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Are Canonizations Infallible?

It would be fair to say that a majority of the small number of Catholics who have even given a moment’s thought to the subject believe that canonizations are infallible. However, a growing minority of Catholics are raising questions about and difficulties with this belief. The minority opinion is probably larger than statistics would indicate, because stating this opinion outright might win someone the title of “schismatic” or “heretical” (or that favorite manualist word “temerarious”), endanger a job, or bring sidelong glances from friends.

Besides external considerations, what about one’s own soul? Does asserting that canonizations are fallible put a Catholic on the slippery slope to hell? Unfortunately, this crisis of conscience is troubling not a few devout Catholics today, who are disturbed about certain canonizations of recent times and possess an uneasy feeling that something has gone horribly wrong but do not know exactly how to put their finger on what that might be. If you fall into this category, or even if you wish to know why someone might, the recently published book Are Canonizations Infallible? will bring peace of mind, and shed light on every facet of the question at hand.

If the reader does not want to take someone else’s word for it that it is indeed allowable to think canonizations are fallible, he must buckle-up for a detailed theological journey. The 250 pages of this book give a fair and thorough treatment to practically every angle of the history of canonizations as they relate to infallibility. The editor of the volume, Dr. Peter Kwasniewski, has gathered essays written by twelve historians and theologians who know their material backwards and forwards. It is important to note that an eminently fair hearing is given: strong arguments are presented on either side of the question. Those in favor of infallibility are called inerrantists while those opposed are called errantists.

The question of canonization’s infallibility has been debated with greater or lesser intensity for over 800 years. Nevertheless, it is events of recent years—the massive overhaul of the processes of beatification and canonization in 1983 and the subsequent tsunami of beati and sancti, among them some highly controversial figures—that have increased the sense of urgency in this conversation. Today, at a staggering rate, high volumes of saints are raised to the altars in what a modern journalist called the “saint factory.” Father John Hunwicke notes that Pope Francis has even joked, in rather poor taste, that “Benedict and I are on the waiting list [to be canonized].” This sort of quip from the Holy Father can only raise suspicion in pious souls that the exemplary heroic virtues, many miracles, and rigorous investigation which typified canonizations of the past have been waived for a participation prize—a “halo award,” in which the qualifications for winning have been substantially lowered, and even the meaning of “blessed” and “saint” is now no longer clear. If the heights of Christian perfection are suddenly densely populated, then does sainthood really fulfill its purpose of aiding the faithful by providing pure and potent manifestations of virtue, of singular success in living out a state of life?

But these feelings remain just a sense, a hunch. And perhaps that is good enough—enough to be called the sensus Catholicus, or the sensus fidelium, by which we are warned away from something that seems fishy. However, hard-nosed inerrantist critics ready to rumble with errantists should do themselves a favor and engage the work in this book, so that they might understand why there has been a minority view all along, and why it might be the truer opinion at this time in Church history.

Some of the major arguments against inerrantism provided by the authors are these: Dogma, Terminology, Process.

1) A dogma defining the infallibility of canonizations has never been declared, which means there is no positive obligation placed on the faithful to hold it. While it may seem that one or another canonization formula implies or asserts an unalterable or inerrant judgment, upon closer inspection it turns out that none of them meets the criteria for infallibility as taught by the First Vatican Council.

2) The term “infallible” itself has been misunderstood and improperly applied in many of the inerrantist arguments, and the famous text of St. Thomas Aquinas that seems to favor inerrantism has been lazily referenced and reiterated so many times that its fascinating nuances have long ago been forgotten (we can be grateful especially to William Matthew Diem for his careful study on the Quodlibet in question). Almost every chapter of this book provides fresh perspectives on the theological elements at issue; in this way the book ends up exceeding expectations by tackling some of the most thorny questions of ecclesiology and papacy.

3) The process of canonization, carefully crafted in the post-Tridentine Church and honed to a point of ironclad rigor that made it virtually impossible to suffer a crisis of conscience about the results of an inquiry, was radically altered in 1983 to accelerate the advancement of candidates. While there is no dogma declaring the infallibility of canonizations, there is in fact a dogma declaring that faith will never contradict reason. To believe that the current process together with some key examples of its fruits enjoys the charism of infallibility might very well contradict reason.

The anti-infallibility theologians in the book arrive at conclusions of varying levels of boldness vis-à-vis the preceding majority opinion. Some suggest that the case is simply not cut and dried and that epistemic modesty would become us well—somewhat like Newman’s position that the teaching on papal infallibility should be understood in the most minimal way possible. John Lamont, however, offers this resounding claim: “In the light of the disastrous consequences that can now result from the acceptance of the infallibility of canonizations [inerrantism], we should add that this conclusion [namely, errantism] needs to be generally accepted by Catholics.” No one can say the gauntlet has not been thrown down.

Wherever you stand on the matter, whether you have had a troubled conscience about any of the post-1983 canonizations or not, I urge you to read this collection of essays to refine and purify your opinions, with a vigorous exercise of reason enlightened by faith. This has been lacking too long in a Church that seems at war perpetually between a meandering progressivism and a knee-jerk, extreme ultramontanism. It’s time to break out of the stereotypes and the pat answers.

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