November 2013 Print

What Is Canonization?

An interview with Fr. Dominique Bourmaud, SSPX

Angelus: What is canonization?

Father Bourmaud: Canonization is the act by which the Vicar of Christ, judging in ultimate instance and emitting a definitive sentence, inscribes in the catalogue of the saints a servant of God previously beatified. The canonization has a triple finality and does not refer only to the worship. In first instance, the pope declares that the faithful deceased is in the celestial glory; secondly, he expresses that the faithful deceased deserved to reach this glory for having practiced heroic virtues, which set an example for the whole Church; thirdly, so as to offer more easily these virtues as an example and to thank God for having caused it, he prescribes that the faithful deceased should receive a public cult. On these three scores the canonization is a precept and obliges the entire Church, and it constitutes a definitive and irreformable act.

Angelus: Are canonizations considered infallible?

Father: The common and certain doctrine of the majority of theologians consider canonizations to be infallible. All the treatises published after the First Vatican Council (and prior to Vatican II), from Billot to Salaverri, teach it as a common theological doctrine. (In De Ecclesia, thesis 17, 726, Salaverri affirms that this is a truth at least theologically certain, if not implicitly defined.) St. Thomas asks the question in a different way: Are the saints canonized in glory or could some of them be in hell? His viewpoint is that canonization is infallible in as much as it implies the profession of a truth virtually revealed (whoever fulfilled God’s law, especially those who practiced heroic virtues, deserve the glory of heaven).

Angelus: Does the infallibility apply only to the state of the soul canonized, or to his actions and words also?

Father: Prior to Vatican II, the judgment of the Church regarding a servant of God, which was regulated by Benedict XIV, was thorough and dealt with the teachings and acts of the potential saint, before he be promoted as an example for the whole Church.

It is not a matter of de fide definita that a canonized saint is infallibly in heaven, but rather a matter which is certain or de fide catholica. This is because its denial is opposed only indirectly to the faith, and would not constitute a heresy, but would be taxed as being erroneous or false.

Likewise, the infallibility of the canonizations has never been defined as a truth of faith, although this could be done. To deny it would be a fault of temerity but not of heresy. This negation would imply an insult to the saint and a scandal to the Church.

Angelus: Is a canonization considered to be part of the extraordinary magisterium or the ordinary magisterium?

Father: Until now, the canonizations have always been considered infallible by a divine assistance to the personal magisterium of the pope, assimilated to the locution ex cathedra.

Angelus: What has changed in the rite of canonization since Vatican II?

Father: From the document commenting on the Motu Proprio Ad Tuendam Fidem of 1998, we see that there will be now another type of “infallible” magisterium of the pope, which is neither personally infallible nor definitory per se, but the act of the ordinary magisterium of the pope which deals with a doctrine infallibly taught by the ordinary universal magisterium of the Episcopal college. In this mode, the pope is acting as the simple interpreter of the collegial magisterium. And given the Apostolic Constitution Divinus Perfectionis Magister of 1983, it is clear that this applies to canonizations. Hence, now, canonizations are not guaranteed by the personal infallibility of solemn magisterium of the pope. Will they be guaranteed by the ordinary universal magisterium of the Episcopal college? The answer seems to be negative, if one reads the judgment of Benedict XIV on the legislation of the beatifications and canonizations done up to the twelfth century. (In De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione, lib. 1, cap. 10, n.6.) This pope considered these decrees to be fallible precisely because the popes in those earlier days simply authenticated the acts of a residential bishop. The post-conciliar legislation is returning to the pre-twelfth-century legislation and certainly raises doubts as to the infallibility of present-day canonizations.

Angelus: How can one question its infallibility without subjecting an extraordinary pronouncement, like the canonization of John Paul II, to a sort of personal judgment which undermines the raison d’être of the extraordinary magisterium? Are we not attacking the pope and his magisterial power by attacking its use in canonizations?

Father: No! It is very important to explain to the faithful the distinction between potency and act. The magisterium is a potency, a power ordained to its act and to the object of the act. Even if you take away the act, even if you twist the object, you have not taken away the potency which is more basic. Many popes in Church history have never exercised their extraordinary infallible magisterium, and yet no one ever discussed their power to do so.

Angelus: But what about a pope canonizing someone like Fr. Escriba de Balaguer or Teresa of Calcutta? Are they not infallible?

Father: All true canonizations are infallible. But infallibility cannot exist if there is no canonization. And there is no canonization when there is no sanctity: canonization does not cause, but only seals, sanctity and offers the saint’s virtue as an example to follow. In other words, we deny the infallibility of some of these canonizations because they are not true canonizations. He who is no saint is in no way canonizable. Luther is not ‘canonizable’...

At bottom, the problem of the modern-day canonization is no different from the ‘universal laws’ of the Church which are considered infallible, i.e. as conducive to eternal salvation. They were considered canonized too, as Archbishop Lefebvre said about the traditional rite: “This Mass has been canonized by St. Pius V”—canonized and infallible in the same way that saints are infallibly canonized. So, in the same way that we refuse the NOM as canonized or infallible because it is no more  ‘canonizable’ than Luther’s Supper, likewise, we refuse the canonization of the heroes of Vatican II as valid and as infallible, because they are no more ‘canonizable’ than Luther himself.

Angelus: What has changed in the understanding of canonization since Vatican II?

Father: The formal object of the magisterial act of canonization is the heroicity of the saint. In the same way as we say that the magisterium is traditional inasmuch as it teaches always the same immutable truths, so also the canonization is traditional inasmuch as it designates always the same heroicity of the Christian virtues, especially the theological ones.

To change the object is to change the act itself which is ordained to this object. In this case, to put the seal of canonization on something which is not ‘canonizable’ is per se invalid for lack of the proper object. It would be like trying to put a leaden seal over oil or water: it could not leave its imprint for lack of matter apt to receive this seal!

Angelus: Is there a new conception of “holiness”? If so, is it universal?

Father: The term “heroic virtue” does not appear in the documents of Vatican II, and afterwards, the theologians who speak of it make no distinction between the ordinary act in the state of grace and heroic virtue. This is confirmed by the ecumenical twist the modern popes give to the notion of sanctity (Ut Unum Sint, on commitment to ecumenism, 1995; Tertio Millennio Adveniente, on preparation for the Jubilee of the Year 2000, 1994), which transcends the diverse religions and the effusion of the Holy Ghost over the whole of mankind. Such a latitudinarian notion of salvation (men of all religions are saved) falsifies the correlative notion of sanctity.

The present-day canonizations are a witness to the People of God and favor the democratic conception... It is made to render testimony of the glory of man. The modern saint is expert in humanization. At that rate, Luther has as much ground for canonization as Padre Pio.

Angelus: Is the weakened canonical inquiry a question of prudence, or does it possibly affect validity of the canonization?

Father: The divine assistance which causes the infallibility, that is, the security, of the acts of magisterium is exercised according to the way of acting of Providence. This one, far from excluding the pope’s cautious study of the sources of Revelation transmitted by the Apostles, on the contrary demands this investigation by its proper nature.

This investigation is much more necessary when it comes to a potential canonization: such a positive outcome implies thorough investigations of the human testimonies which assert the heroic virtues of the future saint, the study of all his writings and statements to see whether he erred in the faith, and the examination of the divine proof of the miracles, which were two for the beatification and two more for the canonization. Such things are not a priori conclusions but deal with contingent facts. From such facts, the pope needs the greatest moral certitude to draw a positive conclusion. In former times, anyone who had taught up some original or strange things would have his cause dismissed ipso facto.

Angelus: How can human inquiry have any bearing whatsoever on infallibility? Even the most stringent amount of effort cannot in any way lead towards infallibility.

Father: Perhaps the best answer was given by Fr. Ambrose Gardeil in Le Donné Révélé et la Théologie. In it, he explains the intellectual procedure which terminates in the definition of a dogma by the Church in Council or by the pope himself. It is always after a long process of inquiry from the sources of Revelation and the constant tradition of the Church which allows a first draft of the text. Then, after raising against the first draft all possible objections and having perfected it, it gives ultimately the text formulated in such a way that it forces the evidence of the Church Fathers: No straight mind can reasonably doubt the veracity of the defined truth placed in parallel with the sources of revelation. Such was the case for pontifical infallibility. It is enough to read also the long argumentation of the encyclical defining the Immaculate Conception to see how the Church proceeds slowly and most cautiously.

Angelus: If canonizations are fallible today, how can the pope claim to bind Catholics to accept the modern?

Father: The question is poorly raised, as we mentioned above: today there is no infallibility where there is no real canonization. In the present context, the authorities are proposing to our veneration some persons who are real saints, like Padre Pio, based on a process which is defective and insufficient. The modern “canonization” takes away nothing from Padre Pio’s real sanctity, but it does not give anything either to dubious persons like Fr. Escriba de Balaguer.

The problem perhaps lies deep in the mind of the modern popes. An act is defined by its intention or purpose, but this goes back to the object. Now what is the intention of the present popes who are deeply subjectivist, relativist and historicist? If one does not believe in pontifical infallibility, in eternal truth, can he impose on all the Church faithful the cult of dubious saints and their doctrine and example?

Angelus: If canonizations are fallible, what kind of magisterial authority is invoked?

Father: As said above, Benedict XIV considered these decrees to be fallible precisely because the popes in those earlier days simply authenticated the acts of a residential bishop. The post-conciliar legislation is returning to the pre-twelfth-century legislation and certainly raises doubts as to the infallibility of the present-day canonizations.

Angelus: If the answer is that they can be fallible (as some in traditional circles openly maintain, even outside the context of the present doubts), how can the Church then answer the objection that it is possible that she canonize saints and demand liturgical recognition of the souls of the damned? How can such a possibility square with the promises of Christ?

Father: As mentioned above, the preconciliar faithful who thinks that such and such a “saint” is not in heaven or that a pope made a mistake would not be considered a heretic.

Now, the question is distinct. Could the Church demand the public cult of a damned soul without incurring loss of faith altogether? It seems that, in the advancing process of disintegration and decomposition of the postconciliar Church, such a thing is not an impossibility. One who has been a witness to the Assisi fiasco, who has seen a pope kissing the Coran, can very well believe that, to promote a false ecumenism, he would “canonize” his heroes. Perhaps this is part of what Sister Lucy alluded to when she spoke of a “diabolical disorientation” in the Church.