Brief explanation of “heroic virtue” v. “ordinary virtue” in light of the new path to beatification.

Pope Francis, yesterday, issued a document by which he established a third iter or path for a process of beatification.

Hitherto, in processes for beatification, unless one is determined to have been a martyr, it has been necessary for a “Servant of God” (someone for whom a cause has been opened) to be shown through proofs (“documents, writings, interviews, etc.”) that he lived a life of “heroic virtue”.  So, there were two main paths to beatification: martyrdom or the life of virtue, (which is almost a distinction without a difference, since the Church holds that in the moment of martyrdom, the martyr witnesses also to the virtues of the Christian Faith).

Now, there will be three main paths, the two aforementioned and also the path of “offer of life… oblatio vitae“.

(There are actually a couple more paths, which are uncommon.  There are the rare historic cases which fall into a narrow band of years between legislated processes – St. Juan Diego, for example.  There are also “equivalent” canonizations, which sort of ratify what the people of God have held over time, as in the case of St. Hildegard of Bingen, formally declared by Benedict XVI.  These are not common.)

The criteria for oblatio vitae include: a) the free and willing offering of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of certain death and in a brief time limit; b) the exercise, at least in an ordinary degree, of the Christian virtues before the offering of life and, thereafter, until death.  Again, this path describes a person who has during life been living a virtuous life, but in an ordinary rather than extraordinary and heroic way, who for true charity (properly understood as sacrificial love of God and neighbor exemplifying Christ’s own sacrificial love) performs some act which results in death in a short period of time and because of the act performed.

Of great importance in this new path is the necessity that it be shown that the person lived a virtuous life before the act of charity that lead to death, and that the act that resulted in death was performed from true charity properly understood.

After that, just as in the cases of martyrdom and of the life of heroic virtue, there must also be a reputation of sanctity and a miracle for beatification, etc., as in the other two paths.

This new document establishing the third path of oblatio vitae has resulted in some confusion, some of which I believe may stem from a lack of understanding of what the life of heroic virtue is.  Clarifying that might help people understand what a life of ordinary virtue is.

Back in 2012 when Paul VI was declared “Venerable”, I wrote an explanation of “heroic virtue”.

Here is what I wrote (touched up and expanded):


Recently [2012], the Congregation for Causes of Saints issued the decree concerning the “heroic virtues” of then-Servant of God Paul VI.  The decree has now been promulgated by the Roman Pontiff.  Thus, we may now call Paul VI “Venerable”. [Since then he was beatified in 2014.]

What was at issue in the cause for beatification of Paul VI.  Since Pope Paul was not martyred, the formal process was undertaken to determine if Paul VI lived a life of “heroic virtue”.

Some people in discussion under another entry are saying things such as “Paul issued Humanae vitae!  That sure was heroic! I’d canonize him for that!”

“Heroic virtue” and doing heroic things are not the same.

“But Father! But Father!”, some of you are about to say.  “Heroic virtue?  Really?  How can any of us aspire to such a thing!  That’s sounds terribly difficult!”

It isn’t easy, but it is possible.

We are all called to be saints.  God wouldn’t ask something of us that isn’t possible.  And when He asks things that are hard, He also provides the means and the occasions.

Even in your suffering, for example, or your obscurity, you can serve Him in a holy way.  God knew you before the creation of the material universe.  He called you into being now, in this world.  Of all the possible worlds God could have created, He created this world, into which you would be born. He has a plan and purpose your you, if you will embrace it.

Back to a virtuous life lived in a “heroic” way.

Perhaps we should spend just a moment on what “heroic” virtue is all about.   It sounds dramatic and, frankly, unattainable by most people.

The term “heroic” comes from Greek (heros).  It points to valor, courage.  The term “heroic virtue” came into the west with a translation of Aristotle’s Nicomacheam Ethics by Robert Grossatesta (+1253).  From there it was brought into the the writings of scholastic philosophers, such as St. Thomas Aquinas.    It was more fully elaborated by the amazing Prospero Lambertini, who was elected Pope and took the name Benedict XIV.  [SWAG HERE!] After that, it became a common term when dealing with saints and causes of saints.

The supreme “heroic” Christian is the martyr, who especially in the moment of martyrdom exemplifies the charity that the Lord taught from the Cross.   So, that is a precise act of a Christian.  In the moment of true martyrdom, the martyr is said to manifest Christian virtues in a heroic way.

But “heroic” can also be applied to a large arc of a Christian’s life.

Every person is called to live in union with the Trinity, in charity.  In this life, we can only strive to live this way.  Only in the next life will we truly attain what we were called to.  Nevertheless, this life is what we have now.  By baptism we became members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, the adopted children of the Father.  We can begin to live the life of charity and other virtues now, to the best degree we can, with the help of God’s grace.

Effort and grace, both.

It takes both, our elbow grease (we are not Quietists) and God’s grace (we are not Pelagians).

We live in this fallen world, in this vale of tears, with wounds to our intellects and will, constantly dealing with the world, the flesh and the devil. We are called to holiness.  We are actually called to holiness in a heroic degree.  Let’s understand “heroic” properly.

The “heroism” to which we are called does not consist mainly in great or famous or dramatic acts or accomplishments.  It might include those, but it does not mainly consist of those.  Every person has the possibility of this sort of heroism, even if he does nothing spectacular.  Don’t confuse “spectacular” with “hard” or “hard” with “spectacular” or “heroic” with “public”.  Some situations in which we are called to exercise virtues can be very hard indeed, although they are not very “spectacular”, in the sense that they are highly visible or they require some amazing feat of daring do.

When it comes to the causes of saints, very often people with more dramatic or famous lives come to the attention of others, and therefore they are more likely to be the subjects of causes.

Living a virtuous life even in the tedium of routine or the obscurity of everyday living can be heroic, although it is more likely to be virtuous in a more ordinary way.  That doesn’t mean that a life of ordinary virtue isn’t difficult!  And depending on the circumstances it can also be heroic! Virtues are habits: they are “easy” for the person to perform even when the going get’s tough because they have become part and parcel of a person’s life.

Accepting God’s will, living in conformity with God’s will is the true test of a Christian.  When the circumstances are especially challenging, that is the essence of “heroic” virtue, not what appears outwardly to be heroic, although that may also be heroic, as in the dramatic case of the martyr.

Furthermore, people don’t, except by a rare gift from God, instantly or easily attain the state of living a life of virtue heroically.

Virtues are habits.  Some virtues, the theological virtues, are infused into us by God with baptism and sacraments.  They “dwell” in us “habitually” (“dwell” and “habit” are etymologically related… think of a “habitat” where critters “dwell”).  Virtues are habits, good practices and attitudes which are in us to a degree that it is easy for us to do them rather than hard.  This usually takes time and maturity.  We don’t suddenly, except by a special grace, become virtuous.  It can take a whole lifetime and many stumbles along the way.

With God’s help we must strive in the concrete details of our lives to avoid faults and even small imperfections, even if we don’t always succeed.  We have to want to succeed and try to succeed and make progress, not giving in to discouragement or, worse, despair, accepting God’s will and going forward with humility.


All the circumstances of our lives play a role in our living as Christians.  Each one of us is born into a particular time and place.   God gives different gifts to different people.  There is no one way to live as a Christian, except for the common calling to holiness.  We cannot be, however, content with mere mediocrity.

So, “ordinary virtue” consists mainly in living habitually in the state of grace, hating sin and imperfections and striving to overcome them while carrying out one’s vocation, always accepting God’s will with faith, hope and charity as we go forward during these short years on earth toward the goal of heaven, trusting that God’s providence guides all things.  A person does this well and promptly in the ordinary circumstances of life, even when hard, because they have the habits of doing these things. They are so ingrained, that they are done with a certain ease, even when it is challenging.

The virtuous Christian life may have moments which are dramatic and famous.  It will probably be rather plain and obscure.

But it is not mediocre.


So, “heroic virtue” describes unusual control of passions, as well as readiness and ease of living well, beyond what is considered common.  Benedict XIV (whose legislation and theology for causes remains at the heart of the modern processes for beatification and martyrdom) held that in the matter of heroic virtue the matter must also be difficult enough to bring out uncommon spiritual energy and the practice of the virtues and works must be unusually prompt, joyful, unhesitating and habitual.

Those are some thoughts about “heroic virtue”, so that when you hear the term, you don’t fall into the trap of assuming that the person in question was working miracles while alive, or was going without food in a cave for thirty years, or levitating off the ground at the mention of the Holy Name.  Also, you don’t want to fall into the trap of thinking that the life of virtue, if not heroic, is “ordinary” in the sense of not very hard, humdrum, no big deal.



So that’s a touch up of what I wrote some years ago.  I cut out some bits that would most certainly lead to rabbit holes of dimensions so great that they might suck in entire galaxies.

The moderation queue is ON.

FINALLY: Don’t forget to pray for miracles!  If you don’t ask for them, they won’t be given.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Unwilling says:

    Very well constructed, as well as timely and useful. Thank you.

  2. gracie says:

    The Remnant is saying that this opens the door to non-Catholic Saints.

    [Until there is a real possibility of this, I don’t think it is helpful or realistic to dwell on it. The greatest theologians of the Church have taught that heresy and schism are, at their core, sins against charity, not just against faith. Of course faith and charity are virtues, theological virtues. One cannot live a life of ordinary virtue or heroic virtue if one sins against faith or charity. For example, Augustine in his sermons on 1 John, in the context of the Donatist controversy, taught that if you split from the Church, split from her teachings, you split from Christ. Cause disunity and you break brotherly love, love of frater, which you cannot have outside. So, someone who persists in manifest disunity or heresy, cannot exercise properly a life of even ordinary virtue, which is a necessary criterion for this iter toward beatification. This won’t be lost on the theologians of the consulta in the Congregation.]

  3. Philokalos says:

    The Latin version of the Motu Proprio is called by the Vatican website a “translation” of the Italian—official—version. The versions are sufficiently different that an English translation of the Latin


    would look different from an English translation of the Italian (beyond what is naturally to be expected by the differences in idiom in the three languages).

  4. Fallibilissimo says:

    “Don’t forget to pray for miracles! If you don’t ask for them, they won’t be given.” Interesting and true. I’m also considering a similar path which goes to old fashion begging. There’s something about begging that has a weight to it…all those examples in the gospels of sick people who go the extra mile to get Jesus’ attention come to mind.

    That also makes me think: I wonder why our litanies often simply say “miserere nobis”, “parce nobis” or “libera nos” but when it comes to “audire” it often gets preceded with the imploration of a “rogare” for “te rogamus, audi nos”. I like those texts that translate “rogare” into “beseech” rather than “ask” because there’s something a little more dramatic about the former and captures better the often precisely “dramatic” reality we find ourselves in this valley of tears.

  5. Chris Garton-Zavesky says:

    Under the heading of ‘heroic virtue’ — would that mean that a person who lives a chaste life rather than give in to his (identified) temptations to sin with someone of the same sex could be (not is, mind, but could be) living heroic virtue?

    [It’s not easy to deal with hypotheticals like this. I will say, however, that a person who does not fight these temptations and overcome the inclinations and who does not try to reorder attraction in a natural way, will not be living the life even of ordinary virtue. Remember: it can be meritorious for a person to fight bad temptations. However, having a virtue means having a habit, which means that it has become relatively easy to resist the temptation. It is is very hard, to do the thing required, you don’t have the virtue yet. However, it could be said that when the temptations are very bad, then being able to overcome them with relative ease verges on heroic virtue.]

  6. Oxonian95 says:

    I try to be gracious, really. But sometimes things are too funny not to be shared. I was listening to the Catholic Channel on Sirius today, and they were discussing the new sainthood path. One of the existing paths was described as “heroic values.” I heard it twice, it’s not my imagination.

    [The “Catholic Channel”… on Sirius. “Heroic values”… serious? Serious. Not funny in the least. That is the sort of error that is pernicious. What show was that? Who said that?]

  7. Philokalos says:

    Just to continue Fr. Z’s response to gracie: for an example, didn’t the Old Catholic Church split after First Vatican, originally on the grounds that it (the council) was not emphatic enough on papal authority and supremacy…and end up today having women priests, &c.?

    A friend of mine who teaches at Mount St Mary’s told me this anecdote, by way of illustrating what sort of crazy ends people find, even those who seem farthest away from those ends at first, when they separate from the unity granted to those in communion with the Holy Father.

  8. Elizabeth D says:

    I need to see further theological explanation of what is intended by the new category for beatification.

    The real issue for me is that the heroic degree of the virtues is associated with the unitive way and in particular the transforming union. A person with an ordinary degree of the virtues could be one of the many Christians who remain stuck in Saint Teresa’s “third mansions”. They don’t intentionally commit sin, but they tend to not have a great humility and have not been through the purifying experiences and received the infused contemplative graces of the illuminative and then the unitive way.

    A saint is not someone rewarded for noble human acts, but someone in union with Christ. We can see how the person who has really attained to Christian perfection and the transforming union is in union with Christ, there is very good theology written on this. We can see how the martyr who accepts to be killed out of hatred of Christ is united to Him. It does not immediately seem certain to me that the death for a noble life-saving purpose of a person of ordinary Christian virtue is equally much in union with Christ. I can see how it may be Christ-like, but I can definitely think of how imperfect the motives and acts of many a person of ordinary virtue are, even at their most apparently noble. Many a person of ordinary virtue experiences temptations to suicide, and seeking out a noble method of choosing one’s own death may suit the ego and vanity of some imperfect persons. This new path to sainthood may greatly encourage that temptation since people who do such things are said to go straight to heaven. A criterion of heroic virtue is the best guarantee that suicide or other unworthy intentions are not mixed in with the person’s will for their act. If the Church is asserting that this person of ordinary virtue is perfectly purified through their freely chosen death to save another’s life and goes straight to heaven, no need for purgatory, honestly I need to see the grounds for how we can know that.

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  10. Tony Phillips says:

    None of us can speak to the personal sanctity, or otherwise, of Paul VI, but I think it’s very unseemly that all these recent popes are getting canonised. It’s downright embarassing. Before long popes will be canonising themselves.

    Paul VI is not among my favourite popes, by the way. Humanae Vitae? As the saying goes, even a broken clock is right twice a day.

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