Are Canonizations Infallible? An important new book from Arouca Press

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(Peter A. Kwasniewski, Rorate Caeli – August 12, 2021) I am pleased to announce the publication of a new book: Are Canonizations Infallible? Revisiting a Disputed Question, from Arouca Press.

It is a 276-page collection of fifteen essays written by twelve authors: Phillip Campbell, Fr Thomas Crean, Roberto de Mattei, William Matthew Diem, Christopher Ferrara, Msgr. Brunero Gherardini, Fr John Hunwicke, Peter Kwasniewski, John Lamont, Joseph Shaw, Fr. Jean-François Thomas, and José Antonio Ureta. I served as the volume’s editor. The book includes not only sources in English but also translations from French, Italian, and Portuguese. Several of the chapters are published in it for the first time.

All the arguments you’ve ever seen in favor of the infallibility of canonizations or against it—and some you probably haven’t seen—are found in the pages of this book. Authors line up behind both sides. It is a fair and full presentation, which does not shy away from toppling “certainties” that are sometimes mindlessly repeated. The book also serves as an introduction to the history of canonization (including changes made to the process over time) and to the nature and objects of papal infallibility, with Msgr. Gherardini’s mini-treatise especially impressive in that regard. The authors go into what the papal act of canonization means or entails, the conditions it may have for moral certainty on the part of the faithful, and what it concretely demands of members of the Church.

The chapters are arranged in a certain order: historical and doctrinal overviews (chapters 1–3), in-depth investigations by Thomists (4–7), a vigorous defense of the non-infallibility thesis (chapters 8–9), and specific concerns raised in the postconciliar era (10–15). That being said, the chapters do not have to be read in any particular order, and those who are looking for the fundamentals of the debate may wish to prioritize chapters 2–3, 7–9, and 11. In order to give prospective readers a better sense of the content, I have reproduced below the Table of Contents and, in full, the Editor’s Preface (pp. xi–xii).

Students of scholastic theology, Church history, the papacy, hagiography, and liturgy will not want to miss this book. Copies may be ordered, in paperback or hardcover, directly from the publisher, or from Amazon and its affiliates.

For a long time now, the majority position among Catholic theologians has been that canonizations conducted by a pope should be considered infallible and/or inerrant. A casual online search quickly leads to copious documentation of this view. It is not, however, the only view that has been held (as the use of the word “majority” itself implies), and there are compelling reasons to revive the minority position, or at least to give its adherents a fair opportunity to make their case. It should not be forgotten that the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary was not held by four great doctors of the Church—St. Bernard, St. Albert, St. Thomas, and St. Bonaventure; neither was it the consensus of the masters for most of the thirteenth century. While they probably would have assented to the doctrine had it been proposed to them with Scotus’s explanation (distinguishing priority of time and priority of nature in the first instant of Mary’s existence), it remains true that faithful Catholics living at the time of those doctors would have been materially in error by following the majority position. A lesson that may be drawn from this episode is that we should be content to adopt the consensus of good and holy theologians from centuries past until and unless there is a compelling reason to depart from that consensus.

The reasons for reviving the minority position may be divided into those that have already been part of the debate for centuries and those that are peculiar to the ecclesial situation in which we find ourselves today—such as the concerns that arise from the total overhaul of the processes of beatification and canonization in 1983 and from reservations about the canonizability of certain controversial figures. As several authors herein discuss, the meaning and use of the word “infallible” has also developed over time, with 1870 as a watershed moment, and participants in the debates have not always taken care to contextualize their sources, distinguishing between pre-1870 and post-1870 frameworks.

If there is one thing the contents of this volume demonstrate, it is that the historical, doctrinal, liturgical, and moral aspects of canonization are more complex than many realize. Thus, even those who, having considered opposing arguments, still believe they can or must defend inerrantism will nonetheless be in a position to exhibit a greater nuance and modesty than is customarily found in the (neo)scholastic shallows of discourse in which far too many playfully splash.

The authors who agreed to participate in this joint project do not necessarily hold one and the same opinion on the matters under discussion, although it would be fair to say that nearly all of them reject the widespread idea that canonizations conducted by a pope are always and everywhere infallible and must be considered and accepted as such by the faithful. A central goal of this collection is to advance arguments for why it would be acceptable and could (at least under certain circumstances) be compulsory to distance oneself from the inerrantist view. As will be apparent, the authors do not dismiss the majority view out of hand, but test its foundations and applications to see if it may have been assumed too hastily as the only view possible or as the one that has so much plausibility that it practically excludes the contrary.

It may be pointed out here that a major source for the infallibilist position, Prospero Lambertini’s four-volume treatise De servorum Dei beatificatione et de beatorum canonizatione—authored while he was still a cardinal in the Roman Curia—is too often cited in secondary literature as the work of “Benedict XIV,” which might mislead readers into thinking that Lambertini’s opinions as a private theologian wear the mantle of papal authority. In a subject that precisely concerns the papal magisterium, this honorary “papalization” of a non-papal source—which would undoubtedly be innocent in most contexts—acquires more gravity and should be avoided. In any case, Lambertini is frequently and thoroughly discussed in these pages.

In chapters 1 and 2, Fr. Jean-François Thomas and José Antonio Ureta furnish an overview of canonizations in the Church and set the stage for our debated question. In chapter 3, Phillip Campbell provides a short history of the promotor fidei or “devil’s advocate”—a role eviscerated by John Paul II in 1983, with implications that are traced out by several authors later on.

The next four chapters may be considered the theological heart of the book, as three formidable Thomistic scholars discuss the correct interpretation of the Angelic Doctor’s teaching. In chapter 4, William Matthew Diem carefully examines the texts of Aquinas and the historical context before and after. Arguing against infallibility simply speaking, Diem maintains that even if the Church could err in canonization—in the sense that she could canonize one who is not in heaven—she cannot canonize one who manifestly did not lead a holy life, and therefore the faithful will not have grounds to deny any particular canonization without temerity. In chapter 5, Fr. Thomas Crean succinctly presents, more Thomistico, the principal arguments for and against the inerrantist position, concluding in favor of inerrantism, albeit in a minimalist sense. Chapter 6 is Diem’s rejoinder to Fr. Crean. In chapter 7, the late Msgr. Brunero Gherardini—eminent theologian of the Roman School, Dean of the Faculty of Theology at the Lateran, long-time editor of Divinitas, and a collaborator with the Congregation for the Causes of Saints—proposes a tightly-argued case against the infallibility of canonizations.

Chapters 8 through 15—written by John Lamont, Fr. John Hunwicke, Christopher Ferrara, Roberto de Mattei, Joseph Shaw, and myself—advance a variety of arguments against the view that all papal canonizations are infallible and in favor of the view that at least some such canonizations may be erroneous and invalid owing to defects in authority, intention, process, form, or matter.

An appendix offers choice paragraphs from Prospero Lambertini on the precise norms for the right evaluation of papal sanctity.

Inevitably, some overlap will be found among the contributors. Yet each author brings distinct facts, observations, and arguments to the conversation, and each offers a unique perspective or angle. Together they vigorously reanimate a debate that has lain dormant for too long. We have published this book as a service to the truth—as a spur to a more intensive theological engagement with a quaestio disputata that should not be prematurely treated as definitively solved. If the essays here provide a more compelling (because more realistic) account of what canonization is and is not, what it involves, implies, and excludes; if they offer new insights or dismantle old assumptions; if they disturb easy certainties or reassure troubled consciences, then they will have amply served their purpose, to the greater glory of God and the veneration of His undoubted saints, especially the all-holy and immaculate Virgin.

The famous question in St. Thomas Aquinas’s Quaestiones Quodlibetales, a true locus classicus—debated, according to Gauthier’s hypothesis, in Advent of 1257, and thus a relatively early work of the master’s, written right after the Commentary on the Sentences—is referred to in scholarly literature in two different ways. Some refer to Quodlibet IX, q. 8, while others refer to Quodlibet IX, art. 16. The discrepancy arises from two competing ways of enumerating the items. The quodlibet contains sixteen individual questions, with the one on canonization being the very last (hence, “art. 16” if numbered consecutively). Other sources, however, group the material into eight thematically-unified “questions” with varying numbers of articles (q. 1 has a single article, q. 2 has three, q. 3 has one, q. 4 has five, q. 5 has two, q. 6, has one, q. 7 has two, and q. 8 has one—the one on canonization).

Chapters 5 and 6 are published here for the first time, and chapters 1, 2, and 7 for the first time in English translation (from French, Portuguese, and Italian respectively). Chapter 4 appeared in the journal Nova et Vetera. The remaining chapters were published online as indicated in the first note of each. To avoid clutter in the footnotes, internet sources have been referred to very simply by author, title of piece, title of website, and date. A Google search will turn up any of these in a split second, and if they have “gone missing,” the Wayback Machine of the Internet Archive will deliver the goods. No attempt has been made to impose a single system of footnote conventions; each chapter is, however, internally consistent, according to the author’s preferences.

Peter A. Kwasniewski, Ph.D.
June 24, 2021
Nativity of St. John the Baptist

[If I might add a final personal note: in my thirty years of studying dogmatic theology, I’ve never come across a disputable question on which minds are so closed and so impatient as they are on this topic. It is a phenomenon that deserves reflection. There’s a kneejerk “well obviously” reaction that is disproportionate to the status quaestionis and the available evidence (as this book well documents). To me, this tendency immediately to hide behind and wave around certain authorities and to refuse to consider any other possibility indicates self-doubt and fear of being proved wrong or at least of having certain arguments undermined. What it betrays, unfortunately, is a lack of the spirit of inquiry, both philosophical and theological, among many conservative and traditionalist writers today. Therefore, no one should be surprised when some people dismiss the entire endeavor of this book; but let it be clear that those who do so are implicitly admitting that they are unwilling to pursue the arguments. They dogmatize something that is not a dogma, sublimating their insecurities into a reassuring absolutism.—PAK]

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