Two days ago, on Divine Mercy Sunday, Pope Francis canonized Popes John XXIII and John Paul II. For most of us Catholics, this was a time of great rejoicing. But it was not so for everyone. Critics of JPII at both extremes of the ideological spectrum (so to speak) denounced his canonization. Both his canonization, and that of Pope John XXIII have been denounced by certain so-called Traditionalist groups.
For example, the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) is not pleased with these canonizations, to put it mildly. Bishop Fellay, the Superior General of the SSPX, announced that the group “vigorously protest[ed] these canonizations.” Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, professor of ecclesiology at St. Pius X Seminary in Econe, France, has argued that “Karol Wojtyla cannot be canonized and the act that would proclaim his sanctity in front of the Church could only be a false canonization.” It’s this claim that is enormous, and theologically unsustainable. Here’s why.
Contrary to what you might have heard about SSPX, the Society of St. Pius X actually rejects sedevacantism, the position that the pope isn’t the true pope. Abp. Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the SSPX, not only acknowledged the legitimacy of the pope, but denied the possibility that sedevacantism could be true:
As with the question of the invalidity of the Novus Ordo, those who affirm that there is no Pope over simplify the problem. The reality is more complex. If one begins to study the question of whether or not a Pope can be heretical, one quickly discovers that the problem is not as simple as one might have thought. The very objective study of Xaverio de Silveira on this subject demonstrates that a good number of theologians teach that the Pope can be heretical as a private doctor or theologian, but not as a teacher of the Universal Church. [….]
The visibility of the Church is too necessary to its existence for it to be possible that God would allow that visibility to disappear for decades. The reasoning of those who deny that we have a Pope puts the Church in an extricable situation. Who will tell us who the future Pope is to be? How, as there are no cardinals, is he to be chosen? This spirit is a schismatical one for at least the majority of those who attach themselves to certainly schismatical sects like Palmar de Troya, the Eglise Latine de Toulouse, and others.
When the pope canonizes a Saint, it’s infallible (this argument doesn’t cover the popular canonizations of the early Church, some of which have been expressly affirmed by the Church, but which might theoretically be fallible). Here are five reasons we can know that these canonizations are infallible:
To suppose that the Church can err in canonizing, is a sin, or is heresy, according to St. Bonaventure, Bellarmine, and others; or at least next door to heresy, according to Suarez, Azorius, Gotti, etc.; Because the Sovereign Pontiff, according to St. Thomas, is guided by the infallible influence of the Holy Ghost in a special way when canonizing saints.St. Alphonsus Ligori:
Likewise, the Catholic Encyclopedia notes:
In Quodlib. IX, a. 16, St. Thomas [Aquinas] says: “Since the honour we pay the saints is in a certain sense a profession of faith, i.e., a belief in the glory of the Saints [quâ sanctorum gloriam credimus] we must piously believe that in this matter also the judgment of the Church is not liable to error.” These words of St. Thomas, as is evident from the authorities just cited, all favouring a positive infallibility, have been interpreted by his school in favour of papal infallibility in the matter of canonization, and this interpretation is supported by several other passages in the same Quodlibet.
I know of no Saints who endorse rejecting canonizations, although I’m open to any evidence you might have on this score.
Here’s what the pope declares in canonizing someone:
In honor of the Holy Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith and the increase of the Christian life, with the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and of Our Own, after long reflection, having invoked divine assistance many times and listened to the opinion of many of our Brothers in the Episcopate, We declare and define as Saint Blessed N. and inscribe his/her name in the list of the saints and establish that throughout the Church they be devoutly honored among the saints.
That’s the language of infallibility. In fact, the language used in Unam Sanctam (and later, Vatican I’s formula for ex cathedra statements) comes from the language of canonizations.
|St. John Paul II|
The usual objection to the infallibility of canonizations is that they apply to those living after the Apostolic era, so they seem to be outside of the Deposit of Faith, which was delivered “once for all” to the Saints (Jude 1:3). This argument ignores that infallibility covers the application of the Deposit of Faith to modern situations. We see this in several areas:
- Condemning heresies that arise after the Apostolic era;
- Infallibly declaring the Anglican ordinations “absolutely null and utterly void”;
- Applying the Deposit of Faith to modern topics (like contraception, in vitro fertilization, cloning, nuclear warfare, etc.).
- Declaring a particular man to be either a pope or an Antipope. (e.g., resolving the Western Schism);
- Declaring a Council a legitimate Council or a Robber Council. (For example, Leo used this authority in rejecting the legitimacy of the so-called “Second Council of Ephesus”)
The argument against infallibility would reduce all of these to merely probable opinions.
Think of canonizations as something of the opposite of anathemas: if an anathema declares that a particular individual or teaching is contrary to the Deposit of the Faith, a canonization does something like the opposite, declaring the life of a particular person to be consistent with the Way laid out in the Deposit of Faith. Obviously, it doesn’t mean that the individual was right on all points, just as the condemnation of a heretic doesn’t mean that they were wrong on all points.
Here, we can see the absurdity of one of the major arguments against JPII’s canonization. Fr. Jean-Michel Gleize, in his argument against John Paul II’s Sainthood, begins from this premise: “If John Paul II is a saint, his theology must be irreproachable, down to the smallest detail.” This is a troubling assertion, to say the least. And indeed, his whole argument relies upon the truth of this premise. To take an obvious example, Jerome and Augustine are both Saint (indeed, Doctors of the Church), yet they argued with one another one certain theological points. Aquinas got the Immaculate Conception wrong in the Summa (although he may have realized this mistake later in life). If even the Doctors of the Church can’t meet Gleize’s made-up standard, maybe the problem is with his standard, rather than the Catholic Church. Even Saints make mistakes.
Still, Gleize’s extreme position to one side, canonization of an individual does show that they aren’t formal heretics. By definition, they had a faith. We know this because they were saved. This assessment is directly tied to the Deposit of Faith. We can prove this negatively, as well: it would be impossible for the Church to canonize an unrepentant heresiarch without betraying the Deposit of Faith.
An error in infallibility would require all Catholics to liturgically celebrate a damned sinner. Imagine, for example, if the Saints in the Roman canon (most of whom lived after the Apostolic era) were in hell. The Eucharistic Prayer would require us to pray to God that we may share in their “fellowship.” Here’s a translation of the prayer in question:
To us also Thy sinful servants, who put our trust in the multitude of Thy mercies, vouchsafe to grant some part and fellowship with Thy holy Apostles and Martyrs: with John, Stephen, Matthias, Barnabas, Ignatius, Alexander, Marcellinus, Peter, Felicitas, Perpetua, Agatha, Lucy, Agnes, Cecilia, Anastasia, and all Thy Saints. Into their company we beseech Thee admit us, not considering our merits, but freely pardoning our offenses. Through Christ our Lord.
It’s not just that these Saints aren’t in Hell… it’s that they can’t be in Hell without dismantling Catholicism.
Since canonizations are infallible, we can see why the SSPX and similar groups face an impasse. There are basically two options:
- Option A: These are False Canonizations.
- Option B: John XXIII and John Paul II are Saints in Heaven.
If this is the case, there’s no more room to hold the position that either of these popes was “heretical as a private doctor or theologian.” And these men should be spoken about with the appropriate reverence. After all, “the prohibition of blasphemy extends to language against Christ’s Church, the saints, and sacred things.” If John XXIII and John Paul II are Saints, maybe those with SSPX sympathies could trust these popes a bit more?