Canonizations, Beatifications, and Papal Infallibility

A question often arises among inquiring Catholics whether or not canonizations and beatifications fall under the mantle of papal infallibility. Theologian Camillo Beccari (I would assume that he is a priest although there’s no indication in the signature) contributed an article for the 1907 Catholic Encyclopedia that deals with this question, and others, relating to veneration of saints and blesseds. I thought it would be good for our website readers to concisely present his arguments in favor of the infallibility of the former and opposed to the infallibility of the latter.

In the early Church there was no canonical process for canonizing saints.  Other than the Blessed Virgin Mary, whose worship (cultus) was always singular and unique, those who were so venerated were only the Catholic martyrs.  The local bishop would judge the worthiness of the martyr (a virtuous life, not just an eleventh hour conversion) and if “proven” (vindicati), the account of his or her heroic sacrifice would be sent to other churches so that the one venerated locally might have their honorable name magnified.  There is no known case from the early church where the pope intervened by way of rejecting the sainthood of a martyr whose merit had been “proven” by a Catholic bishop.

The causes of confessors who were not slain for Christ developed later, about a century after the end of the age of the catacombs (A.D. 313). At first only those confessors who had professed their Faith before tyrants, been imprisoned, or tortured, were deemed candidates for sainthood.  Gradually holy confessors who led peaceful lives of extraordinary virtue, without physical torments, were also added to the roster of saints. Ascetics, such as the desert fathers, were given honors first, then those whose lives resembled theirs even though they lived in the world. In all these cases it was the local bishop, or patriarch, who approved of the public veneration of candidates who died in his jurisdiction. This was equivalent to what in the seventeenth century became the canonical process of beatification.  Only the pope could raise a locally venerated saint and proclaim such a one worthy of veneration throughout the universal Church. The bishop of Rome could do this implicitly by giving tacit, passively permissive approval, or explicitly by a positive declaration of perceptive approval.

As the Church grew, however, as one might expect, abuses began to crop up. By the eleventh century, the popes found it necessary to exert direct authority over the cultus dulia (as the worship of saints is referred to canonically). No longer could a bishop give his approval to the local worship of a “saint” unless he first presented the candidate to the scrutiny of a synod, more preferably a general synod. Decretals on the subject were issued by Urban II, Calixtus II, and Eugenius III.  Not all bishops obeyed these decretals, especially in the East, and these were not just the schismatics, but those united with the Roman Pontiff. Finally, Urban VII published, in 1634, a Bull which put an end to all discussion by reserving to the Holy See exclusively not only its immemorial right of canonization, but also that of beatification.

The question of the infallibility of the canonization of a saint raises historical as well as doctrinal issues.  Prior to the popes’ direct interventions – let us say before the eleventh century – were those saints universally venerated by the whole Church, infallibly worthy of being raised to the altar? The answer, as Beccari argues it, is “Yes.” The formality that gradually developed in Rome after the late Middle Ages did not suddenly make the act of canonization infallible, as if the informal process had not been so.  It is the pope’s approval of the universal Church’s veneration of a saint, whether formal or informal, that is protected from error by the Holy Ghost. This, Beccari writes, is not a defined dogma in itself, for it never was defined, but it is the constant and universal teaching of the ordinary magisterium of the Church.

What exactly is the object of the act of canonization?  Does it suddenly put the blessed one in heaven should he have been in purgatory? No. Does it mean that the one canonized went straight to heaven after death? No. That elevation is reserved only to the martyrs. Doctor Beccari opts for the only opinion left, and it is generally supported by Catholic theologians: namely, that the act of canonization is a definitive act declaring that the saint is at that time in eternal bliss.

How can it be otherwise? When the formula for canonization, in use since the eleventh century it would seem, employs the categorical affirmative proposition: “In honour 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 be devoutly and piously celebrated yearly on the . . . day of . . . his feast.”

A simple argument demonstrating that beatifications do not fall under the mantle of infallibility, as to the beatified being in heaven at least, would be that of contrast. If it were infallible that the beatified is in heaven, there would be no real objective difference between canonizations and beatifications, as to the subject of the decree.  Both acts would guarantee that the person is in heaven at the time of the pronouncement.  Therefore, there would be no reason why the beatified should not be venerated universally, since they practiced heroic virtue and they are already in eternal beatitude.

Another point is that the step prior to canonization had no history in the Church until Urban VII’s Bull of 1634, whereas canonization, albeit in different forms, was always part of the Church’s tradition, implicitly complementing the article of Faith in the Apostles Creed: I believe in the communion of saints. The communion of saints must include, and indeed preeminently so, the faithful departed, suffering and triumphant.

Beccari points out that only a marginal number of theologians believe that beatification engages papal infallibility, at least when the locally venerated candidate for canonization is approved by the pope.  Traditionally – that is since the Bull of Urban VII – the pope did not preside over a beatification himself. That, too, would argue against the infallibility of the act. It is for this reason that our reigning Pontiff, Benedict XVI, has relegated the rite of beatifications usually to the local ordinary of the blessed’s home diocese. Furthermore, what the pope permits by way of local, public veneration of a blessed cannot be matter for an infallible act. Only propositions on matters of Faith and morals can be defined infallibly, statements to which a “true” or “false” reply can be given, not permissions, commands, or even laws and prohibitions. Here is how Doctor Beccari wraps up the ad contra argument.

Canonists and theologians generally deny the infallible character of decrees of beatification, whether formal or equivalent, since it is always a permission, not a command; while it leads to canonization, it is not the last step. Moreover, in most cases, the cultus permitted by beatification, is restricted to a determined province, city, or religious body.

A final issue that Beccari did not raise is that of public worship at the altar.  If the beatified is not infallibly in heaven then how could the Church allow a local Mass to be offered honoring him or her?  I could not find this question addressed by any Church authority as I scanned the web, but my own opinion – may it not be offensive to pious ears – is that, even if the beatus is in purgatory, everyone benefits from that Mass – on account of the merits of the Sacrificial Victim, Jesus Christ – including the one being honored locally on that day upon the altar. Many saints, such as Catherine of Genoa, have had a special devotion to the suffering souls in purgatory. They did not just pray for the holy souls, but to the holy souls. Even though the souls in purgatory cannot shorten their period of purgation by praying for themselves, their prayers for the Church militant are very powerful.