The Degeneration of Canonization Procedures Under Francis

October 17, 2022

On the occasion of the new commission set up in the Dicastery for the Cause of Saints under the direction of Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, a question has arisen about the evolution – or rather the involution – of the canonization process under the pontificate of Pope Francis.

This involution has been studied in particular by Roberto de Mattei and by the Vaticanist Giuseppe Nardi. It consists of the use of canonization without taking the trouble to apply the process wisely put in place by the Church at the instigation of Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644), and clarified by the work of Prosper Lambertini, Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758).

This process had already been seriously diminished by Pope John Paul II’s reforms. But Francis took another path to get to its heart, and this in two ways.

Equipollent Canonizations

This form of canonization concerns persons venerated after their death as saints, whose reputation for holiness has been constant and widespread, and to whom are attributed miracles performed through their intercession during the past centuries.

When these conditions are fulfilled, the pope can, by his own authority, by a public decree, without trial or ceremony of canonization, proceed to an “equipollent” canonization, in other words, to extend to the universal Church the liturgical cult in honor of the blessed.

There were only 12 equipollent canonizations in the first 1,700 years of Church history. Most concerned founders of orders: St. Romuald, founder of the Camaldolese Benedictines; St. Norbert of Xanten, founder of the Premonstratensians; St. Bruno, founder of the Carthusians; or St. Peter Nolasco, founder of the Order of Our Lady of Merci (the Mercedarians).

In the past 300 years, up to Francis, there have been 17 such canonizations, including St. Peter Damian, and the Slavic Apostles, Sts. Cyril and Methodius. One was by John Paul II who canonized three priests killed by Hungarian Calvinists, and another by Benedict XVI.

During the first 14 months of his pontificate, Pope Francis made use of this form six times, notably for John XXIII, for whom it was claimed that the Second Vatican Council had already canonized him “by acclamation.” The very notion of equipollent canonization loses its meaning in this case, because the criteria laid down by Benedict XIV are not fulfilled.

A New Form of Martyrdom

On July 11, 2017, Pope Francis, by the motu proprio Maiorem Hac Dilectionem, introduced a new way of being designated a martyr: the “oblatio vitae” or “offering of life,” which is singular, because martyrdom, by definition, requires having been killed in hatred of the Faith.

On the same day, Msgr. Marcello Bartolucci, secretary of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, explained in L'Osservatore Romano that there is now a fourth path to reach beatification in addition to the three already existing paths: martyrdom, heroic virtues, and “equipollent beatification.” The new fourth way is the “offering of life.”

The new path is described by Roberto de Mattei in his article “Pope Francis’ New Pantheon of Martyrs,” on the European Correspondence website. He rightly points out that the link is no longer established between faith and martyrdom. The characteristic example is that of the canonization of Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador.

Msgr. Vincenzo Paglia, postulator of the cause, summarizes: “Indeed, the Archbishop of El Salvador was not killed by atheist persecutors so that he would deny faith in the Trinity; he was assassinated by Christians because he wanted the Gospel to be lived in his deep intuition of the gift of life.”

The Open Door

Prof. Roberto de Mattei shows the politicization of canonization procedures when it will no longer be necessary to suffer death in odium fidei, but, for example, as a “consequence of a political choice in the service of the poor, immigrants, and 'peripheries' of the earth.”

Can the guerrilla priests of the 70s and 80s, who perished “in the service of political revolutions,” be beatified? Or even all the soldiers who fell for their country? And above all, will this limit stop at the borders of the Church or will this “offering of life” apply to other Christians, to other religions, or even to ideologies?

The answer will perhaps be given by the Commission of Witnesses to the Faith, set up within the Dicastery for the Cause of the Saints, since Cardinal Marcello Semeraro, Prefect of the Dicastery, has already presented Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a good candidate.