Many faithful Catholics are worried and confused by the looming canonizations of John XXIII and John Paul II. The following brief extracts from “Magisterial Authority,” a series of articles by Father Chad Ripperger recently published in Christian Order, put the matter in Catholic perspective.
Papal Infallibility and the Canonization of Saints
“It is also commonly and rightly held that the Church is infallible in the canonization of saints, that is to say, when canonization takes place according to the solemn process that has been followed since the ninth century. Mere beatification, however, as distinguished from canonization, is not held to be infallible, and in canonization itself the only fact that is infallibly determined is that the soul of the canonized saint departed in the state of grace and already enjoys the beatific vision.”(1)
This quote is loaded and needs unpacking.
First, it is commonly held by theologians that the canonization of saints is infallible.
Second, beatifications are not.(2)
Third, infallibility regarding canonization is restricted to two things: (1) that the soul departed in a state of grace and (2) already enjoys the beatific vision.
“It is not a definitive judgment on his sanctity; it amounts directly to no more than a permission to pay him a cultus. When the Church grants this practical permission, she is, in the view of the best theologians, infallible, ‘errare practice non potest’.”(3)
Canonizations mean the person made it to heaven. It does NOT mean that they lived heroic Christian virtue in this life, necessarily, although in many cases it does. This should be kept in mind to avoid scandal in relation to canonizing people for political reasons, ideological reasons, etc.
Regardless of the human reasons, the papal magisterial act of canonization infallibly guarantees the person is in heaven and we can have public cult in relation to that person.(4)
For this reason, canonization should not be viewed as a stamp of approval of everything the person taught or did.
(1) Original Catholic Encyclopedia, Infallibility. For other theologians who discuss the infallibility of canonizations, see Ludovico Billot, Tractatus de ecclesia Christi, (Romae apud Aedes Universitatis Gregorianae, 1927), p. 423-429.
(2) This would explain Pope Benedict XVI’s return to having a cardinal preside over beatifications while the pope only presides over canonizations to make the clear distinction between what is and what is not infallible.
(3) Charles Journet, The Church of the Word Incarnate (Sheed and Ward, London and New York, 1955), p. 348.
(4) It is an unfortunate fact that the rigour of the canonization process has been reduced since the Second Vatican Council. The Church needs the rigour in the process to avoid the process being used for bad intentions as well as ensure the good example of those canonized as leading lives of heroic Christian virtue.