Pope establishes a new “path” to beatification with new criteria: Offering of Life

two-roads-heaven-hellUPDATE 12 July 2017:

I will not allow this post to be an occasion to bash Pope Francis or to call into question in the combox the processes of the Congregation.

___ Originally Published on: Jul 11, 2017 @ 09:33

The Pope issued a Motu Proprio Apostolic Letter today by which he established a new path (iter) by which a person might eventually be beatified.

Hitherto, we have had the main paths “super heroicitatem virtutum …. living the life of heroic virtues” and “super martyrio … martyrdom”.   Now there is to be a path also of vitae oblatio… the offer of own one’s own life having lived a life of virtue at least in the ordinary way.  

There is an oddity about the document.  But what isn’t odd today about documents of the Holy See?   The oddity is this, at least in the way that it is found in the Bolletino (only the Italian Bolletino and not the English… ’cause … well…).   The Bolletino gives the TEXT in Italian and, beneath that, the Latin TRANSLATION.  And yet the document has a Latin TITLE, which is screwed up in the title of the item in the Bolletino, but which nevertheless ought to be Maiorem hac dilectionem.

Here is a fast but still coffee-deprived translation of the first, important bits of the document  HERE:

“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)”

There are worthy of special consideration and honor those Christians who, following very closely the footsteps and the teachings of the Lord Jesus, freely and willingly offered their lives for others and persevered on till death in this intention.

It is certain that the heroic offering of life, prompted and sustained by charity, expresses are true, full, and exemplary imitation of Christ and, therefore, is worthy of that admiration which the community of the faithful is accustomed to reserve to those who voluntarily accepted martyrdom of blood or have exercised in a heroic level. The Christian virtues.

With the comfort of the favorable opinion expressed by the Congregation of the Causes of Saints, which in the Plenary Session of 27 September 2016, studied closely whether these Christians merit beatification, I establish that the following norms be observed:

Art. 1

The offering of life is our new particular case of the “iter” of beatification and canonization, distinct from the case of martyrdom or of heroic virtues.

Art. 2

The offering of life, in order that it be valid and efficacious for the beatification of a servant of God, must correspond to the following criterion:
a) the free and willing offering of life and heroic acceptance propter caritatem of a 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;
c) the existence of reputation of holiness (fama sanctitatis) and signs, at least after death;
d) the necessity of a miracle for beatification, taking place after the death of the servant of God and through his intercession.

Art. 3 […]

Art. 4

The Positio on the offering of life must correspond to the dubium: An constet de heroica oblatione vitae usque ad mortem propter caritatem necnon de virtutibus christianis, saltem in gradu ordinario, in casu et ad effectum de quo agitur.


The bulk of the document deals with the details of the procedure, etc.

In the Church we have had the ancient teaching and tradition of “red” or bloody martyrdom for the sake of charity whereby the martyr dies giving witness in the face of hatred for Christ, the Church, the Faith or some aspect of the Christian life that is inseparable from our Christian identity.  There is also a long tradition of identifying “white” martyrdom, coined by St. Jerome, whereby a person gives witness through an ascetic life, withdrawal from the world, pilgrimages involving great sacrifice, or who suffer greatly for the Faith but who do not die in bearing witness.  Coming from another tradition there is a kind of “blue” (or “green”) martyrdom, involving great penance and mortifications without necessarily the sort of withdrawal from life that a hermit or a cenobite might live.  Gregory the Great in his Dialogues, writes of different kinds of martyrdom, bloody, public martyrdom in time of persecution and secret martyrdom, not in time of persecution.  He wrote that secret martyrs are no less worthy of honor, because they also endured sufferings and the attacks of hidden enemies, but they persevered in charity.

In principle I think that this is a good move… if we are going to stay on the course of so many causes for beatification, that is.   Once upon a time, it was an extremely difficult process to investigate a life, gather proofs and organize all the documentation properly, and then study it thoroughly, etc.  Now, with the modern means of travel and communication, that process is easier.  Many more causes have resulted and, because they in fact corresponded to the criteria established, more causes have been successful.  Also, it was the clear desire of John Paul II that there be more examples of Christians “raised to the altar” for our edification and imitation, so as to say, “Yes, it IS possible to be a saint!”  I think that results have varied in that project.  In a way, it is good to encourage people to aspire to sainthood.  However, once the number of beatifications and canonizations multiplied, they seems less “special”.  Also, if this can be imagined, the “truly amazing” saints perhaps get lost in the sea of “merely amazing” saints, if you get my drift.  Again, the Pope made that call.  Popes get to make the call about which beatifications and canonizations are good for the Church here and now.  They can speed or slow the timing of the causes.

This new category of “offering of life” fills a gap.  For example, the undoubtedly great St. Maximilian Kolbe beatified as a Confessor by Paul VI in 1971, but canonized as a saint by John Paul II in 1982 as a martyr, not a confessor.  His is a case of bridging categories.  The dedicated Nazi death camp murderers probably hated the Church, the Faith and priests and had no problem killing them.  However, St. Maximilian offered his own life in place of another prisoner.  It could be argued that he wasn’t killed because of the Faith, but because of his offer.   His interesting, and heroic, case could be addressed by this new category of iter, the vitae oblatio.  

I can imagine also cases of a pregnant woman refusing to have an abortion even though bringing a child to term kills her.  The great St. Gianna Beretta Molla Molla refused to have an abortion and hysterectomy while pregnant with her fourth child knowing full well that she could die… which she did.  During her life she was deeply involved with works of charity for the poor.  She would probably be a candidate for beatification by this iter.  

I can imagine any number of circumstances whereby people make a sacrifice for others and die as a result, though the death they died was not necessarily that of bloody martyrdom from hatred for the Faith.  For example, Fr. Vincent Capodanno was a NAvy Chaplain serving Marines in the Vietnam War.  He was killed trying to give last rites to the wounded after refusing medical aid for his own severe wounds.  His cause is now already open, so I suppose that it would have to be retooled in order to take this new iter.

I can imagine a case of a person perhaps – setting aside issues of the acceptability of organ transplants, which are becoming more “ordinary” now – donating an organ to save someone’s life and, in so doing, weakening herself to the point of eventual death in a fairly short time.  If it could be demonstrated in the Positio that she had lived a virtuous and holy life, even not necessarily, the life of heroic virtue, this new iter could be followed in her cause.

I can imagine a person who, diagnosed with a horrible disease, sure to bring death if not treated, might possible refuse treatment and then undertake to offer all his sufferings for the sake of a specific person’s needs.   That might be on the edge of this iter.  I am trying to think of examples.

In any event, I suspect that this new iter will result in many more causes being opened.  Results will vary and the quality of some of the processes… well… we’ll see.  Also, I suspect that some cases that may have lingered for a while might get an injection of new energy.

Is this is “lowering of the bar”?   On the one hand, there are cases of “heroic virtue” (which must be properly understood.  I’ve written about what that means elsewhere. (I did the official Studium with the Congregation for Causes of Saints.)  On the other hand, this new iter does not require “heroic” virtues, but “ordinary”, although at the end of the act of offering of life there is end of life – and it will have to be proven with proofs in the Positio that there was an act of offering of life and that that act lead to death.


About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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

    From how I read this, the person in question must have made an valid (and, I guess, intense) act of offering her life up, but need not have actually died directly caused by said act. This would make sense, but I did not read it in the document quoted, only in your analysis.


    the normal outcome of a Catholics life is a death notice in the newspaper with the words “departed equipped with the Holy Sacraments of dying” in it, and solemn requiem and exsequies where the idea to pray for us sinners and the idea to be thankful for a life’s achievements are harmoniously intertwined.

    A depart from that into the idea that the normal outcome of a Catholic life is canonization or at least beatification, is counterproductive, not only because of the “multiplication” effect our reverend host is writing about, but also because even so the canonized Saints will ever remain a tiny minority of Catholics: thus the prospect to reach that status is far more less probable than simply to die in the peace of conscience.

    Since, though motivators think otherwise, realism can’t be suppressed for a lifetime, and as Holy Writ wisely tells us, “hope stalled makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life”, this might give rise to despair, or at least cynicism that dares not think about hope lest it fall into despair. Not to mention that some of the less intelligent might think that, as they are after all good Catholics, they are canonizable saints.

    And on practical matters, it isn’t like our Calendar would be starving for new feasts.

    It was of course quite right that the Church canonized the great saints St. Maximilian or St. Gianna; but she does not seem to have had any difficulty with that, even so.

  2. I dunno. I can’t help noticing that Sts. Gianna and Maximilian found paths to sainthood even without this new iter [I don’t think that is the very best way to phrase that. First, the itineres were designed by the Congregation and Popes (especially the wonderful Benedict XIV, whose swag is available HERE. I doubt that any saints or blesseds think, “Okay, these are the criteria laid out by the Congregation. Now how can I live and leave ‘proofs’ so that my cause will go through?”] And as for someone declining life-saving treatment in order to offer up the suffering…is that heroic sacrifice, or is it overweening pride, self-delusion, and casting ordinary prudence to the winds? The line between them could be very fine, if not non-existent. [That’s why these causes are carefully studied.]

    In this present age, when so much is so wrong, color me suspicious. [Color you overly-suspicious.]

  3. DavidR says:

    Color me overly-suspicious also.

    “Believe none of what you hear, and half of what you see.”

  4. Imrahil says:

    I doubt that any saints or blesseds think, “Okay, these are the criteria laid out by the Congregation. Now how can I live and leave ‘proofs’ so that my cause will go through?”

    They certainly didn’t, hitherto.

    When once the word has sunk in that a Catholic life that is not sainthood in the canonizable sense was a wrong one – and one can’t say that our motivational preachers (of the one or the other leaning ) are not trying -, I wouldn’t bet on them not beginning to do it. The shyness of the true saint to stand out is not incompatible with desire of a decent member of the Body of Christ to disprove the accusation that his life was all rotten.

  5. I am instantly reminded of stories from the War on Terror. Here is one example (copied from Wikipedia):

    “On September 29, 2006, in Iraq, U.S. Navy SEAL Michael A. Monsoor, was killed after smothering a grenade with his own body to protect other SEALs. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.”

  6. SGCOLC says:

    The way this comes across to me is that this refers to/leads to beatification, right? Canonization is a separate issue. Just because one is beatified through the criteria laid out by this iter doesn’t mean that every one of them is going to end up canonized, right? This iter doesn’t appear to address canonization, so the current rules for canonization would still apply.

  7. Imrahil says:

    Dear philothea.distracted,

    which however raises the interesting question, was he allowed to do that?

    After all, the doctrine of double-effect finds a rather difficult application here, for it traditionally says that you must not do something bad if the way the good you achieve with it is actually by way of the bad. Now such soldiers shield their comrades with their body; it is by way of the destruction of their body that the others are saved.

    Of course, you could always assume, as St. Augustine w.r.t. to the saintly woman that killed themselves to avoid the temptation of acquiescing to a rape, that he got a personal dispense by the Holy Spirit to do so.

  8. Imrahil says:

    Dear SGCOLC,

    that is an interesting observation.

    Hitherto beatification has always been an intermediate goal on the road to canonization, even if many blesseds may perhaps be almost forgotten before they could be canonized (though, who knows).

  9. Pingback: TVESDAY CATHOLICA EXTRA | Big Pulpit

  10. Polycarpio says:

    @ Imrahil

    I don’t think the new iter allows that the candidate’s offering up his life would result in beatification unless he had actually died. I don’t mean just that he had to be dead to be beatified (which is obviously true), but that there had to been a nexus between the offering up of life and an actual death within a brief time span following the offering of life.

    As to the question of lowering the bar, I think one way to think of this will be to gauge whether people are beatified going forward who wouldn’t have been beatified otherwise. I am tempted to think not, and I look to Fr. Z’s mentioning of cases like Maximilian Kolbe as proof that we have had these cases all along. I think that Saint Damien of Molokai, who contracted and died from leprosy while voluntarily serving on a leper colony is another example. So my expectation is that this is like opening up a dedicated lane on an existing highway, as opposed to building an additional lane that expands the highway. My observation (and resultant opinion) stems mostly from following closely the Oscar Romero canonization cause for many years. There is an opinion that many of the modern martyrdom cases (St. Maximilian Kolbe was a textbook example) don’t fit neatly into the martyrdom category and there a feeling that the theologians at the CCS have had to bend the rules in a lot of these cases to jam round holes with square pegs, and the feeling was, why not just acknowledge reality and lay out clear rules that will now be followed as opposed to circumvented to see these cases through. In that sense, I agree with Fr. Z that it is a good thing–assuming it is not an expanded new lane.

  11. Jon says:


    This was promulgated to expedite the canonization of Oscar Romero and similar political cases, pure and simple. We both know that. [Speak for yourself. I meant what I wrote.]

    The only positive side of this development is that it should one day make it much easier when all canonizations since 2013 are declared invalid. [Absurd.]

    God help us. [We’ll pray for you.]

  12. Elizabeth D says:

    I want to see more theological explanation of this before I am comfortable with this development. Was the CDF consulted? Do we even dare ask that? I have questions about how heroic charity can be authentically present if the heroic degree of the virtues in general is absent; the virtues act together in a person united to Christ. It does not seem difficult to imagine ordinary Catholics deciding to give up their life for some reason that theologically does not imply being done in union with Christ. If a man donates his healthy heart to be transplanted into his brother’s chest whose heart is failing, is that even right to do? Mightn’t this be used to justify removing organs of near-death patients for transplantation, on the basis that this was a path of sanctity for the donor who has an organ donation sticker on their driver’s license? Absent the unique criteria of true martyrdom or circumstances of death clearly NOT of the person’s choosing, how to disambiguate suicidal motivations for the “giving” of one’s life, from magnanimous ones? What about confused persons who more or less give up on any other way to become truly holy (they do not believe that God’s grace can perfect virtue in them), than to find a way to give their life at the soonest opportunity according to these criteria, thinking this will be the safest way to heaven? Since only the perfect can enter heaven without purification first in purgatory, there is a serious question here about whether these criteria can discern a truthful answer about the sanctity of the deceased.

  13. Elizabeth D says:

    Can we now enroll in Mengele type medical experiments that will be fatal to us, but that will save others’ lives in the future?


  14. Deo Credo says:

    I’m okay munching on the sour grapes. While this might indeed eventually be turned to a good use I have unfortunately learned that this pontificate trods on whatever and whomever to attain its goals. I just don’t see our loving Holy Father sitting up nights at the Vatican worrying that saints were being overlooked. He certainly has no issue waving miracle requirements. Good thing i have my fellow readers grapes to keep my throat moist for the future crying.

    [Hey! There’s also the seldom conferred “Bitter Fruit Award”   o{]:¬)   ]

  15. Elizabeth D says:

    Honestly I think it could be attractive to some if there was something as simple as a deadly medical experiment or donating your healthy heart from out of your healthy chest that would take you straight to heaven (without suffering purgatory, which is greater suffering than any earthly suffering) even if you are only of ordinary virtue.

    I think i am putting my finger on what bothers me here, it’s like leaving room for a Christian form of human sacrifice where willing non-heroically-virtuous victims voluntarily opt to worship God by seeking and getting into a deadly situation for a lifesaving reason. I am not questioning the sanctity of the heroically virtuous St Maximillian Kolbe or St Gianna. I suggest that a requirement of heroic virtue or true martyrdom is a necessary fence keeping Christians away from pursuing holiness via willful and irreparably poor choices based on bad judgment. Maybe I am the only Christian so warped that these ideas occur to me? [What’s with the drama?]

  16. Matt R says:

    Dr. Peters has cogent remarks. His comment on the otherwise ordinary holiness is particularly stinging. Certainly there are martyrs who did not live ordinary lives of holiness but nevertheless were killed in odium fidei. [One needs to know the Church’s understanding of what it means to die as a martyr. In a nutshell, in that moment, the martyr is also exemplifying virtue.]

    Therefore, I don’t disagree, but I do hope that a few cases (I have one in mind…) that otherwise might languish will now be opened. I also hope that more guidance comes. https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2017/07/11/the-category-in-maiorem-looks-sound-the-criteria-less-so/

  17. TonyO says:

    Peters says:

    I say again, I think that the basic idea behind Maiorem is sound but I also think that some fairly significant practical issues have not been adequately anticipated or addressed in a document intended by its genre to address practical issue.

    Is it unfair to say that ANY motu proprio from the hand of the self-confessed “careless” Francis is likely to have such “practical issues”.

    Fr. Z mentions

    I can imagine a case of a person perhaps – setting aside issues of the acceptability of organ transplants, which are becoming more “ordinary” now – donating an organ to save someone’s life and, in so doing, weakening herself to the point of eventual death in a fairly short time. [NB – I brought up this example. It was NOT brought up in the document issued by the Holy See. Don’t get bogged down.]

    I don’t think this should qualify for the conditions. If the offer of one’s life, to qualify, has to be an offer that entails precisely that the giver shall die within the (shortly) foreseeable future (i.e. either certainly, or with high probability) due to what unfolds as a result of the offer – and this is what is in his intention (not accidentally) – then this is not what an organ donation entails. The only type that might come close to fitting the bill, I think, is giving up a kidney. And a person who is eligible to make the offer has to be one who won’t be brought to death directly and with assurance if he gives up his kidney: he wouldn’t be accepted to begin with, because the doctors are not going to be willing to take a kidney away from someone when with reasonable foresight that is going to just kill the donor soon. They would only do it if with reasonable prospects it WON’T kill the donor. (Besides the moral problems if one knew with reasonable assurance that making the donation would kill you.)

    I would suggest that the cause of death has to be something that is from some cause other than what our good offerer does, for otherwise we get into double-effect difficulties. And that the cause of death has to be sufficiently assured that the act being made is fairly characterized as “chose to accept death for another” rather than “chose to accept serious risks for another”. So police in the ordinary course of catching violent bad guys should not qualify, though a policeman who literally and knowingly steps in front of a bullet to protect an innocent bystander might. Same with firefighters, and generally with soldiers as well. Generally, a person who chooses to give up a kidney chooses to accept an elevated RISK of early death, but is not choosing a more or less certain death in the foreseeable future from the donation. The choice “to die for another” must entail that in the person’s consideration the death be relatively sure and soon, for otherwise too many other intervening causes and conditions would automatically modify the intention “to risk death for another”.

  18. Stephen Matthew says:

    Perhaps a great case would be someone that during a plague goes out to minister (either medically or religiously) to the dying and catches the disease and dies? [That was what eventually got St. Aloysius Gonzaga. However, even before his death he displayed not just ordinary virtues but heroic virtues.]

  19. DaveP says:

    If we have had this category as a de facto path to beatification, it may as well be properly recognized with appropriate criteria developed. I think the risk of having too many Saints for people to appreciate them adequately is minimal relative to the significant benefits of having more such examples for our edification and emulation, particularly when they are more relatable to the experience of people who are not as familiar with traditional characters.

  20. MB says:

    I think I have to side with Jon on this one also. It seems to me that we have a lot more people being canonized for political reasons, or at least saints (and those on the road to canonization) being used for political purposes. I think Oscar Romero, [Doesn’t qualify.] Dorothy Day [Doesn’t qualify.] etc. [Whoever they are…] are a great examples. [No, they aren’t.] Given this, I don’t think that now is a great time to make changes to the rules that govern who can be named a saint. [That’s a different matter. However, the Roman Pontiff have always determined these matters.]

    And, I don’t understand you Fr. Z. It seems that you try to encourage us to be shrewd in discerning, but when we exhibit suspicion (which is warranted given the current social climate) then you say that we’re being paranoid. [Suspicions have to be well-founded. They can’t merely be knee-jerk reactions: “If it happened in the pontificate of Francis, it is automatically bad.” Every process brings with it the possibility of abuses, because no process is perfect. I recommend that you read the piece again and suspend judgment.]

  21. Tom W says:

    Fr Blake articulates my concerns better than I could write here, excerpt;

    “….Maybe I am hyper-critical, or get a little to anxious about anything coming from Rome …. I get anxious about anything that distracts us from Christ. On a quick reading it seems that it could be possible to be beatified for a love of humanity rather than for love of Jesus Christ….


    [My friend Fr. Blake raises a good point. However, I think that the theologians of the consulta will make well-founded decisions that what the individuals did, they did for authentic charity, which never excludes God and which keeps God in the primary place.]

  22. MrTipsNZ says:

    I personally think it’s too easy to get caught up in the issues on this at the expense of the event of ones own life. An analogy: I run a marathon, I finish it. But I get 145th out of 1000. Many don’t finish it. The top 3 get medals (amazing Saints) and the top 10 get notable mentions (Saints).
    But I still finished the race and the Race Monitor acknowledges that by issuing me an official time and certificate. The Saints know who I am and so does the Race Monitor.

    I suspect that might be the approach taken here.

    Just focus on running the race properly with due reference to God.

  23. Dixibehr says:

    This is precisely what the Byzantine tradition (both Catholic and Orthodox) calls Passion Bearers.

  24. Scott Wilmot says:

    Dear Fr. Z:

    You wrote:

    “I will not allow this post to be an occasion to bash Pope Francis or to call into question in the combox the processes of the Congregation.”

    I agree, and I am one who is easily caught up in questioning and bashing the Pope.

    But, I ask respectfully if you have seen this article at The Remnant:

    Pope Francis Opens Door to Non-Catholic Saints


    I would love to hear your views on this.

    Cheers, and thanks for your priestly ministry and the good work you do here.

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