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.
Is the 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?
Second Vatican Council
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. It is therefore a matter of faith and the clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council that the Magisterium can never, in any of its functions, whether infallible or not, teach any truths not found in some manner within that 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. Now if one uses a narrower definition of the term ‘faith and morals,’ as is often the case in usage, then there are truths asserted by Divine Revelation which are beyond faith and morals. In this case, it must be understood that all truths asserted by Tradition or Scripture are part of Divine Revelation, are infallibly true, and can be taught by the Magisterium. But if one extends the definition of the term ‘faith’ to extend to all the truths of Divine Revelation (for whatever is revealed by God on any subject within that Revelation is certainly, in some sense, a matter of faith), then the extent and limit of the teachings of the Magisterium would be termed ‘faith’ or ‘faith and morals.’
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. (Those truths said to have "a necessary connection" with the truths of Tradition or Scripture are what I term "implicit" in those sources.)
This teaching of the Second Vatican Council on the limits of infallibility is a definitive teaching of an Ecumenical Council. This teaching meets all five criteria for an infallible teaching by a Council. (These five criteria are nearly the same as the five criteria for papal infallibility, except that it is the Bishops with the Pope who exercise this charism, not the Pope alone, and they exercise it in a Council or other gathering.)
The criteria are as follows:
1. ‘the Body of Bishops together with him [the Pope]’
2. ‘when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church’
3. ‘defines a judgment’ or ‘definitions’
4. ‘they pronounce it in accordance with Revelation itself’
5. ‘which all are obliged to abide by and be in conformity with’ (Lumen Gentium, n. 25).
These five criteria tell us:
1. who exercises infallibility (the bishops and the Pope)
2. when they exercise it (when acting as teachers of the Church, not as private persons)
3. how they exercise infallibility (by defining or pronouncing a teaching, i.e. by giving a definitive decision on doctrine)
4. what can be taught infallibly, its extent and limits (truths of the Deposit of Revelation: Tradition and Scripture)
5. who must adhere to these infallible teachings (the universal Church).
The teaching of Vatican II on the infallibility of the Magisterium meets all five criteria for an infallible teaching. Therefore, it is the infallible teaching of the Second Vatican Council that Magisterium, whether it is acting by means of papal infallibility, or by means of a gathering of the Body of Bishops with the Pope, or by means of the Body of Bishops dispersed through the world yet united with the Pope, can teach infallibly only to the extent and limit of the teachings found within the Deposit of Divine Revelation. No truths whatsoever can be taught by the Magisterium, if such truths are found outside of the Sacred Deposit of Faith, namely Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture. This limit is the infallible teaching of the Second Vatican Council and whoever denies it denies a certain truth of the Faith.
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.
Reply to Objections
1. The wording in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The Church’s Magisterium exercises the authority it holds from Christ to the fullest extent when it defines dogmas, that is, when it proposes truths contained in divine Revelation or also when it proposes in a definitive way truths having a necessary connection with them. (CCC, n. 88).
This passage from the Catechism does not conflict with the above article, if the passage is properly understood. It first refers to ‘truths contained in divine Revelation,’ in other words, to truths explicitly taught by Tradition or Scripture. It then refers to ‘truths having a necessary connection’ with the first, in other words, to the truths implicit in Divine Revelation. All these truths are found within Divine Revelation, that is, Tradition and Scripture. So, one way of explaining these truths is to say that there are truths contained in Divine Revelation, and these other truths are necessarily connected to them. But a simpler and clearer way of explaining this is to say that some truths are explicit, and others implicit, in Divine Revelation. Therefore, this passage from the Catechism should not be understood as referring to truths which are outside of the Deposit of Faith, but rather to truths which are implicit in the Deposit of Faith.
Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium all teach from one and the same Deposit of Divine Revelation. The explicit teachings in each differ, for each has a different way of presenting these truths. However, each and every teaching of one and the same Deposit of Truth is at least implicit within each and all of these: Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium. It is not possible for there to be any truth taught by Tradition, which is not also at least implicit in the teachings of Scripture and Magisterium. It is not possible for there to be any truth taught by Scripture, which is not also at least implicit in the teachings of Tradition and Magisterium. It is not possible for there to be any truth taught by the Sacred Magisterium, which is not also at least implicit in the teachings of Tradition and Scripture. For Tradition, Scripture, Magisterium are a reflection of the Most Holy Trinity, which has only one Divine Nature.
2. The secondary object of infallibility
Many theologians claim that the infallible teaching authority of the Church has two objects: First, the truths of Tradition and Scripture, that is, Divine Revelation, and second, those truths necessarily connected with the first, which are termed the secondary objects of infallibility. An example of this point of view is as follows:
The object of the Church’s infallibility is two-fold: a) The primary object of the Church’s infallibility is the formally revealed truths of Christian Doctrine concerning faith and morals. b) The secondary object of the Church’s infallibility is truths of the Christian teaching on faith and morals, which are not formally revealed, but which are closely connected with the teaching of Revelation. Included in the secondary object of infallibility are the following: 1) theological conclusions; 2) dogmatic facts 3) general discipline of the Church; 4) approval of religious orders; 5) canonization of saints.
(Bishop Mark A. Pivarunas, CMRI, Omaha, NE, Pastoral Letter, Pentecost, 1996,
There are a number of problems with this view. First, the general discipline of the Church, as well as the approval of religious orders and their rules, are not teachings at all, but decisions and judgments on temporal matters. Such things fall under the Temporal Authority of the Church, not under its Spiritual Authority (the Magisterium). Likewise, the canonization of Saint is not a teaching, but a judgment that a particular person lived a holy life according to the teachings of the Church. And theological conclusions must be based on Tradition and Scripture, in order to be taught by the Magisterium; only then can they be taught infallibly or non-infallibly.
If the term ‘secondary object of infallibility’ is to be used, it must be understood as referring to truths implicit in Tradition and Scripture. Otherwise, the claim that the Magisterium can teach what is beyond Divine Revelation contradicts the infallible teaching of the First and Second Vatican Councils and exalts the Magisterium above and beyond Divine Revelation. This over-emphasis on the ability and authority of the Magisterium, which seeks to devise theological explanations that can extend the Magisterium ever further, tends toward arrogance, and even idolatry, rather than humility. The Magisterium exists to serve God, the faithful, and the Deposit of Faith. The Magisterium cannot teach infallibly, except from the infallible Deposit of Faith given to the Church by God.
by Ronald L. Conte Jr.
March 15, 2005
Updated January 10, 2015