In this well-researched and intricately argued scholarly book Donald S. Prudlo focuses on two complexly related concerns. First, that of reconstructing the development whereby, from the mid-twelfth to the late-thirteenth centuries, the popes came to play an increasingly pivotal role in the process of recognizing individual members of the faithful as exemplars of Christian living and of formally canonizing them, therefore, as saints. And what papal “canonization” meant, he tells us, was “an enrolling into the list of men and women recognized in public liturgical worship [throughout the universal church] as exemplars of Christ and intercessors in heaven.” His second (somewhat more fraught) concern, is to chart the growth in the thirteenth century of resistance by orthodox critics and heretical groups alike to the exercise of that papal role in canonization, as well as the way in which, in response, members of the Franciscan and Dominican mendicant orders, anxious to vindicate the authenticity of their saints, began to place great emphasis on the quality of “certitude” attaching to papal canonization. In so doing, they came increasingly to pose the question as to whether such papal canonization decisions were not indeed infallible in nature. To that question, by the early fourteenth century the affirmative answer had come among them to carry the day, and eventually, Prudlo claims, that view of the matter was to become “the common...opinion” among theologians and “Catholic thinkers of stature.”
As far as the former of these concerns goes, the narrative the author proposes is comparatively straightforward and clear. During much of the first millennium of Christian history, when it came to the recognition of sanctity, spontaneity seems to have been the order of the day. That is to say, the initiative was usually taken at the popular local level in Christian communities where cults of martyrs, confessors, and other saintly individuals had welled up and found expression in rituals and offerings at the tombs of the deceased or pilgrimages to reputedly holy sites. Official ecclesiastical sanction for such cultic practices was at first no more than sporadic. In the latter part of that era, however, local ordinaries increasingly undertook to exercise at least a supervisory role in relation to such saintly cults. And in a third phase, the one on which Prudlo focuses in this book, the high medieval quickening of papal centralization led to the growing papal domination of the process of saintly canonization, culminating in the fourteenth century with what almost amounted to papal monopolization of the whole business. “Almost” because, as Prudlo prudently concedes, that development may not have been “fully completed” until Urban VIII in 1634 definitively reserved to the papacy the prerogative of canonization.
So far, so good. But the plot thickens a bit when the author comes to address his more challenging second area of concern—namely, the process whereby in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries the mendicant champions of their orders’ papally canonized saints came to attribute infallibility to the pope’s canonization decisions. For it is his claim that the accumulating discourse pertaining to infallibility in canonization provided a new vocabulary and a new lexicon with which to carry on development of the infallibility discussion into the Counter-Reformation and beyond. It is true that when the First Vatican Council came finally to define the dogma of papal infallibility it made no mention of infallibility in canonization and focused exclusively on the broader issue of ex cathedra papal doctrinal definitions on matters of faith and morals. But recondite though the canonization-infallibility nexus may be, Prudlo’s findings are directly and significantly pertinent to the ongoing debate about the historical origins of the infallibility dogma and any historians working henceforth in that conflicted field will certainly have to take those findings into account.