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I am asking about the Catholic Church, but would also welcome information from other traditions.

People can be canonized (declared to be saints) and these official declarations are held to be infallible. Some people might be considered saints because of popular devotion, without being actually canonized - they could be "grandfathered in", rather than going through the modern process. I am aware of instances where the Church has decided that some of these people are of dubious historicity and therefore are not actually saints.


  • St Guinefort, who was not only fictional, but was also a dog. 1
  • St Josaphat, whose story is a fanciful version of the life of Buddha (Josaphat = Boddhisatva). Yes, Buddha existed, but the Josaphat story is not historical. 2

Has the Church ever declared "X should no longer be considered a saint" where the reason isn't "because X never existed"?

1: It's like the end of Lady and the Tramp, but seven centuries ago.
2: Also, Wikipedia is wrong to say that he was canonized: he appeared in the Baronius Martyrologium Romanum but Benedict XVI's De servorum Dei beatificatione et beatorum canonizatione says that doesn't imply canonization.

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I see the wikipedia link on St. Philomena, but I'm pretty sure the Church hasn't done anything to squash her cult, she's still promoted as a great intercessor. They appear to have just taken her off the official calendar (which doesn't have a lot of other popular saints anymore like Christopher, Nicholas and Valentine) but this is a good question nonetheless, mainly because it should give more insight into the history of canonization. –  Peter Turner Sep 27 '11 at 3:06
Your parenthetical clarification seems to be contradictory to the question: if they were never formally canonized, how can they be de-canonized? –  user72 Sep 27 '11 at 4:01
@Mark Trapp, I know this doesn't make sense from a Catholic perspective, but a good answer should clarify the misconceptions. –  Peter Turner Sep 27 '11 at 4:08
I'm using "de-canonized" as a way of saying "declared that X is not to be considered a saint". I agree that it is awkward. –  James T Sep 27 '11 at 12:06
Thank you for the clarification on St Philomena; I've removed her from the question. –  James T Sep 27 '11 at 13:22

3 Answers 3

up vote 9 down vote accepted

No, the Catholic Church has never decanonized a saint in the sense of saying "This guy used to be a saint, and now he's not."

Canonization doesn't actually make someone a saint, per se. A Catholic "canonization" is the process by which the Church ultimately recognize something God has already done. The Catholic Church does not claim that all "saints" (in the eyes of God) have been canonized, but they do say that an authentic canonization is both infallible and irrevocable.

In the early 1980's, the Catholic Church made some huge changes to shore up the canonization process. In centuries past (starting in about the 10th century), many of the claims of sainthood were adopted from ancient times, largely through public acclaim and popular stories passed through long-standing tradition and legend. Finally, higher authorities, and eventually the Vatican, took over the process of formally authenticating sainthood.

So what's been going on in the last several decades is the Catholic Church as been meticulously examining the authenticity of some 10,000(?) named saints spread through official sources, local martyrologies, and other historical archives to authenticate if a canonization ever actually took place.

Over the centuries, there were a lot of claims of sainthood without any verifiable authenticity. Several stories of sainthood turned out to be multiple references to a single person. There were mistaken identities, and in many cases, historical figures simply could not be separated from local folk tales and legends.

The more rigorous authentication does not imply a lack of veneration. After 2,000 years, the Church is simply saying that they cannot authenticate the events of veneration, or even if the person actually existed — thus, claims of canonization cannot be authenticated.

But no one has ever been "decanonized", even if such a word could exist.

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Some papal appointed saints are also removed from the calendar, but sometimes veneration is officially forbidden - for example Simon of Trent (canonized by Pope Sixtus V). I don't claim to understand the full implications of this. It would seem in this case that he remains a martyr saint, but without veneration. I welcome edits or corrections (and if I have the wrong end of this stick, just let me know).

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William of Norwich may be a very similar example –  Marc Gravell Sep 27 '11 at 13:13

Just to give an answer from the perspective of Evangelical Christianity - Evangelical Christians don't make the distinction between saints and other Christians; to us all Christians are saints. When the Bible talks about saints we believe that talks about us; God's people = God's saints, God's saints = (all) God's people.

I will listen to what God the LORD will say; he promises peace to his people, his saints— but let them not return to folly.

Psalm 85:8 (NIV)

So someone can only lose their sainthood if they can lose their salvation - and that question has been addressed at length elsewhere on this site:

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Not an answer to the question. –  DJClayworth Sep 27 '11 at 16:38
@DJC The OP specifically said they welcomed info from other traditions. –  Caleb Sep 27 '11 at 16:42
@DJClayworth to be de-canonised = to lose sainthood. I have addressed the loss of sainthood in my answer. –  Waggers Sep 27 '11 at 17:15
Protestant 'saints' are not canonized, so they cannot be decanonized. –  DJClayworth Sep 27 '11 at 17:16
Exactly. That's what I've said in my answer. –  Waggers Sep 27 '11 at 17:18

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