Pope Approves New Rules for Canonization Process

Pope Francis recently approved tightening beatification and canonization requirements.

Fra Angelico, “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-24)
Fra Angelico, “The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs” (c. 1423-24) (photo: Public Domain)

Pope Francis recently approved tightening canonization requirements in an effort to make the declaration of a person’s sainthood more credible. Since people need to trust the saint-making process, this is a very good thing.

As any well-formed Catholic knows, the Church is infallible in matters of faith and morals. That charism of infallibility is occasionally made manifest in her Magisterium or in an ex cathedra pronouncement by the pope.

However, it regularly becomes operative whenever a pope approves someone for canonization. If the supreme pontiff declares someone a saint, you can take it to the bank that this person is in heaven. (NOTE: Both blesseds and saints experience the beatific vision. The only difference is that veneration of beati is restricted to a particular locale, whereas that of saints is given to the universal Church.)

This is in large part due to the rigor of the beatification and sainthood process.

First, every scrap of paper on which a Servant of God wrote, every thought they were known to have expressed, every action they were known to have taken — is gathered, investigated, and meticulously scrutinized. People they knew are interviewed. Any recorded recollection of them is read and evaluated.

When this detailed inquiry is complete, the investigatory documents are bound into books and sent to the responsible dicastery (i.e., bureaucracy) at the Vatican — the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. There theologians pore over these pages to discern whether the person in question lived a saintly life.

If the Servant of God did, that person’s case is presented to the Holy Father, who then issues a decree of “heroic virtue.” And a saint is, after all, a person who lived a life of heroic virtue.

Living such a life doesn’t ipso facto make them a “saint,” at least in terms of canonization. As this writer has previously stated, all the investigators (or consultors) at the Congregation can see is the surface of a person’s life. We can never see their interior life — say, whether they committed an unconfessed mortal sin. And as the Catechism states, “To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him forever by our own free choice” (no. 1033).

This is why the Church requires miracles during the saint-making process, one for beatification and another for canonization. As the Congregation’s secretary, Archbishop Marcello Bartolucci put it, “Always the Church is convinced that miracles of the saints is the ‘finger of God,’ which ratifies, so to say, the human judgment of their holiness of life.”

This miracle must be medical in nature, the cure or healing must be complete, and there cannot be even a hint that science can explain how the healing occurred.

According to the Catholic News Agency, what Pope Francis has done with the new regulations is to require that a “supermajority of two-thirds (five out of seven, or four out of six) of the votes from members of the Medical Board must be positive for the cause to continue to the next step.

“Previously, only a simple majority of medical experts acknowledging a supernatural healing was required.”

There are other new regulations, as well, but aforementioned change is the most important.

Some might see this as being more about the optics of the process in an increasingly cynical, skeptical world.

There exists, however, a very practical reason for the change. The more people who have to approve a miracle, the less chance there is the experts will render a faulty verdict.

What might have helped strengthen the process even more would be to require one or two non-believers to serve on the consulting body. Such a move could remove any suspicion that these doctors — regardless of their being medical experts — are simply allowing their latent theistic beliefs to color their judgment.

Regardless the recent regulations will hopefully go a long way to not only maintain the integrity of the canonization process but further enhance its credibility with the public, as well. To the extent possible, we want the words “authenticated miracle” to positively impact people. We want the words to stand as a sort of shorthand that the Church doesn’t treat sainthood lightly. The evangelical value of this could be great.

So these and the other new regulations are good and improve not only the integrity of the saint-making process but its transparency.

That said, it is possible that all of us—from the Vatican down to catechists and parents—can do more.

For instance, does the average person in the pew understand why the Church is constantly presenting us with new models of holiness? With a few possible exceptions—St. Gianna, St. Pio, St. John Paul, St. Teresa of Calcutta—very few new saints and blesseds have gained wide traction, and yet thousands have been created over the last 35 years.

One can only imagine this possible lack of understanding is what led one correspondent to write in response to a recent article, “All this beatification business is feel-good, self-congratulatory [sic] fluff,” as if to say, “Why do we need new saints?” Why, indeed, if the only ones who get any attention are Anthony, Thérèse, Teresa, Francis, Clare, Catherine of Siena, George, Dominic, and a dozen or so others? And these people all lived centuries ago. No one really pays attention to the “newbies.”

Yet the saints of our own time were great exemplars of holiness: Wife and mother Bl. “Mama Rosa” Fabris; handsome layman Bl. Pier Giorgio Frassati; twenty-something city councilman Bl. Alberto Marvelli; husband, father, and martyr for conscience Bl. Franz Jägerstatter; exemplar of what to do with suffering St. Anna Schäffer; ideal married couple Bl. Luigi and Maria Beltrame-Quattrocchi; those martyred by Islamists, such as the recently sainted martyrs of Otranto, Italy. There is the lay catechist Ivan Merz. The Franciscan martyrs of our own Georgia, who died because they upheld the sanctity of marriage (although they are not even “Venerable” yet). St. Charles Lwanga and Companions died because they would not give in to their king’s homosexual desires.

The list of recent saints and their amazing stories goes on and on. Still, most reading the above sampling will be seeing these people’s names for the first time.

So as the Church gives us new saints, let’s learn and spread their stories. For instance, on Oct. 16, Pope Francis will canonize the Mexican martyr José Luis Sánchez del Rio. He was just 15 when he died for the Faith with awe-inspiring courage. Catechists and parents, teach our young about him. Priests and deacons, preach about him. Everyone, learn his story. Then let us all use his incredible example to strengthen our own walk with Christ.

In any event the Vatican has been constantly tweaking the sainthood process since the Middle Ages. These new regulations were actually authored by Bl. Paul VI (1963-79). The Church will continue revising how it makes saints as long as it can find ways to improve its methods. That will probably end a second after the Second Coming.

Until then, let us enjoy the saints we have, and do our part to become saints ourselves.