candidate is now considered a saint. His Postulator arranges that a novena of celebrations (or a Triduum) be held in some church connected with the saint.

Obviously the pre-1969 system is much longer. However, the mere fact that it is longer does not mean it is more thorough or better; it is common knowledge that in bureaucracies a lot of paper can get pushed and a lot of reports issued between departments, but such is no guarantee that anything productive is happening.

The difference between the old and new procedures is not in their length, but in their character. In the pre-1969 procedure, you will note 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. Everywhere there are checks and balances where different commissions pass judgment not only only the candidate, but on the procedures involved at every step of the process. There is a very strict attention to form and methodology in the pre-1969 procedure which is simply lacking in the post-1983 system.

While the Promotor Fidei was not abolished in 1983, his role was greatly reduced. This was another example of how there is less attention to procedure in the post-1983 system, as one of the main roles of the Promotor Fidei was to scrutinize the procedures by which the process went forward.

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. We will not review this entire argument, but recommend the reader consult our lengthy article “History of the Devil’s Advocate”  for more on how the role of the Promotor Fidei has evolved.


It is not the purpose of this comparison to suggest that modern canonizations are invalid; the validity of canonization was never entirely dependent upon the particular procedure adopted in arriving at the canonization, which has changed over the centuries. Still, an objective comparison of the old and new systems does give one grounds for concern, since the integrity of the contemporary procedure is lessened—not so much by lacking elements found in the old system as much as by a paradigm shift in the Church’s understanding of what the procedure is supposed to accomplish and how.

Post-1983 details on the process for beatification and canonization taken from “The Process of Beatification and Canonization”, EWTN, <>, Accessed 6 Sept, 2015.

Pre-1969 procedures for canonization taken from the essay “The Process of Beatification and Canonization” by Rev. Abbot Aloysius Smith, CRL, DD., found in The English Martyrs, ed. Rev. Dom Bede Camm, OSB (1929, Herder Book Company, Cambridge, England), pp. 43-54

Phillip Campbell, “Canonization: Old vs. New Comparison,” Unam Sanctam Catholicam, September 7, 2015. Available online at: