Patrick Archbold is co-founder of Creative Minority Report, a Catholic website that puts a refreshing spin on the intersection of religion, culture, and politics. When not writing, Patrick is director of information technology at a large international logistics company in New York.
The discussion around the infallibility of canonizations comes up from time to time, and with the approaching canonizations of Popes John Paul II and John XXIII we see it naturally being revisited.
Particularly with the lives of Popes, there is always elements of the exercise of the Office or personality that people can reasonably critique. This is true of everyone, but more so with such prominent public figures.
I will not go into the details of any of these criticisms for the above mentioned as any such thing is debatable at best and tangential to my point.
The question is whether canonization is an infallible act and if so, how can it be that people who perhaps did questionable things and perhaps even have exercised demonstrably poor judgment be canonized? It is a good question. I think I have an answer.
Let me stipulate that this is my own personal interpretation of such decrees and in no way do I represent this as Church teaching, although I don't think it contradicts Church teaching in any way. This is for discussion purposes.
I think that a canonization conveys two elements:
1) The person is in heaven.
2) The person lived a heroic life of virtue for their state in life and is to be emulated.
I think element 1 is an infallible statement. Via EWTN The 1967 New Catholic Encyclopedia discusses the theological foundation for the infallibility of canonization: "The dogma that saints are to be venerated and invoked as set forth in the profession of faith of Trent (cf. Denz. 1867) has as its correlative the power to canonize. ... St. Thomas Aquinas says, 'Honor we show the saints is a certain profession of faith by which we believe in their glory, and it is to be piously believed that even in this the judgment of the Church is not able to err' (Quodl. 9:8:16).
So yes, in this respect I think it is impossible for the Church to err with respect to the individual being in Heaven.
I think element 2 is prudential judgement and subject to possible error.
It is entirely possible for someone who made many mistakes in life to be in heaven. Even the greatest saints have aspects of their humanity the are probably best not to emulate. We have had saints that have struggled with bad tempers. We have had saints that were chronic overeaters, such as the above mentioned Aquinas. In fact every saint has had his or her foibles, for saintliness and human perfection are not equivalent. Obviously, the Church is not saying it is perfectly fine to be an ill-tempered glutton by virtue of these canonizations. So it is that I see element two as being subject to error, at least in small degree.
So it is that I have no particular issue with the declaration of this or that person being declared a saint even if I hold element 2 to be suspect in some areas of their life. Actually I am glad of it, it gives me hope.
What do you think?