ONCERNING the veneration of departed members of the faithful, modern Catholic practice distinguishes beati (“blessed” to whom only a restricted public veneration is permitted) and sancti (who are entitled to public cult throughout the entire Church). In the early Church this distinction was “almost, if not quite, unknown.”
In the era of the “Enlightenment,” during the course of the XVIIIth century, the detailed procedures leading to what we know today as “canonization” were collected by the learned scholar or private “doctor” PROSPERO LAMBERTINI OF BOLOGNA (1675/1758) in his classic four-volume work De servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione (Bologna 1734/38). Later, the author reigned as Pope Benedict XIV from 1740 to 1758. Two centuries later, the lengthy legal process of determining heroic virtue, the truth of two miracles, consultation of witnesses, medical and theological experts etc. set forth in Lambertini’s tomes was reformed by the will of Papa Wojtyla, indeed the very concept of “sanctity” was changed by the Apostolic Constitution Divinus perfectionis Magister of 29 January 1983 = AAS 75 (1983) 349/55.
It is important to note that though both Benedict XIV (whilst merely a private doctor) and John Paul II (whilst reigning Pope) issued administrative norms, none of these is of creedal stature, as an article of faith. Analogously to the case of “limbo” for unbaptized infants, canonization is not an article of Catholic faith which must be believed by all who would be Catholic. Both are in fact simply theological opinions.
The First Vatican Council in 1870 solemnly defined papal primacy of jurisdiction and the infallible Magisterium of the Pope under specific conditions which if not completely fulfilled render a pope’s teachings non-infallible, meaning not that they say something that is wrong or deceitful, but that they are subject to the possibility of error. The dogmas defined by Vatican I call for fides divina, and we must believe them by divine faith. Non-infallible acts, however, such as canonisations, call for fides ecclesiastica, ecclesiastical faith, meaning belief on the basis of the principle that the Church as a whole cannot err in matters of faith and morals. Here, as elsewhere, exceptions do not cancel the rule! Canonisations are NOT dogmas, because they do not propose a truth of faith or morals contained in Revelation which is a necessary condition for infallibility. Dogmatic definitions never involve a new doctrine of faith or morals, since whatever a Pope defines must be contained in Holy Writ or in Tradition in order to be infallible. This is not the case with canonization. It also explains why Canon Law (both 1917 and 1983 Codes) does not contain the “doctrine” of canonization, nor do the Catechisms of the Catholic Church both old and new. Canonisation aims at and deals with FACTS concerning human belief and action, which are facts connected (at best) only indirectly with dogma. Note par. 2 of the Instruction Ad tuendam fidem of the CDF dated 18 May 1998!
These considerations scarcely lead to a rational conclusion that one should “leave the Church” in response to the 27 April 2014 canonisations. * To do so would be dashing, but supremely witless: God is Truth Itself, and so faith transcends reason, and elevates it without contradicting it. O Lord, increase our faith!
Artwork: Fra Angelico The Last Judgment (1405AD)
Original Title: The Thoughtful Theologian reflects on the canonisations of 27 April 2014
* Editor’s Note: The impetus for this guest blog came from several irresponsible articles published in early 2014. We have published it again (12 March 2018) because confusion reigns on this subject. The author is a monsignor with an earned doctorate in Theology who worked for Paul VI and John Paul II and sometimes follows the monastic tradition of not claiming credit for his work.