Are canonizations infallible?

Are canonizations of saints an exercise of infallibility? That is to say, when the Church solemnly proclaims that a man or woman is among the blessed and is worthy of veneration, does this statement command the obedience and certitude of faith, or is their room for doubt? Could the Church be in error regarding some of her saints? Is it possible that those we venerate and invoke at our Masses could in fact still be in Purgatory or even be damned?  This concept must cause revulsion in the heart of any loyal Catholic; for those of us raised on the stories of the great deeds of the saints, the very notion that St. Francis, St. Theresé or St. Augustine could be anywhere but heaven is blasphemous and offensive to pious ears. But even if our heart revolts against the idea, what can we say theologically about this question? In this article I will attempt to show that canonizations are infallible pronouncements of the Church (in fact, the most common kind of infallible teachings). This infallibility is related to two distinct elements: the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff and the offering of the sacrifice of the Mass as a worthy and acceptable offering to God.

In the first place we must remember that there are two objects of the infallibility guaranteed to the Church by the Holy Spirit. The primary purpose or object of infallibility is the formally revealed truths of the Faith concerning faith and morals. This infallibility is necessary for the Church to fulfill its mission as guardian of the depositum fidei, as Vatican I taught in the "Dogmatic Constitution concerning the Catholic Faith" (Dei Filius), Chapter 3:

[I]n order that we may satisfactorily perform the duty of embracing the true faith and of continuously persevering in it, God, through His only-begotten Son, has instituted the Church, and provided it with clear signs of His institution, so that it can be recognized by all as the guardian and teacher of the revealed word
(Denz. 1793).

However, there is a secondary object of infallibility outside of formally revealed dogma. The secondary object of infallibility are those truths of Christianity that are not formally revealed but are so intricately bound up with divine revelation that to deny them would mire us in innumerable difficulties and lead to a denial of some aspect of divine revelation itself. It is under this second object of infallibility that the canonization of saints belongs. Dr. Ludwig Ott, in his great work Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma,  lists four types of teachings to which the second object of infallibility can be applied:

  • Theological conclusions derived from formally revealed truths by aid of the natural truth of reason

  • Historical facts on the determination of which the certainty of a truth of Revelation depends (so-called "dogmatic facts", for example, "Is Pope Benedict XVI truly the duly elected and rightful successor to the throne of Peter?)

  • Natural truths of reason which are intimately connected with revelation (e.g., that in vitro fertilization is immoral).

  • The canonization of saints (see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, TAN Books, 1974, p. 299)

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. Ott says, "If the Church could err in her opinion [of canonized saints], consequences would arise which would be incompatible with the sanctity of the Church" (ibid).

Remember, the canonzation of a saint means two things: that the person is among the blessed in heaven and that they possess virtues that are worthy of imitation; i.e., they are a role model. Can you imagine the mess that would arise if, through errant canonizations, Catholics were led to admire and imitate persons who were among the damned? It is because of the confusion that would arise in the public worship of the Church, as well as the devotional lives of private Catholics, that canonizations of saints are considered a particular subset of the general infallibility of the Roman Pontiff. This comes to bear especially as we move to the second part of the argument: that 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. Some of the extrinsic elements about the Mass may be displeasing to God (choice of music, decorum, etc), but the sacrifice of the Mass considered instrinsically 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.

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 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.

The Church is holy. Part of this holiness has to do with the holiness of her sacrifices, as mentioned above. 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 squared with the imminent holiness of the sacrifice of the Mass? Can you imagine a scenario where a saint is invoked in the Mass who is actually not a saint but 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? Would it be consonant with the holiness and perfection of the sacrifice of the Mass for the Church itself to ordain the commemoration liturgically of men who are not really in heaven?

These are but some of the liturgical difficulties we would find ourselves in if canonizations were not infallible. This is why a certainty beyond simple moral certainty is needed when we talk about the formally defined saints, especially when their veneration is connected to the Mass. The "Catholic Encyclopedia" states:

"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" (entry for Canonization).

Following the liturgical argument, it is interesting to notice that this is also implicit in the fact that Rome does not recognize saints from orthodox communions who are not among her own. We share many saints with the east, like St. Athanasius, St. Anthony of Egypt, etc. However, there are many saints of the eastern calendar (or the Russian Orthodox, Coptic, etc.) whom we do not recognize. An example is Emperor Constantine, who is revered as a saint among Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox. Another example is Czar Nicholas II of Russia, who is invoked as Saint Nicholas the Passion-Bearer by the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church. We could also cite Pontius Pilate, who was considered a saint by certain Ethiopian Orthodox at one time.

The fact that the Catholic Church does not embrace these saints but at the same time mandates the commemoration of her own demonstrates two things: that Rome regards the cults of the saints of other Christian communions to be somewhat dubious at times, and that it also regards her own judgments about her saints to be certain; otherwise how could she mandate their liturgical celebrations?

I think, as a caveat however, that this infallibility extends only to canonized saints (not beata or venerables), and that it pertains only to the final fact of canonization, not the motives for the canonization or the methods involved in the process. I think it possible that somebody can be declared a saint for the wrong motives; it is equally possible that someone can be declared a saint despite an insufficient amount of inquiry or improper procedure. I do not think these elements cancel out the canonization, however. At the end of the day, whatever else might be said, if so-and-so gets canonized, the decree of canonization is infallible (that is, they are certainly among the blessed) even if the procedures that led to the canonization may have been errant or misled.

To recap the argument: canonizations must be considered infallible teachings of the Church's Magisterium because (1) their declarations are an extension of the infallibility of the Roman Pontiff due to their intimate connection with revealed dogma and the difficulties they would mire us in if they were not theologically certain, and (2) because of their connection to the sacrifice of the Mass, which is always holy and pure, inasmuch as if canonizations could be errant it would do damage to the intrinsic holiness of the sacrifice of the Mass, something that could not occur without imperiling the holiness of the Church's sacraments, and because (3) the Church's failure to honor the saints of other Christian communions shows that the Church regards them as somewhat dubious, which sheds light on the truth that her certainty about the blessedness of her own saints is not in any way dubious.

Thus, we can have confidence that those whom we invoke here below do indeed exist among the blessed, beholding the vision of God, and interceding for us continually.