Papal Infallibility and the Canonization of Saints

Is  canonization of a Saint a doctrine of faith or morals? Is it a teaching of the Church “to be held by the universal Church” that each and every Saint who was canonized by a Pope: led a holy life, died in a state of grace, and now dwells in Heaven forever? Is it infallibly true that no Saint canonized by a Pope has ever passed through the sufferings of Purgatory, however briefly, on their way to Heaven?

Currently, it is the opinion of a majority of Catholic theologians that the canonization of Saints by the Pope is an exercise of papal infallibility. The Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (CCS) supports this opinion. And some Bishops also believe and teach this idea.

Now there is some difference of opinion among these theologians as to which assertions, related to canonization, would fall under papal infallibility. Is it merely the assertion that the Saint led a holy life, died in a state of grace, and now dwells in eternity with God? Or does it extend to the assertion that the Saint did not spend any time in Purgatory and so went directly to Heaven upon their death? Both claims raise the question as to what kinds of truth can be defined under papal infallibility.

First Vatican Council

The First Vatican Council exercised the infallibility of an Ecumenical Council to define papal infallibility:

Therefore, faithfully adhering to the tradition received from the beginning of the Christian faith, for the glory of God our Saviour, the exaltation of the Catholic religion, and the salvation of the Christian people, with the approval of the sacred council, We teach and define that it is a dogma divinely revealed: that the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedra, that is, when in the discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his supreme Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church, is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter, possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that His Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable. But if anyone—which may God avert!—presume to contradict this our definition, let him be anathema.
(First Vatican Council, Pastor Aeternus, chap. 4.)

Notice that when the Pope exercises this infallibility, “he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the universal Church.” Again, the Pope is endowed by God with this infallibility “in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals.” This infallible conciliar definition clearly teaches that the Pope cannot define any and all truths on any and all subjects. The scope of papal infallibility is limited to a certain range of truths. The truths that are defined under papal infallibility must be doctrines, and they must regard faith or morals. Any truths that are not doctrines of faith or morals cannot be taught under papal infallibility, no matter how certain those truths may be, because the infallible definition of the First Vatican Council taught that papal infallibility has such a limit.

Second Vatican Council

[Contrary to what many have been led to believe] the Second Vatican Council reaffirmed and clarified the infallible teaching of the First Vatican Council on the extent of papal infallibility.

And this infallibility with which the Divine Redeemer willed His Church to be endowed in defining doctrine of faith and morals, extends as far as the deposit of Revelation extends, which must be religiously guarded and faithfully expounded. (Lumen Gentium, n. 25)

The extent and limit of papal infallibility, and of any and all infallibility given to the Church by God, has the same extent and limit as the Deposit of Divine Revelation, that is, Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. Truly, then, no Pope or Ecumenical Council has the ability to add any truths to this infallible Deposit of Faith. For the purpose of the Magisterium, of which papal infallibility is one function, is to guard and to expound the truths Divinely revealed in Tradition and Scripture, not to attempt to add to such truths.

The term ‘faith and morals’ is often used to refer to the truths of Divine Revelation. However, no truths, even if they are related to faith or to the Church, can be taught by the Magisterium at all, neither non-infallibly nor infallibly, unless they are found within Tradition or Scripture. 

The natural law, including the whole moral law, is certainly also found, at least implicitly in Tradition and Scripture. Truly, even the single act of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross for our salvation contains the whole moral law implicitly. And the entire moral law is a part of the truths of faith. But, even though morals are included in the things of faith, it is usually and aptly expressed as ‘faith and morals,’ not because morals are separate from the faith, but in order to give that part of the faith a special emphasis.

The Canonization of Saints by the Pope

The cause for canonization of a Saint requires an examination of the facts of that person’s life. If witnesses are still alive who knew the Saint personally, they provide testimony. Copies of the Saint’s writings, sometimes in their own handwriting, are examined, along with records of that Saint’s life. Lastly, evidence of a miracle, received after praying for that Saint’s intercession, is presented. The evidence is frequently in the form of a miraculous healing, so that medical testimony or other evidence is examined. Without such evidence, the cause for canonization could not go forward, and no conclusion could be reached about that person’s sanctity.

The decision of the Church on the canonization of a Saint is necessarily and almost entirely dependent on the claims of fallible human persons and on a subjective evaluation of evidence that is not certain. This evidence and testimony establishes their sanctity, and its degree, and its perseverance, and its manifestation in reported miracles due to their intercession. But none of this evidence is infallible. None of this evidence is found in the Sacred Deposit of Faith (Tradition and Scripture). But the Magisterium is absolutely limited to teaching the truths found, explicitly or implicitly, in Tradition and Scripture. Therefore, the Magisterium is completely unable to teach that any person is a Saint (except for those persons mentioned in Tradition or Scripture). Neither the Pope himself, nor the entire Body of Bishops united with him, can teach that such a person is a Saint. The Pope cannot teach this infallibly, under papal infallibility, nor can he teach it even non-infallibly, under the Ordinary Magisterium. Likewise, the Bishops united with the Pope, even in an Ecumenical Council, cannot teach that such a person is a Saint. For the Magisterium is unable to teach truths found entirely outside of the Deposit of Faith.

Now the Saints who are mentioned in Tradition and Scripture, such as Saint Peter the Apostle, are a separate case. Since their lives and holiness is attested to in infallible Divine Revelation, the Church can infallibly teach their holiness and can infallibly declare them to be Saints. But most Saints have lived long after the canon of Scripture was closed. For unless the life of a Saint is a part of Sacred Tradition (e.g. the mother of the Virgin Mary), or unless a Saint is mentioned in Sacred Scripture (e.g. the father of the Virgin Mary, called Heli), such a Saint’s canonization cannot be considered a part of the teachings of the Church, nor of the Magisterium, neither infallibly nor non-infallibly.

A Judgment of the Temporal Authority

Instead, such canonizations fall under the Temporal Authority of the Church (not under the authority of the Magisterium itself, which applies only to teachings from the Deposit of Faith). The Temporal Authority of the Church is never infallible and it does not teach, but it can make practical rules and judgments. In the case of Saints, it judges that a person lived a holy life, most probably died in a state of grace, and therefore most probably dwells in Heaven. As to whether or not any of the Saints ever had to pass through Purgatory, however briefly, the canonization of a Saint does not determine the answer to that question.

A true Saint may well have to pass through Purgatory, briefly, because the will of God sometimes prefers a man to enter a situation where he might perhaps sin more (but only venially), and also do more good, rather than to avoid all possible situations where any sin might be found, and so be prevented from doing significant good. (If you hide under your bed all day, you might sin less, but you will not do much good.) An baptized infant who dies in infancy has no sins. A Saint who dies in old age has personal sins, perhaps more than a few, yet he has done very much more good than the infant, and so, despite his greater sins, he has a higher place in Heaven. Therefore, some Saints may pass through Purgatory and still be true Saints.

A Saint’s sanctity might not be at its height at the hour, or even in the year, of his death. The holiest portion of some Saints’ lives was not their youth. Saint Augustine misspent his youth and his early adult years. Similarly, some Saints might decline in holiness in the latter years of their life (as wise king Solomon did). A missionary who suffers much in his work may reach a degree of holiness which he cannot maintain to the same degree later in life, due to changes in his circumstances and his retirement from active life. Some Saints find it easier to be holier in active service to those in need, and others in contemplative service before God. A Saint who was holy during one part of his life, might be less holy in his last days, if he is forced to change from an active life to an inactive one, or vice versa. Therefore, some Saints may spend some brief time in Purgatory, in order to reacquire, as it were, their past holiness.

Answers to Questions

Is the canonization of a Saint a doctrine of faith or morals? No, it is a judgment and decision, make by proper authority in the Church, that a person lived an exemplary holy life and was faithful to the teachings of Christ and His Church. Canonization is not a teaching, so it cannot fall under the teaching authority of the Church.

Is it a teaching of the Church “to be held by the universal Church” that each and every Saint who was canonized by a Pope: led a holy life, died in a state of grace, and now dwells in Heaven forever? No, no one is obligated to believe, as an article of faith, that a particular person (someone not referred to in Tradition or Scripture) is a Saint. There is no obligation under the sacred assent due to infallible teachings of the Magisterium, nor under the ordinary assent due to the non-infallible teachings of the Magisterium. Judgments of the Temporal Authority of the Church are, in some sense, binding on the faithful, but they are not in the realm of belief and faith, because the Temporal Authority issues rulings, not teachings.

Is it infallibly true that no Saint canonized by a Pope has ever passed through the sufferings of Purgatory on their way to Heaven? No, a person can be a holy Saint and still have passed, however briefly, through the holy and purifying sufferings of Purgatory.

[Adapted and summerised from CATHOLIC PLANET]


For further reading: Canonizations not always infallible? by Professor Robert de Mattei

Prof. de Mattei points out some important factors about the infallibility of canonizations, even demonstrating that this is not even a dogma of the Faith, but rather the opinion of theologians.

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1 Response to Papal Infallibility and the Canonization of Saints

  1. Mary Salmond says:

    Thank you! Thorough and common sense answers I’ve been thinking about.

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