Would you look at this.
A Q/A post!
Renee Lin from Forget the Roads [go check out her blog] asked me several years ago (sorry I’m just now getting to it, Renee):
“Perhaps you know the answer to this. It is my understanding that the position of “devil’s advocate” in the canonization process has been done away with. Could you tell us why? I think the process is fascinating – I also think that the idea of a devil’s advocate was a good one, so when, why and by whom was the decision made to eliminate the position? I was also wondering if the declaration of sainthood is infallible.”
Let’s look at the infallibility of canonizations first. This is a topic which comes up every so often when there is a big name canonization and in particular came up when the canonizations of John Paul II and John XXIII happened. It would take a while to get into the gritty details of the discussion, so see the For Further Reading below for a plethora of articles discussing this point.
The simple answer is yes, canonizations are infallible, in that during the canonization the Pope states, without error, that the saint is in Heaven and that the universal Church can safely turn to him or her to intercede for us. However, it is not the sort of infallible declaration one finds, say, in Pius XII’s declaration defining the dogma of Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. It isn’t an infallible statement about dogma, because the fact that an individual is in Heaven is not drawn from Divine Revelation, as are the other declared dogmas on faith and morals. In other words, we know that Mary was assumed into Heaven because we can draw the conclusion based on Scripture, but Scripture does not tell us that any specific saint is in Heaven, so we cannot declare the saint is in Heaven based on Divine Revelation.
The canonization is infallible not because it was directly revealed by God but because the evidence collected (miracles through the saint’s intercession, his life of heroic virtue, etc.) points to the fact that the saint is in Heaven.
Here’s the actual prayer the Pope says when canonizing:
To the honor of the Holy Trinity, for the exaltation of the Catholic faith, and for the increase of the Christian life, by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul and Our own, after due deliberation and having implored the Divine Assistance by prayer, and by the counsel of many of our brothers, we declare and define Blessed [insert saint’s name here] to be a saint, and we enroll him/her in the catalog of the saints, commanding that he/she be held among the saints by the universal Church, and to be invoked as such by pious devotion. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s a pretty powerful prayer. It cuts no corners, leaves no doubt as to what is going on.
The way in which a canonization is not infallible is in reference to the specifics of the individual’s holiness. The pope is not teaching that the person being canonized is perfect, or even great at what he or she did. What is being declared is that the person is in Heaven. True, saints tend to be models of sanctity, but they are not always models for living other ways of life. Pope St. Celestine V, famous for being one of the popes to resign, was a terrible papal administrator. He was a very holy man, but he was not strong in policy. We should not look to him for an example of how to lead others; instead we should see in Pope Celestine an example of humility. He was canonized not because he was a great pope, but because he made it to Heaven.
Like I said, check out the “For Further Reading” for more on this.
On to the Devil’s Advocate.
No, not the movie with Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves.
The role of the Devil’s Advocate, officially known as the Promoter of the Faith (the Promotor Fidei), was one of canon law, both the Promoter of the Faith and his “opponent,” the canon lawyer tasked with arguing the sanctity of the proposed saint. Prior to the 1980s, when Pope St. John Paul II changed some of the regulations for the canonization process, the Devil’s Advocate had the role of raising objections to someone being considered a Servant of God. Sometimes they were legitimate concerns, such as concerns about the person that had not been brought up by the postulator for the cause, but sometimes they were really nitpicky, focusing in some cases on the use of particular words found in the documents of the case. These objections would be answered by the side supporting sainthood, and then the Promotor of the Faith would send more objections. This happened three times before the person was declared a Servant of God, allowing the canonization process to move forward and the reports of miracles to be examined.
On the one hand, having the Devil’s Advocate in such a direct, constant position in the canonization process helped make sure that there was no doubt about the sanctity of the people canonized. It made the process go slowly, to be sure. However, in some cases the cause of a canonization could be held up for decades because of the debates, all written, back and forth between the two sides. The canonization process, then, relied heavily on the arguments and arguing skills of these canon lawyers.
This brings us to Pope John Paul II and his changes to the canonization process in 1983. In his apostolic constitution Divinus Prefectionis Magister, the Holy Father laid out the changes to the process, streamlining the whole thing. He didn’t get rid of the Devil’s Advocate entirely; instead, the position of Protector of the Faith received a more concentrated role. Instead of running the entire opposing position in the process, the Protector is part of a group of figures who read through the Position (the evidence that a person led a holy life) and submit questions about it. As one commentator puts it, “Instead of a candidate being on trial and having to face accusations by the Promotor Fidei as the Church’s ‘prosecutor,’ the procedure now takes the form of a committee meeting where experts present reports.” The emphasis in the canonization process is no longer the legal debates but rather the weight of the biographical study within the Position. The direction of the canonization process is not directed by canon lawyers but rather by historians.
There is still an area for debating the merits of a particular person, but it is no longer the role of one man, one Devil’s Advocate.
This, of course, does not mean it is easy for a person to be declared a saint. It isn’t, and it can still take many years and be stalled in the early investigation process. There is also the process of going from Servant of God to Blessed (which used to require two verified miracles but now only requires one) and Blessed to Saint (again, only one miracle needed instead of two), which can take a very, very long time. Think, for example, of Queen Isabel of Spain (died 1504) or Mateo Ricci (died 1610), who have both been declared Servants of God but have not had any miracles reported in their name to move them on to become Blesseds. The same could be said about Pope Benedict XIII, who was declared a Servant of God in 1755, with no progress to his cause since.
Again, see below for some more to read about this.
I hope this helps answer your questions, Renee.
For Further Reading
On Canonizations and Infallibility
Donald S. Prudlo, “Are Canonizations based on Papal Infallibility?”
Dr. Prudlo also recently published a book examining how the Church’s understanding of papal infallibility grew out of it’s teaching about canonizations. Something like that. I haven’t read it yet, just going from the short info you can read online (you can get it here or here)
Edward McNamara, “Canonizations and Infallibility”
La Stampa with Giuseppe Sciacca, “Are canonizations infallible?”
Camillo Beccari, “Beatification and Canonization,” Catholic Encyclopedia (1907 edition)
On the Devil’s Advocate
Unam Sanctam Catholicam (blog), “History of the Devil’s Advocate”
Matthew Bunson, “Devil’s Advocate Role Eliminated from Canonization Process”
John Paul II, Divinus Perfectionis Magister
Richard Burtsell, “Advocatus Diaboli” The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907)
William Fanning, “Promotor Fidei” The Catholic Encyclopedia (1907)
Jason A Gray, The Evolution of the Promoter of the Faith in the Causes of Beatification and Canonization: A Study of the Law of 1917 and 1983 [Note: I didn’t actually read through any of this one, as I found it towards the end of writing this post. However, it looks interesting, so check it out.]