The Medieval Review 17.06.06

Prudlo, Donald S. Certain Sainthood: Canonization and the Origins of Papal Infallibility in the Medieval Church. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2015. pp. 232. $49.05 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-8014-5403-5 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Michael Staunton
University College, Dublin

Between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, popes increasingly came to claim an exclusive right to canonize saints. At the same time, infallibility more regularly came to be ascribed to papal statements of doctrine. Donald Prudlo's book takes these two developments, each a significant feature of the advancement of papal power, and explains their connection. For him, debate and negotiation over papal recognition of saints served to entrench claims that, in decisions on certain matters, popes could not err. One of these, it came to be argued, was the canonization of saints. Through challenge and response to papal claims--especially in debates among mendicants and heretics--these two parallel developments came to be mutually reinforcing.

Prudlo begins by defining these two central concepts, infallibility and canonization, and tracing their origins. Although papal infallibility was defined as dogma in 1870 by the First Vatican Council, the concept is much older. Levels of infallibility have been ascribed to the scriptures, to the church as a whole, and to the promulgation of particular teachings by the church, for example the decisions of ecumenical councils. From the eleventh century onwards, popes began to make definitive decisions in the absence of councils, and by the middle of the thirteenth century, the church began to discern a special charism of personal infallibility in the papal office. It was also from the twelfth century onwards that popes began to independently establish saints, and use the word "canonization." Though in practice local and episcopal recognition of saints continued into the seventeenth century, by the end of the middle ages it was broadly accepted that the pope alone had the right to canonize saints. At the same time, canonizations themselves came to be considered infallible acts.

That the connection between the two developments has not been adequately made, Prudlo argues, is partly due to the focus taken by scholars in both fields. Developments in the theory and practice of canonization developed sporadically and unsystematically. They predated Gregorian reforms, but refinements did not occur until after those reforms had been well established. For such scholars of the papal monarchy as Walter Ullmann, Colin Morris and Ian Robinson, then, canonization was a peripheral issue. On the other hand, specialist studies of canonization have tended towards institutional history (Eric Kemp), or legal studies (Stephan Kuttner, Thomas Wetzstein), rather than focusing on lived religion, the laity, heretics and local sanctity. Prudlo's challenge to earlier scholarship on papal canonization is more direct. In particular, he seeks to revise many of Brian Tierney's opinions, asserting a much stronger role for the alliance of popes and mendicants than for the question of poverty. Prudlo sees his approach as "an experiment in the interrelationship between lived religion and intellectual history" (5), one that combines a consideration of local saintly cults and lay piety with attention to theological and legal opinion.

Prudlo characterizes the development of the practice and theory of canonization as a languid, organic, uneven, evolutionary process, occurring over many centuries. In the eleventh century, local supervision of cults began to shift to Rome, not because of a determined centralizing effort by the papacy, but because a "broadening of the holy" (16) was a welcome development to all. This was in its origins "a popular centralization" (16). The first extant records of papal association with canonization date from 993 but Prudlo points to the elevation of Simeon of Syracuse in 1041 or 1042 as the true beginning of papal canonization. Then Pope Benedict IX addressed all the Christian clergy and people, under the aegis of papal prerogatives, demanding and not merely authorizing universal veneration. That this occurred at a low-point of papal authority suggests that Benedict was exercising a custom that found no opposition and seemed natural. It is notable, too, that the Gregorian reformers did not make papal canonization a priority. The last decades of the eleventh century and the first decades of the twelfth apparently saw little change in the practice of papal canonization, but in the middle of the twelfth century various streams came together: the elevated position of the papacy after Gregorian reform; relative peace with secular powers; advances in law made by Gratian and the Decretalists; and Cistercian reform. Prudlo accepts the importance traditionally assigned to the papacy of Alexander III (1159-81), but redefines it. For him, this was when the possibilities and promise of papal canonization finally became apparent, when an existing process was reoriented to a universalizing agenda. This involved, first, the assertion of papal right over the recognition of holiness itself, and secondly, a determination that papal canonization is superior to other kinds of canonization. Instead of banning local elevations and translations, papal canonization was made qualitatively different.

These developments in papal canonization coincided with an upsurge in heresy. Prudlo suggests that already in the twelfth century the cult of the saints was a lightning rod for heterodox criticisms of the church. As yet, this opposition was bound up more with ideas of the true church, and hostility to materiality, than with papal power to canonize, but from the thirteenth century the latter issue would become more pertinent. Prudlo sees an increasing systematization during the pontificates of Innocent III and Honorius III. During this time sainthood was increasingly opposed to heresy, and canonization became a proving ground for papal authority. One development was that the language of papal infallibility was appearing in public, in connection with the canonization of saints. In 1234 there was inserted in the Decretals a passage from a letter of Pope Alexander III from 1171 or 1172 stating that public veneration of a saint requires the authorization of the Roman church. Pope Innocent IV commented on this that "only the pope is able to canonize saints" (74).

More critical again was the conspiracy of events. The emergence and rapid success of the mendicant orders was soon followed by claims to the sanctity of many of their numbers, a phenomenon enthusiastically embraced by most thirteenth-century popes, most notably Gregory IX (1227-41) who promoted Francis and a number of other mendicant saints. This prompted a backlash from local clergy and people, faced by large number of new mendicant saints being canonized, with little delay after their death, some of them with little popular support, and controversial features such as the stigmata. Mendicants and papacy had a symbiotic relationship. Mendicants supported papal claims, while popes promoted mendicant saints, many of whom were singled out for their opposition to heresy, and held up as standard-bearers of orthodoxy. It was a short step to present all resistance to mendicant cults as heretical, especially when heretics were indeed hostile to such cults.

Prudlo's central claim is that it is to the middle of the thirteenth century, rather than to the apostolic poverty controversy of the following century, that we ought to look for the origins of papal infallibility. On the theoretical level, mendicant theologians responded to attacks on their innovations on religious life by claiming that to judge the mendicants and their saints was to judge their greatest source of support, the papacy itself. Bonaventure's implicit argument for the infallibility of papal canonization was followed by Aquinas who asked more directly "whether all saints who are canonized by the church are in glory, or if any of them may be in hell" (Quodlibet IX, q. 8), and concluded that the pope is unable to err in canonization. Meanwhile, successive popes enforced papal infallibility in canonization on a practical level. Procedures were increasingly formalized, bulls were issued commanding observance of controversial papally approved cults, while controversial local cults were suppressed, often with the assistance of friars. According to this interpretation of events, the contest with the Spiritual Franciscans did not forge the doctrine of papal infallibility in canonization--rather, this was when the long-maturing doctrine finally bore fruit. Pope John XXII used canonization to underscore his statements on apostolic poverty, his canonization of Thomas Aquinas in 1323 acting as a celebration of the saint and his teachings on poverty. Now inquisitors asked suspected heretics to confirm their belief in certain saints. As Prudlo puts it, papal infallibility in canonization had become cemented as a doctrine, and its denial had become heresy.

Prudlo's is an elegantly argued case, backed up by a careful reading of legal, theological, hagiographical and inquisitorial sources. There is an imbalance in the evidence, with significant gaps in our knowledge of what heretics or even the laity believed, but this is something that he readily acknowledges. Similarly, he notes where his conclusions are speculative. But despite remaining uncertainties, the central thesis here--of the interconnectedness of papal canonization and the doctrine of papal infallibility--is logically consistent, and it would be interesting to see how specialists in related fields might test Prudlo's arguments. This is a learned and sometimes densely argued book, and its immediately appeal will be to scholars and students of the medieval papacy. It will also be read with profit, however, by anyone interested in the cult of the saints. Not the least interesting of its features is the number of case studies of individual saintly cults that acted as landmarks on the road to papal infallibility. These include Thomas Becket, who was canonized in 1173 by means of a papal bull addressed not just locally but to "all the prelates of the whole Church" (37), thereby making it clear that popes had the power to authorize universal cults. There is Peter of Verona, who came from a Cathar family, but led inquisition efforts against those heretics in Lombardy. His assassination in 1252 prompted an immediately popular cult, followed by rapid canonization, but also opposition by Cathars, and in turn, attacks on Peter's cult came to be presented as heresy. Then there are Dominic and Thomas Aquinas, who came to be seen not only as saints but as saintly representatives of their religious orders and of orthodox opinion. All this serves to remind us of the importance of the medieval cult of the saints not in reflecting but in driving religious thought and practice.

Copyright (c) 2017 Michael Staunton

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