Right from our mother’s lap, we were taught that there would always be saints in the Church. Sanctity is one of her essential marks and it could not be absent from any period of Church history, or even from any place where she exercises her salutary influence. The repeated cry of the pagans was to praise such holy conduct: “See how they love each other.”
In other words, their mutual love and forbearance was symptomatic of their deeper love of God above all else, including above their self-interest. The Church does not hesitate to credit certain heroic men with holiness of life and the beatific vision in heaven, as it is incorporated in her most basic Creed: “I believe in the communion of saints.” This belief in the heavenly communion of the saints is the dogma which sustains the entire question of the canonizations of the saints.
Given his social nature, man is wont to take his rule of conduct from the wise and the just, and he would give them the honor due to heroes always in connection with the divinity: heroes somehow reflect the splendor of God clad in human flesh. Most men indeed are led to the truth, the good, and the beautiful by the imitation of the best models.
Christians who have received the revelation of the God made man still feel the need for saints: “Be imitators of me,” says St. Paul to the Corinthians, “as I am of Christ.” And, given the impact their heroes have in the doctrinal and moral formation of nations, the popes gave their utmost care in declaring the genuine sanctity of life of Church heroes.
The process of canonization is primarily ordained to promote the public cult or veneration of a saint as our intercessor before God. It does not declare that each circumstance of his life was perfect, but it does affirm that he possessed the essential elements of the way of sanctity. So doing, it proposes him as an example and model of Christian life.
More questions have been raised about this process of canonization. What exactly is affirmed when the pope declares that this individual is canonized? Does he give the seal of approval of his saintly life? Does he certify that he is in heaven? No one may doubt the affirmative answer to both questions. When the process is successful, the canonization affirms that he was a saintly man and that he enjoys God in heaven. It also affirms the causal relation of both elements: the saint shines in heaven with the reward of his glory because he shone on earth by the merit of virtue. It is a dogma of the faith that whoever imitates Jesus in this life will necessarily participate of His glory in the next. Any papal declaration of sainthood is a particular affirmation of this universal principle.
Until Pope Paul VI, the process of canonization ran through three specific steps: the preparatory step, called “ordinary process” because it was done under the authority of the Ordinary of the place, concluded with the introduction of the cause to Rome; the “apostolic process” under the pope’s authority ended with the decree of beatification; the reopening of the “apostolic process” terminated with the decree of canonization. But for each of these complex steps, the judges ad hoc had to attest to the orthodoxy of the writings both private and public, to the heroism of the virtues, and finally to the authenticity of the miracles.
This process is as enlightening as it is enigmatic: since the divine origin of the miracle is difficult to assert (save rare exceptions since the devil can capably ape God), its authenticity depends, and falls back, on the heroism of the virtues. But to judge the heroism of virtues can prove also very taxing as we judge them only by their exterior acts and the judgment of intention is easily fallible. The same actions humanly heroic, like giving alms to the poor and throwing oneself into the flames, may be done out of divine charity or out of diabolical fanaticism. Just compare the burning at the stake of some heretic like John Huss and a saint like Joan of Arc. By and large, both were taken for fanatics at the time.
One’s life is animated by one’s doctrine. So, the judgment of one’s miracles and heroic life refers us to the first test, that of doctrinal orthodoxy. Hence, all sainthood ultimately hinges on the soundness of doctrine of the candidate which, for once, is easy to determine. To block definitely a cause, it was not needed that the servant of God write formal errors against dogma or morals. It sufficed that there be suspicious novelties, frivolous questions, or some singular opinion opposed to the teachings of the Fathers and the common understanding of the faithful.
In view of the post-conciliar canonizations which raise legitimate suspicion to traditionalists, the assurance of the infallibility of normal (or pre-conciliar) canonizations has lost some luster. Wrongly so, and this under several headings.
Firstly, the purpose of canonization is a public and universal cult given to the saints, which is akin to the profession of faith. St. Thomas Aquinas explains that “the honor which we render to the saints is a certain profession of faith by which we believe in the glory of the saints.” Could the pope induce the entire Church into error in presenting to the veneration of all a damned soul? Would it not be to set up an altar to the devil himself? It seems blasphemous to think that God would let Peter be led so far astray.
Saint Thomas explains that a particular canonization is intermediary between general truths (dogmas) and judgments of particular cases (dogmatic facts). He also raises the objection of error based on false witnesses. But this is properly retorted by the traditional process of canonization. It was going through so many forensic formalities that the seriousness and cross checking virtually annulled the error ratio. These complex measures were precisely meant to give the pope the moral certitude needed to put the seal of papal infallibility on the judgment at hand.
Also, we have seen that the whole process of canonization hinges on the purity of faith of the servant of God. The most rigid theological examination of his writings and sayings is needed to discern the authentic motives of human conduct, because we act according as we know. If theologians speak of “infallible canonizations,” this is precisely because the canonizations rely firstly on the doctrinal test. Hence, although the seal of sainthood aims firstly at judging the concrete acts of God’s servant and at allowing the public worship, it is ultimately designed to pass a doctrinal message. And this is why the popes used to write their decrees of canonization in the same way as the dogmatic definitions (compare the formula of canonization of Clement XI in May 22, 1712, and that of the Immaculate Conception):
“Ad honorem sanctae et individuae Trinitatis, ad exaltationem fidei catholicae et christianae religionis augmentum, auctoritate D.N.J.C., beatorum Apostolorum Petri et Pauli ac Nostra, matura deliberatione praehabita, et divina ope saepius implorata, ac de venerabilium Fratrum nostrorum N.N. consilio, Beatos N.N. sanctos, et sanctam esse decernimus et definimus, ac Sanctorum catalogo adscribimus : statuentes, ab Ecclesia universali illorum memoriam quolibet anno die eorum natali…pia devotione recoli debere.
“(For the honor of the Holy and undivided Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic Faith and the increase of the Christian religion, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the blessed Apostles Peter and Paul and Ours, after mature deliberation, and having implored often the divine help, and the advice of our venerable Brothers N.N., we declare and define the blessed N.N. to be holy, and we ascribe them in the catalogue of the Saints: commanding that their memory each year in their day of birth be remembered with pious devotion by the universal Church.)”
After this short presentation of the stakes of canonization, every Catholic understands how saints and their process of canonization are essential to our faith. Saints are the show window of the Church to the world, the ultimate samples of perfection the Church has ever produced. And because they deal with the best, few things are more harmful to the Church than to tread on the definition of sainthood and pulverize the canonization process. If the Church has been accused in the remote past of the fault of clericalism by clerics overextending their influence to boost up religion, today the Church has been shown to practice an inverted clericalism in which the clerical impulse consists in destroying the Christian order. This distinction seems highly relevant when it comes to modern-day canonizations.