The Cruelty of Casual Canonizations


In recent years it has become commonplace to turn funerals into casual canonizations. “Bob is in a better place,” we’re told, which, if taken literally, can only mean Heaven, as neither Hell nor Purgatory are better places than earth. Never mind the fact that Bob wasn‘t very generous with his time or money, drank too much, rarely read Catholic books or listened to Catholic radio, and in his retirement, watched baseball and football games most of the day, to the detriment of his marriage. He did, however, get to Mass every Sunday, prayed a few times during the week, and managed to make a good confession before dying.

Hardly the stuff you’d find in Butler’s Lives of the Saints , yet we’re told that Bob is now in Heaven, which is another way of saying he’s a saint. After all, there are no other kinds of people in Heaven — either we’re perfected here below, or we have the job finished in Purgatory. You will not find in Heaven a bunch of saints on one side and a bunch of imperfect sinners on the other. No, in Heaven all are perfected , because God is Pure Holiness, and in His Presence nothing unholy can exist. “And there shall not enter into [Heaven] anything defiled,” we read in Revelation 21:27.

So those of us who die in a state of grace but are still in need of perfecting, will go through the pains of Purgatory before entering Heaven. St. Catherine of Genoa (1447-1510) bluntly stated after a vision that “The souls [in Purgatory]endure a torment so extreme that no tongue can describe it, nor could the understanding conceive the least notion of it, if God did not make it  known by a particular grace.” She even went so far as to say that the sufferings of Purgatory are “equal to those of Hell” (as far as intensity, not duration).

Because it is certain that the imperfect (which, in the absence of gaining a plenary indulgence, would include Bob) go through Purgatory before getting to Heaven, and because Purgatory is unimaginably painful, it is easy to see that casual canonizations are not at all compassionate, but are in fact very cruel. They deprive the faithful departed of many prayers and good works that could have helped them get through Purgatory sooner, and they encourage spiritual sloth in those present at the funeral. “If Bob is in Heaven, I don’t have to make too much of an effort to get there either,” one would logically think, if he believes the casual canonization to be true. “Pour me another beer…”

“But Bob was nice to me,” you say.

Bob may have been “nice” to you — that is, he may not have hurt your feelings, but your feelings are not the measure of someone else’s sanctity (or your own). We read from the Prophet Isaiah, For my thoughts are not your thoughts: nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9). Our human standards fall infinitely short of Our Lord’s standards.

In fact, being “nice” was not endorsed by Our Lord, but He did declare charity to be an absolute requirement. (Cf. Matthew 22:37-39). St. Paul says that “if I have prophecy and know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith so as to remove mountains, yet do not have charity, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2). Without charity, we are nothing. Could it be stated more plainly?

With such an exacting requirement, we should know exactly what charity is: the theological virtue by which we love God above all else and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God. Therefore, telling someone that his recent divorce and remarriage are okay may be “nice,” but it is most certainly not charitable. In other words, you may avoid hurting his feelings, but you encourage him to remain in grave sin, which, if done with deliberation and not repented of, will lead to everlasting misery in Hell. Not charitable at all.

The source and destination of charity is God. We get all our ability to be charitable from God, and all our charity is then directed back to God, either directly (in worship) or indirectly through others (in good works). Thus, someone who wants what is best for his neighbor will not lie to him, but will tell him the truth, which can help lead him to Heaven. In light of this, we see that Bob being “nice” to you may even have been a vice, not a virtue.

“But Bob was baptized,” you object.

The answer to that objection is found from the Fathers of the Council of Trent, who declared unequivocally that

If anyone says that after the reception of the grace of justification… guilt is so remitted and the debt of eternal punishment so blotted out to every repentant sinner, that no debt of temporal punishment remains to be discharged, either in this world or in Purgatory, before the gates of Heaven can be opened, let him be anathema (Session 6, Chapter 16, Canon 30).

In other words, just because you’ve been baptized, doesn’t mean you go straight to Heaven when you die. (Baptized children who have not yet reached the age of reason and die, do go straight to Heaven, as they are not capable of committing personal sin.) A man who was baptized as an infant, but who goes on to live for many decades, will likely have much sin to deal with. Our friend Bob choose to live out his Catholicism halfheartedly, which is another way of saying that he sinned a lot. Deliberately contradicting God’s Will is by definition, sinning. While not an apostate, Bob was not a saint, either.

“But it must say in the liturgical books that you’re supposed to say something good about the deceased,” you suggest.

Actually, there is no such instruction in the liturgical books, and in fact, there is an explicit directive to refrain from eulogies. The priest is clearly told in Number 382 of the General Instruction of the Roman Missal (GIRM) that “At the Funeral Mass there should, as a rule, be a short homily, but never a eulogy of any kind.” In other words, no casual canonizations.

Funerals are not a time to celebrate how wonderful we are, but a time to ponder how wonderful God is. St. Louis de Montfort (1673-1716) observed that

We are naturally prouder than peacocks, more groveling than toads…more envious than serpents, more gluttonous than hogs, more furious than tigers, lazier than tortoises, weaker than reeds, and more capricious than weathervanes. We have within ourselves nothing but nothingness and sin, and we deserve nothing but the anger of God and everlasting Hell.

When was the last time you heard that in a homily?

The fact that we’re sinners may not be pleasant, but once acknowledged, we can get on with living a truly holy life. How so? When we know our own weakness, we can then ask God for help. We can live in Him, rather than hopelessly trying to do it on our own. As St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897) asked, “If you are nothing, do you forget that Jesus is everything?” Then she added, “You have only to lose your nothingness in His infinity and think only of loving Him.”

Funerals, like the rest of life, are about God first, us second – -and the second part only has meaning insofar as we live in God. So we pray for the deceased and remember that one day we will die as well — a thought which leads us to prepare properly by doing penance, all the while trusting in the boundless Mercy of God.

“But God is merciful — you just said so. Then why can’t we go straight to Heaven?” you ask.

We can go straight to Heaven. The problem is, most of us do not will to do so. God’s grace is never lacking, but our interest in His grace often is. Those who are not at all interested, do not pray at all; those who are somewhat interested, pray sometimes; those who are very interested pray regularly. Humble and persistent prayer for the light to know and the strength to do God’s Will is essential for someone who wants to go straight to Heaven after death. St. Teresa of Avila (1515-1582) says that

Those who give themselves to prayer should concentrate solely on this: the conformity of their wills with the Divine Will. They should be convinced that this constitutes their highest perfection. The more fully they practice this, the greater the gifts they will receive from God, and the greater the progress they will make in the interior life.

St. Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787) explains further that

…to save one’s soul without prayer is most difficult and even…impossible, according to the ordinary course of God’s providence. But by praying our salvation is made secure…What does it cost us to say, ‘My God, help me! Lord, assist me! have mercy on me!’ Is there anything easier than this? And this little will suffice to save us, if we will be diligent in doing it…

…let us understand, that if we do not pray, we have no excuse, because the grace of prayer is given to everyone. It is in our power to pray whenever we will…God gives to all the grace of prayer, in order that thereby they may obtain every help, and even more than they need, for keeping the divine law, and for persevering until death. If we are not saved, the whole fault will be ours; and we shall have our own failure to answer for, because we did not pray.


What is true with salvation in general is true with going straight to Heaven in particular. God is always willing to provide us with all we need, so if we do not go straight to Heaven, we can blame no one but ourselves, because we did not pray as well or as often as we should have. Let us remedy this problem by giving more attention to prayer, or, if necessary, start praying again. Then after a life of virtue, a real canonization may be in order for us. In the absence of such virtue, we can conclude that casual canonizations are cruel, not compassionate.

 (Adapted from the article that originally appeared in Catholic Men’s Quarterly )


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  • I take a bit of exception to the way this article presents Purgatory. We ought not to be intimidated by Purgatory, rather encouraged by it – God out of mercy has created a way for we who are imperfect at the time of death to enter Heaven.

    I wouldn’t want people to despair, thinking their sins are so many, and they’ll suffer anyway in Purgatory, so Heaven isn’t even worth trying for. Hell is far, far worse than the worst pains of Purgatory, because it is eternal, and the souls there realize their grave mistake only too late.

    Wanting to “canonize” someone at his funeral is probably a natural human tendency that God understands. In fact, it’s charitable, and puts the person’s life in a proper light, to remember good things and forget the bad. Pastors ought to encourage people to trust in the mercy of God above all.

  • A few more thoughts. What we must never, ever do is aim for Purgatory instead of Heaven. I’ve heard people say things like, “I don’t need to go straight to Heaven, I’ll settle for the lowest rung of Purgatory.” An attitude like this presumes upon God’s goodness and neglects our duty to God to see to our sanctification.

    And as a practical matter, it’s a recipe for disaster. Aim for Purgatory and miss, and you get Hell – a catastrophe. Aim sincerely for Heaven and miss, and you get Purgatory, and then Heaven – a great outcome.

    The pains of Purgatory might be severe but they are like taking medicine, which makes you feel better in the end. Purgatory is a good place. The pains of Hell are like taking poison, which only piles death upon destruction and more death. There is only evil for the unfortunates who go there.

  • Jacqueline Y.

    I just had a mental image of the pains of Purgatory that’s never occurred to me before. Suppose sin makes our souls “fat”. Even though our bodies may have been slender during our lifetime, accumulated venial sins could make our soul really, really obese.

    Purgatory could be analogous to the struggles and sufferings endured by contestants on the TV show “The Biggest Loser”. I don’t watch the show, but just what I’ve seen in the previews is haunting.

  • addison

    The doctrine of purgatory is an insult to Christ crucified. Our being made perfect is a gift from God when we truly repent. For it is written: “I will remember none of his inequities.” And again: “No lie was found on their mouths; they are blameless.” Purgatory and Confession are total, all out reminders of our sins, whereas the Fear of Isaac “forgets” my sin. That’s what’s so awesome about the New Covenant. Glory!

  • addison, I see a number of problems with the idea that one is made perfect upon true repentance. First off, how do you know when you have repented truly? The human psyche being what it is, it’s my observation that repentance is a gradual process that takes years. How can you be sure you’re there yet?

    Also, how does this perfection actually take place? Does God reach down, wash you with the Holy Spirit, and render you perfect the moment you repent? Or does the process of perfection, like the process of complete repentance, also take years? Could the process be incomplete at the time of death? If further perfection is needed after death, isn’t that the doctrine of Purgatory?

    I see you taking dangerous shortcuts and presuming upon God’s grace. Is repentance needed?

  • Mary Kochan

    addison is proclaiming what is called a forensic doctrine of justification. It posits that God declares the sinner righteous in same way that a judge in court might declare a criminal innocent regardless of the actual guilt of the criminal. Behind it is the idea that God merely covers over our sins instead of really changing us. Martin Luther explained it as a dunghill that gets covered with new fallen snow and looks clean and pure. Of course to beleive this one has to ignore a great deal of the scriptural witness and Christian tradition.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    To believe this, one has to dismiss what the Bible teaches about marriage — or at least one has to completely set logic aside and make up anything he wants. For the Bible teaches that the marriage between a man and a woman is akin to Christ’s relationship with His Church. And Christ founded One Church — the ancient Ecclesia Catholica — and none other. This Church still lives, and She still lives as the Spouse of Christ.

    To claim that purgatory is an “insult to Christ crucified,” therefore, is to attack Christ’s wife. Because it is Christ’s wife which declares that this doctrine is Christ’s doctrine — and She makes this declaration in humble submission to Christ’s own Gospel. Thus, the only way to oppose the doctrine of purgatory is to make a frontal assault upon the Church that Christ founded and even now keeps as Spouse. Unlike us sinners, Christ actually takes seriously that part about letting no man separate that which God has joined.

    I don’t know of too many husbands who like it much when their wives are so passed through the muck.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    This argument can be taken another direction as well. Addison’s argument is that we must not focus on the sin. And he argues this point… wait for it… by focusing on the sin. Purgatory (and presumably Confession) insult the Crucified Christ. Well, if so, then so what? We’re sinners anyway, and the (alleged) sin of proclaiming the doctrine of Purgatory is just another sin. So why draw attention to it if Christ has already forgotten it? At least that is how the argument is situated if one makes a few things explicit.

    After all, every Catholic accepts Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior on the day he is confirmed. Most do so before that day. So if sin is then irrelevant, why not simply let us say our peace and move on? If we’re wrong, then no harm done, because Christ covers for us anyway.

    But if we are right… Well, then this article is spot-on.

  • noelfitz

    This is a great article and great discussion.

    The priest where I attend Mass is very strong about instant canonization. He says at funerals that it is not up to us to canonize anyone, but if human appearances are truthful then Bob (or whoever) is in heaven as he loved his neighbor etc.

    The article itself expresses some thoughts of saints; these are not ‘per se’ infallible.

    Also the remarks of contributors are not always correct, even though Mary keeps us “on the straight and narrow”.

    Basically people are good, as God made us and he made nothing that is bad/evil.

    • HomeschoolNfpDad

      Basically people are good, as God made us and he made nothing that is bad/evil.

      I think the Church’s teaching is a bit more radical than this, but it goes off in a couple of paradoxical directions. people aren’t basically good. Human persons are wholly good, insomuch as each is created by God in His image and likeness. This is the basis for Mr. Beattie saying that “neither Hell nor Purgatory are better places than earth.,” for earth is the dwelling place, created by God, for those who are His image and likeness. At the same time (and somewhat paradoxically), human persons are fallen — and even in this fallen state — free. Human persons, wholly good, but fallen and free, is what the Church teaches. In many respects, Luther’s error was an attempt of oversimplification of a complex Truth. A dung-heap covered by Christ is more understandable than is the reality of wholly good beings in a fallen state who freely choose evil — and then need Christ to guide them back to the narrow way, from which they might yet diverge.

      Ultimately the problem with casual canonizations is a logical one whose consequences are felt primarily by the casually canonized. The logic is simple: and here I offer a summary of one of my pastor’s best homilies. There are exactly three destinations for a person after death, one of which is temporal (Purgatory). We should pray for the dead always because:
      a) If they are in Hell, then the prayers have no effect on them — but no harm is done, either.
      b) If they are in Heaven, then the prayers have no effect on them because they do not need the graces of such prayers. However, standing before the throne of God, the blessed dead can re-double our prayers on their behalf, offering them for others in need.
      c) If they are in Purgatory, then our prayers can help release them from this temporary cleansing place sooner than might otherwise occur.

      Thus, prayers for the dead are always an act of Charity

      • HomeschoolNfpDad

        Letter b, above, kinda makes you wonder why Protestants would ever object to prayers for the dead. Their theology ultimately reduces the after-death Places to Heaven or Hell. Thus, it only makes letter c an invalid point, if one hypothetically accepts such theology. But if the blessed really are standing before the throne of God, then why would anyone object to them using their God-given intelligence to correct our prayers on their behalf, re-offering them to God on the behalf of those who need it?

        • noelfitz

          Sometimes discussions take off and this is one that does. I emphatically disagree with it, as its view of humans is so negative, reflecting the Augustinian pessimism of Luther.

          Are humans good or evil? Did not God take our nature, love us and die for us? Are we made in the image and likeness of God? If we are evil, so is God and his mother. I am reminded of some Bible (NRSV) passages, which I include in an appendix below.

          Does anyone imagine that we, who struggle along, do our best here, make mistakes, hurt people, live “mourning and weeping in the valley of tears”, will, if we are lucky, escape the capital punishment of hell and get perhaps 999 years in purgatory, where we suffer cruel and unusual punishments, because we missed Mass on a Sunday or didn’t get a marriage cert.

          Let us go through some of Trent’s views (the author, not the Council).

          He quotes Catherine of Genoa ““The souls [in Purgatory] endure a torment so extreme that no tongue can describe it, nor could the understanding conceive the least notion of it” Yet we are still expected to think of a good God, who condemns us to an “unimaginably painful” place for trivial faults.

          He also states:
          “Therefore, telling someone that his recent divorce and remarriage are okay may be “nice,” “. Divorce is not venial, it is a mortaller – hell is the sentence, not purgatory. It is not really a good idea to tell folk at a funeral that Bob is probably in hell.

          Trent quotes Louis de Montfort and we deserve nothing but the anger of God and everlasting Hell. Do Catholics really thank this?

          Trent claims most of us will not go straight to heave. The Church has never said what percentage go to hell or purgatory.

          Alphonsus de Ligouri is quoted claiming if we are not saved, the whole fault will be ours, because we did not pray. This implies we are saved by our prayers, not by the grace of God. Is this Catholic theology?

          Really, all we should do is our best and hope in God’s mercy.

          I consider some replies in Appendix II.

          Appendix I

          Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet (Ps 8:5.6).

          So God created humankind in his image,
          in the image of God he created them;
          male and female he created them. God blessed them, …. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. (Ge 1:27–31).

          For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer (1 Ti 4:4,5).

          “What God has made clean, you must not call profane” (Acts 10:15).
          Appendix II
          Thus I fully endorse the view of PH.

          Addison’s views are welcome. He seems to follow Luther in suggesting God overlooks our sins and admits us to heaven. Thus we are sinners whose sins are overlooked, not forgiven (peccator et justus). We could debate the existence of purgatory at another time.

          Mary with her usual precision and grasp of theology gets to the heart of things precisely.

          HSNFPD may overstate the case. Discussing purgatory is not a direct attack on the Church. He claims “Purgatory (and presumably Confession) insult the Crucified Christ.” I am not sure how confession insults the Crucified Christ.

          NF threw in his bit, and HS (may I call him that for short) replied writing “people aren’t basically good”. He seems to disagree with God who in Genesis claimed humankind “was very good”. Humans fell, but were redeemed by one greater than Adam. HS is claiming Jesus is not basically good, as he is truly human.


          • HomeschoolNfpDad

            Noel, if you won’t read what I write, how is it possible to have a discussion?

          • HomeschoolNfpDad

            I disagreed with your use of the adverb, “basically,” and substituted for it the adverb, “wholly” (as in 100%) — with the exception of the problem of the Fall. Wholly good, plus the Fall — not basically good. Then, I argued that the best thing we can do is pray for the dead because in the worst case, no harm is done. And in the best case, our prayers help free a soul from Purgatory.

            Please explain how this creates the claim that I disagree with God.

            As for the claim that Jesus is not basically good, that is true. There’s nothing “basic” about Jesus at all. Or rather, I have no idea what “basic” means. It’s too imprecise for me. Rather, I say that Jesus (and Mary) are wholly (as in 100%) good — but there is no problem of the Fall introduced into His (or her) nature.

            I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t misrepresent my argument.

  • Dr. Peter Kreeft, in his book “Everything you ever wanted to know about Heaven – But never dreamed of asking”, even goes so far as to call Purgatory a part of Heaven, perhaps an anteroom, if you want to think of it that way. Without denying that the suffering in Purgatory is real, the fact is that the people there are friends of God destined for eternal glory, and we know that God deals very differently with His friends than with His enemies.

  • noelfitz


    thanks for your post.

    I think Peter Kreeft is a brilliant writer, with huge, sound insights expressed in deceptively simple words. My favorite book of his is “Prayer for Beginners” (Ignatius Press, 2000).

    I have been reading your web site. Thanks for being so frank and open. Did you like Cornell? I have very happy memories of my time there.

  • Hi Noel,

    I liked Cornell for its natural beauty – the gorges, lake Cayuga, the rolling hills of upstate New York – but I wasn’t very studious. I thought often about quitting to go to work or to go back to North Dakota.

    I was smart enough to do the work – I even was able to graduate a semester early by loading up on credits – but my heart wasn’t in it. I have often thought that college was a mistake for me and I would have done better going to a technical school or into the workforce. But I stayed because it was what my family wanted.

  • noelfitz

    Thanks PH.

    Whenever I think or Dakota I think of Doris Day and “The Black Hills of Dakota” (, but I give my age away as one of my sons is about your age.

  • noelfitz

    thanks for your comment. I am sorry if I did not read you sufficiently carefully. I will reread your contributions and get back to you, to have a constructive discussion.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Also, it was addison who said, “The doctrine of purgatory is an insult to Christ crucified.”

    I was arguing against this point.

  • noelfitz

    HI HS,
    here is a summary of our discussion, with some extra comments.

    HomeschoolNfpDad says:
    June 3, 2011 at 7:21 PM
    The discussion about marriage and the Church is not really “ad rem”, which is about purgatory. Addison is expressing standard Protestant views.

    However I do agree with your claim.
    “For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior” (NRSV, Eph 5:23).

    HomeschoolNfpDad says:
    June 3, 2011 at 11:01 PM
    You did write: “Purgatory (and presumably Confession) insult the Crucified Christ”. Did I misinterpret what you meant by this?

    HomeschoolNfpDad says:
    June 5, 2011 at 2:24 PM
    You did write “people aren’t basically good”.
    I admit you did add “Human persons are wholly good, insomuch as each is created by God in His image and likeness. .. Human persons, wholly good, but fallen and free, is what the Church teaches. ”
    You cannot have it both ways. The principle of non-contradiction hold. It cannot be correct to claim humans are not “basically good” and humans “are wholly good”.

    HomeschoolNfpDad says:
    June 6, 2011 at 1:06 PM
    PH: I disagreed with your use of the adverb, “basically,” and substituted for it the adverb, “wholly” (as in 100%) — with the exception of the problem of the Fall. Wholly good, plus the Fall — not basically good.

    NF: Fine, we are quibbling about words.

    PH: Then, I argued that the best thing we can do is pray for the dead because in the worst case, no harm is done. And in the best case, our prayers help free a soul from Purgatory.

    NF: I fully agree.

    PH: I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t misrepresent my argument.

    NF: Sorry if I misrepresented your argument.

  • HomeschoolNfpDad

    Back to the article, however, it does seem that the most charitable thing to do for our departed loved ones is to assume that they might be in Purgatory, because if they are, they could sure use our prayers. And if we assume that our prayers on their part can be helpful, we might be more likely to offer those prayers. We can (and should) still allow for the possibility that any one of them is in Heaven. But we should still pray for them continually because the specifics about a particular person is rarely given us to know. In the entire history of the Church, only a handful of hundreds — perhaps a couple thousand — people have been declared Blessed or Saint.

    The rest might well be in Heaven, but if not, they could sure use our prayers. Thus, it is always good to assume that such prayers are needed.

  • noelfitz

    as in most things we are in substantial agreement about issues.

    I agree that only a relatively view have been canonized by the Church.

    I suppose both of us would agree with:

    ” It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins” (2 Mac 12:46)

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