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Bellarmine's Defence of Canonized Saints

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

With two of his religious brethren being raised to the honors of the altar recently, if Robert Bellarmine were alive today he would very likely have re-edited his classic treatise on the canonization of the saints. [1] The errors against which it was originally directed are just as alive today as they were in the sixteenth century—only now our separated brethren ignore the saints instead of attacking them. In any case, Bellarmine’s apologia of sanctity deserves to be better known. It forms a substantial part of his two-million-word “Controversies against the Reformers” which Pius XI declared to be the main reason, after his personal holiness, why Bellarmine was made a Doctor of the Universal Church.

St. Robert was not a polemicist by nature, but by force of circumstances. How could any red-blooded Tuscan remain silent when apostates like Martin Luther were openly charging that “The only persons beings canonized are Popish saints, not Christian ones. The foundations made in their honor serve only to fatten lazy gluttons”? The story is told how on May 31, 1523, the Venerable Bishop Benno of Meissen was canonized by his fellow-countryman, the German Adrian VI. Luther was incensed in the extreme at the thought of the special celebration to be held the following year in honor of the new saint. He accordingly published his diatribe, “Against the new idol and olden devil about to be set up at Meissen.” He vindicates his use of the term “devil” in the title on the very first page: “Now that by the grace of God, the Gospel has again arisen and shines brightly, Satan incarnate is avenging himself by means of such foolery and is causing himself to be worshipped with great pomp under the name of Benno.” [2]

Bellarmine went to the heart of the Protestant opposition to canonized saints. It would be no use defending the Church’s right to say that certain persons were in heaven if there was no heaven for them to enter. He quotes Calvin as saying that, “It is stupid to inquire where the souls of the just now live and whether they are in glory or not. Sacred Scripture explicitly teaches us that they must all wait until the second coming of Christ before entering into their glory. [3] Bellarmine counters with a score of arguments, like the following excerpt from the Collect for the Mass of Gregory the Great: “O God, Who hast given to the soul of Thy servant Gregory the rewards of eternal beatitude”; and the prayer of St. Paul when he exclaimed, “I wish to be dissolved and be with Christ.” To which Bellarmine adds that if the souls of the saved are detained in some other place than heaven, Paul’s desire would have been a Utopian dream since Christ is assuredly in heaven.

Having disposed of the heretical denial that the souls of the blessed are even now in heaven, St. Robert proceeds to defend the Church’s custom of canonizing her heroic dead. “There is more than one problem we have to deal with here. Is there any reason why the saints should be canonized at all? If so, who has the power and the right to canonize them? And is his judgment infallible when he pronounces on their sanctity? [4]

Before answering these questions, Bellarmine first explains what is meant by the process of canonization.

Canonization is nothing else than the public testimony of the Church witnessing to the genuine sanctity and certain possession of heavenly glory of some person who has died. Consequently it is at once both a judgment pronounced on the saint himself and a statement issued on the honors which he should now receive as one of the elect who happily reigns with God. [5]

There are seven special and distinctive honors which the Church decrees in favor of those whom she raises to the dignity of sainthood:

Persons who are canonized are thereby inscribed in the catalog of the saints, which means that the faithful are obliged to call them and to publicly worship them as saints. They are henceforth to be invoked in the public worship as saints. They are henceforth to be invoked in the public prayers of the Church. Churches and altars may be erected in their memory. The Sacrifice of the Eucharist and the Divine Office may be publicly offered to God in their honor. They are assigned a special feast day in the ecclesiastical calendar. Pictures and statues can be made of them, including a distinctive nimbus or halo to signify the glory which they now enjoy in heaven. And finally, their relics may be preserved in precious reliquaries and publicly honored. [6]

According to John Calvin, “It is idolatrous to worship in any degree any of the angels or so-called saints who have died.” [7] That the worship of the saints is not idolatry is amply proved from the most ancient tradition of the Church. What Bellarmine is especially concerned with at this point is to show that the Church’s apparently arbitrary procedure in canonizing certain people is not only not capricious but perfectly consistent with God’s manifest will in dealing with mankind.

Take the Scriptures, for example. Just about every chapter of the historical books of the Old Testament describes the glorious exploits and heroic death of some great man—minutely detailed under the inspiring hand of God. In one small section of Ecclesiasticus, the author canonizes upwards of twenty holy men who had lived before his time: Henoch, Noe, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Phinees, Josue, Caleb, Samuel, David, Elias, Eliseus and others. In the New Testament we have the same things. St. Luke in his Acts canonizes St. Stephen, the elder James, besides Peter, Paul, Silas and Barnabas. The least we can argue from Scriptural tradition, therefore, is that most probably God has not discontinued a practice which He had sanctioned and encouraged for thousands of years, up to and including Apostolic times. [8]

Moreover, on the direct authority of Holy Write, we are bidden to honor saints, “Let the people show forth their wisdom and the Church declare their praise” (Ecclus., 45:15). Apart from revelation, however, reason itself testifies that just as wickedness and sin deserve to be hated and blamed, so virtue and holiness should be rewarded with due recognition and praise:

Besides, the honor which we pay to the saints eventually redounds to our own advantage because they will repay our attentions by obtaining many graces for us through their powerful intercession with God. But how can we venerate the saints as we should, unless we first know who they are and can distinguish the true saints from those who are not saints at all? [9]

A third element that enters into the picture is the duty of imitation:

The saints are so many models of virtue and norms of right conduct which God has given us to guide us in our course through life. But again, it is quite impossible to follow another person’s example if we do not know who he is or what virtues he practiced and trials he underwent. We cannot imitate an abstract generality. To paraphrase a statement of Christ, the sanctity of the saints is the candle that must not be put under a bushel but upon a candlestick—which the Church literally fulfills every time she canonizes one of the elect of God. [10]

For all their sanctity, however, the saints are not so far removed from us as to cease to be our brethren in Christ.

We are all members of one Body, and consequently are expected to share each other’s joys and sorrows. So that in God’s plan the saints are destined to show us their sympathy and do what they can to relieve our needs. No doubt they fulfill their obligations in this regard most faithfully; and not only in general sort of way but even to the extent of an individual saint caring for the needs of an individual person on earth. We on our part are supposed to join in their happiness and thank Almighty God for the glory which He has bestowed upon them; which is clearly difficult—not to say impossible—unless we know who the saints are, what heroic deeds they accomplished and wherein their dignity specifically consists. [11]

So much for the positive advantages of knowing definitely who is in heaven and why. By the same token a great many embarrassments—to put it mildly—are also avoided. Bellarmine writes:

Suppose for a moment that the Church did not explicitly identify definite people among the blessed as worthy of our veneration. The result would be confusion twice confounded. Real saints might possibly be recognized, but at the same time not a few of the damned would also be honored as saints. A case in point is what happened in the time of St. Martin, as related by the chronicler Sulpicius. For some inexplicable reason, the local townsfolk began to venerate a certain recently deceased individual as a martyr. The man was killed it was true, but why? Martin suspected the whole business, made extensive investigations but could reach no definite conclusions until in answer to his prayers the “martyr” appeared to him in a dream and identified himself. He was not a martyr but a thief who had fallen victim to his own misdeeds and was now condemned to suffer the pains of hell for all eternity. [12]

The heresiarch Luther, whom St. Robert was answering, had brazenly proclaimed that “Every man is free to canonize as much as he pleases.” [13] The practical question suggests itself, therefore: is Luther correct or not? And if not, who does have the power to canonize the saints? Bellarmine distinguishes two kinds of canonization, depending on whether a person is to be considered a saint only in his own province and locality, or whether his sanctity is to be proclaimed to the whole Christian world. In the latter case, not only is the person’s holiness officially testified to all the faithful but they are also forbidden under censure to call his sanctity into question—which would not be true, absolutely speaking, where a saint is honored only locally.

Bellarmine is also careful to point out the difference between historical practice and objective privilege in “canonizing” territorial saints. According to ancient authorities, an ordinary bishop was permitted to canonize a saint for veneration in his own Episcopal territory.

We read in one of St. Cyprian’s letters, for example, where he orders his priests to inform him when someone is martyred for the Faith that he may immediately celebrate the Holy Sacrifice in his honor and assign the date of his death as a special feast in the calendar of the diocese. We also know that in olden days there were hundreds of saintly person whose memory was honored in one or another province but who were quite unknown outside the immediate locality where they lived and died. To take only a single instance of this, we are told in the Acts of the Council of Florence that the Greeks honored Simeon Metaphrastes as a saint, whereas the Latin’s were surprise to learn that the worthy man had ever existed! However, this was the custom, which has since been prohibited because of the many abuses to which it gave rise. Since the time of Alexander III and Innocent III no one may be even locally venerated as a saint unless and until his cult has been formally approved by the Roman Pontiff. [14]

But when it comes to canonizing a person for the Universal Church, all the authorities agree that this power belongs to no one under the Sovereign Pontiff. Quite reasonably, because it finally rests in his hands as the head of the Church to propose to the whole Church what her members are to believe and what they are to do in the practice of their religion. We make no scruple about saying that the Pope has the power of declaring what person are excommunicated and ordering the faithful to treat them as such; why then should we derogate from him the corresponding power of declaring what people are saints and commanding all the faithful to honor them accordingly? [15]

The Reformers of Bellarmine’s day denied the power of the Pope to canonize the saints because, so they said, there are so many saints in the Roman Liturgy who have never been canonized by the Popes. If, therefore, the Church honors as saints those whom she has never canonized, what need is there of Popish canonizations at all? Bellarmine is willing to concede the historical fact but violently rejects the specious conclusions that the Protestants draw from it. According to his calculation, the first papal canonization on record took place under Pope Leo III, about the year 816, when he inscribed St. Suibert in the canon of the saints and assigned September 4 as his feast day. He quotes a manuscript of the historian Surius in support of his claim. Now the problem:

Thomas of Canterbury, Dominic and Francis of Assisi have been duly canonized by the Popes. But what about the objection of the Reformers on all the saints before this time? Is there anything to it? Not much. These ancient saints began to be venerated by the Universal Church not in virtue of any single positive legislation but through immemorial custom. And legitimate custom, as we know from St. Thomas, has the moral force of law when the ruler of a given society gives at least his tacit consent to the custom in question. Consequently the worship of any saint which may have begun as a local custom, once it becomes accepted by the Church as a whole and the Sovereign Pontiff either tacitly or explicitly approves the practice, becomes ipso facto an ecclesiastical law binding in conscience on all believing Christians. [16]

Here again the heretical camp is divided against the Catholic position. It was John Wyclif’s conviction, quoted by Bellarmine, that, “The Pope is no more infallible when he pretends to canonize a saint than the King of Ethiopa or the Sultan of Turkey would be if they made the same pretense.” [17] Luther’s main difficulty against canonizing people was that it went counter to Sacred Scripture: “Before Judgment Day we are told, ‘to pronounce no man holy.” And although Luther had to back down somewhat to recognize the undoubted sanctity of men like Augustine, Jerome, Ambrose, Bernard and Francis, still he would not, he said, stake his life on it, seeing there was nothing about them in Holy Scripture. “The Pope, nay all the angels of heaven, have not the power of setting up a new article of faith which is not contained in Scripture.” [18]

Needless to say, the Catholic doctrine is just the opposite. It is thus expressed by Bellarmine:

We hold that the Church does not err in the canonization of her saints. Proofs for this are not difficult to find. If we were ever granted the privilege of doubting whether a canonized saint is really a saint or not; we should also have the liberty of doubting whether he has to be worshipped or not. But this, to borrow a phrase from Augustine, would be dogmatic suicide because then we should be allowed to call into question whether we have to do anything that the whole Church of Christ is doing.

Furthermore, if the Church could make a mistake in her canonizations, at least two serious evils would result.

On the one hand, those among the canonized who were not in heaven would be deprived of all the suffrages of the living since we are forbidden to pray for the repose of the souls of canonized saints. “We do the martyrs an injustice when we pray for them,” says St. Augustine. The same holds for all the canonized, according to the teaching of Innocent III. On the other hand, people on earth would be deprived of the intercession of many of the saints because as often as not they would be paying their respects to the souls in hell instead of those in heaven. What is worse, the Church would be calling down on herself the most dreadful maledictions every time she prayed that God might grant us His graces according to the glory He has bestowed on those whom we honor as saints. [19]

The whole supposition of the enemies of the Church is that she raises men and women to the honors of the altar without warrant and independently of any investigation. If anything, the Church could be accused of over-severity in this respect. She demands a specified number of well-authenticated and outstanding miracles as the ordinary indispensable condition for canonization.

No intelligent person would, for example, question the historical existence of Julius Caesar or Pompey simply because historians commonly agree that Caesar and Pompey actually lived. Historians are human and therefore liable to error and deception, and yet we believe them. Are we to give less credence to Almighty God who is Infinite Wisdom and Truth Itself, when He testifies to the sanctity of one of His elect and confirms His testimony with incontestable miracles—especially when there is no reason why the person’s sanctity should even be suspected in the first place? [20]

It is interesting to note, by way of contrast, what an abysmal difference there was between Bellarmine’s attitude towards the saints and the attitude of Luther and his followers whom Bellarmine was opposing. Hartman Grisar writes of Luther:

His opposition to the canonization of the saints was dictated by his hatred of all veneration of the saints and by his aversion to the ideal of Christian self-denial, submissive obedience to the Church and Catholic activity of which the canonized saints are models. Nowhere else is his attempt to destroy the sublime ideal of Christian life which he failed to understand and to drag down to the gutter all that was highest, so clearly apparent as here. Striving after great holiness on the part of the individual merely tended to derogate from Christ’s work; the Evangelical Counsels fostered only a mistaken desertion of the world. Real saints must be “good lusty sinners who do not blush to insert in the Our Father, the “Forgive us our trespasses.” [21]

Bellarmine thought otherwise. His devotion to the saints was proverbial. Typical is the following from one of his annual panegyrics for the feast of St. Ignatius Loyola, preached on the text from the Psalms: “The just man will continue in everlasting remembrance.”

Although everyone naturally desires to be remembered after his death, and not a few try to achieve this sort of immortality in the buildings, monuments, paintings and books which they produce—in God’s providence only the saints will ever attain to an honorable remembrance in the hearts of those who follow them. And apart from the glory which the hallowed memory of the saints brings to God whose beauty they reflect, it is also very beneficial to ourselves. The saints, more than anyone else, teach us that a life of perfect virtue is not so impossible after all. They are a living witness to the truth of Christ’s own words that for those who are seriously willing to cooperate with His grace, His yoke is not only not bitter or harsh but pleasant and sweet and easy to bear.” [22]

John A. Hardon, S.J.

West Baden College,
West Baden Springs, Indiana

[1] Bl. John de Britto, S.J., missionary to India and martyr, and Bl. Bernardine Realino, S.J., famous Italian missionary and preacher, were canonized by the Holy Father on June 22, 1947.

[2] Grisar, Martin Luther, V, 123.

[3] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Bk. 4, chap. 25, no. 6.

[4] Bellarmine, De beatitudine el canonizatione sanctorum, lib. I, cap. 7.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Calvin, op. Cit. Bk. 1, chap. 11, no. 11.

[8] Bellarmine, loc. cit.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Grisar, loc. cit.

[14] Bellarmine, op. cit., cap. 8.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Bellarmine, op. cit., cap. 9.

[18] Grisar, loc. cit.

[19] Bellarmine, op. cit., cap. 9.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Grisar, op. cit., V, 124.

[22] Bellarmine, Exhortationes domesticae (Rome 31, 1605).

American Ecclesiastical Review
Vol. 118, April 1948, pp. 265-273

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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