Infallibility and Canonizations

The well-noted Catholic commentator Pat Archbold, who writes for both the National Catholic Register and on his own blog Creative Minority Report, recently examined the oft-treated topics of infallibility and canonizations– and whether there is any link between the two. His response in the article Are Canonizations Infallible? Yes and No is a praiseworthy and nuanced attempt to strike a balance between the certainty of a canonized person’s station in heaven against a possible lack of heroic virtue in that person’s life. Archbold phrases the question like this:

Particularly with the lives of Popes, there is always elements of the exercise of the Office or personality that people can reasonably critique. This is true of everyone, but more so with such prominent public figures… The question is whether canonization is an infallible act and if so, how can it be that people who perhaps did questionable things and perhaps even have exercised demonstrably poor judgment be canonized?

When Archbold refers to certain “elements of the exercise of the Office” worthy of reasonable critique, he is probably taking up the criticism made by distinguished ecclesiastical historian Roberto de Mattei, who– on more historical than theological grounds– holds the conviction that “[John XXIII’s] pontificate represented an objective damage to the Church and that it is therefore impossible to speak of his sanctity” (nutro la meditata convinzione che il suo pontificato abbia rappresentato un oggettivo danno alla Chiesa e che dunque sia impossibile parlare per lui di santità.)

Concerning John XXIII, de Mattei raises a point not to be lightly dismissed, and in fact, such criticism can be rightly applied to other canonized saints. Perhaps the most prominent example is Celestine V (Pietro di Morrone), a monk who in his lifetime enjoyed an authentic fama sanctitatis, and who after being pressured to accept the papacy to break the deadlocked Perugian conclave (1292-1294), resigned after five months. The Cardinals finally selected him, a true holy man, after they could not agree among themselves, but the decision was disastrous. Celestine was a hermit, not an administrator. Recognizing his incompetence, he vacated the Petrine See, the last to do so before Benedict XVI. While the Church recognizes him as a saint on account of his deep humility, his tenure as Pope was deeply flawed and even detrimental to the Church. Most Dante scholars propose that Celestine was the man described by il divin Poeta in the Inferno (in hell!) when he wrote:

vidi e conobbi l’ombra di colui
che fece per viltade il gran rifiuto

I saw and recognized the shade of him
who by cowardice made the great refusal (Canto III, 59-60)

Archbold– who prudently claims not to represent the official doctrine of the Church– answers the question at hand as follows:

I think that a canonization conveys two elements:
1) The person is in heaven.
2) The person lived a heroic life of virtue for their state in life and is to be emulated.
I think element 1 is an infallible statement.

Archbold is correct in distilling two elements of a decree of canonization– enjoyment of the beatific vision and demonstrated heroic virtue. Concerning the first, he is also correct in discerning the Church’s protection from error. However, his discussion of the second element, while attempting to make proper distinctions, effectively breaks the connection with the first element. He writes:

I think element 2 is prudential judgement and subject to possible error. It is entirely possible for someone who made many mistakes in life to be in heaven… In fact every saint has had his or her foibles, for saintliness and human perfection are not equivalent. Obviously, the Church is not saying it is perfectly fine to be an ill-tempered glutton by virtue of these canonizations.  So it is that I see element two as being subject to error, at least in small degree.

It is firstly important to remember that a canonization is by nature a public act which guarantees a public cultus for the memory of a person, and that said exalted memorial of such an individual is obligatory on the Church universal. (By that last phrase I do not mean that each saint’s feast is imposed as a universal obligation, but that each individual faithful must believe that the saint truly intercedes to God pro nobis.) Because this proclamation of sanctity is public, the saint in question must have demonstrated, in a publicly attested manner, heroic Christian virtue at some point in his or her life. Nowhere in the discussion of a person’s heroic virtue is the idea of a perfect life considered. As Pope Francis likes to say so often, siamo tutti peccatori.

Archbold rightly points out that “every saint has had his or her foibles, for saintliness and human perfection are not equivalent”. However, admitting a saint’s foibles has no place in decreeing his or her heroic virtue, and thus the idea of error in this second element is a non sequitur. When we consider, for example, Saint Peter who denied Christ three times, or Saint Carino of Balsamo who murdered Saint Peter Martyr, the Church is obviously not declaring their sins as heroic virtues. When the Church declares that a person lived a heroically Christian life, it refers only to the heroic acts, not to the sins! That is simple common sense.

To suggest that the Church can err in the declaration of public heroic virtue when it canonizes a saint is to effectively call into question the validity of any canonization. We can only have the certainty of a person’s presence in heaven precisely because we have evidence of that person’s heroically public Christian actions. I think Archbold has made the mistake of assuming that a decree of heroic virtue applies to every last detail in a person’s earthly sojurn; this, of course, is incorrect.

Respondeo dicendum quod the Church’s infallibility in canonizations is absolute. The tight bond between our certainty of a person in heaven on one hand, and the public certainty of heroic Christian virtue on the other hand ensures this. If we break this link, the public cultus of every saint risks collapsing into absurdity. While Archbold’s distinctions are the sign of a prudent and discerning mind, matters concerning infallibility and dogmatic declarations cannot be reduced to pure logical mechanisms. We rely on what Cardinal Newman calls “the illative sense”, the sense allowing the human mind to draw sure conclusions from a set of asymptotically approaching conditions which, however, never completely meet. The illative sense is the basis of that act which we call faith. In a formal canonization, the Church has its indicators from which it draws certainty– the several episodes of true Christian praxis in a particular saint’s life, miracles attributed to the saint’s intercession, etc. There is no strict formula which takes these conditions and spits out an answer– whether or not a person is in heaven. Rather, the Church discerns and scrutinizes these signs and makes a declaration rooted in faith. Likewise, the Christian public must accept on faith that the apostolicity of the Church did not err on this matter.

Simply put, without public heroic virtue, a person cannot be publicly declared a saint.

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