Pope Francis has created a new path to sainthood – but is it as radical as it sounds?

Pope Francis waves during a weekly general audience at St Peter's square (Getty Images)

In an even-more-than-usually frenetic week of Vatican news (or rather, in some cases, alleged news), one might easily have missed an announcement of real significance. Yesterday, the Holy Father released an Apostolic Letter motu proprio (“on his own authority”). These tend to be short, technical documents. They’re often used to tinker with the wording of Canon Law, or to amend the statutes of some body or other. But they can occasionally be of wide-reaching importance. Summorum Pontificum, for instance, was promulgated motu proprio.

In yesterday’s, Pope Francis created a new category under which a person might be beatified/canonised: laying down one’s life for others. This is now the fourth in what, until the day before yesterday, was a long-established list of three: i) martyrdom; ii) a life of heroic virtue; or iii) having already a widespread, longstanding reputation of holiness. (This last one tends to be used sparingly, and only in exceptional cases. That said, each of the last three popes has used it to honour – one assumes – personal favourites: Kinga of Poland; Hildegard of Bingen; Peter Faber, Angela of Foligno).

Francis’ fourth category is explicitly justified with reference to Christ’s assertion that – in the KJV’s classic phraseology – “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15.13). Indeed the document’s formal title Maiorem hac Dilectionem is, of course, taken from the Latin version of that verse (albeit rather mangling its meaning, with the traditional three-word rule.)

Following this opening quotation, Francis writes: “Worthy of special consideration and honour are those Christians who, following the footsteps and teachings of the Lord Jesus, have freely and voluntarily offered their life for others, and have persevered until death in this”. Since such “heroic offering of life” evinces “a true, full, and exemplary imitation of Christ” it warrants “the admiration which the Christian community customarily reserves” for martyrs and those having lived a life of heroic virtue.

Now there are, I think, two possible ways of interpreting this.

The first is to see this as a radical shake-up of what “counts” authentic holiness, opening up the possibility of sainthood to those who die not just for Christ (i.e., traditional martyrs), but to those who die helping others. This interpretation fits more-or-less neatly into several media tropes surrounding this pontificate. Naturally enough, it raises questions as to whether the change has been made with specific people “in mind”. Media reports speculate that, for example, aid workers dying of Ebola might count under this new rubric.

The second is to see it, more mundanely, simply as a codification of previous precedent – a kind of administrative tying-up of loose ends. For, in fact, the Church already proclaims the sanctity of some who, incarnating John 15.13, have willingly sacrificed their own life in order to save that of others.

The most striking example here is St Maximilian Kolbe, whose voluntary death at Auschwitz in place of another prisoner will surely be familiar. One also thinks here of, say, St Damien of Molokai, who died of the same disease – leprosy – of those he dedicated his life to serving.

In neither case, it will readily be admitted, is the manner of their deaths somehow incidental to how we view each man’s sanctity. Don’t get me wrong: both led lives of heroic virtue, and might feasibly have been canonised on those grounds alone. Nevertheless, I doubt I’m alone in thinking that there is something specifically “saintworthy” in each man’s decisive willingness to die – a spur-of-the-moment impulse for St Maximilian; a foreseeable “occupational hazard” of a lifelong commitment for St Damien – over and above the rest of their biographies.

In the case of Kolbe, at least, Popes Paul VI and John Paul II – both of whom knew a fair bit about true sanctity – seem strongly to have agreed. Famously, they beatified and canonised him respectively as a martyr. As St John Paul put it, “In this human death, there was the clear witness given to Christ: the witness given in Christ to the dignity of man, and the sanctity of his life, and to the salvific power of death, in which power of love manifests itself”.

St Maximilian was duly canonised in Pope Paul’s coinage – a “martyr of love” (or “charity”): an exception created for a truly exceptional individual.

The trouble with exceptions, though, is that they set precedents. If Kolbe’s dying-for-others was a radical instance of the imitatio Christi then – again to quote his Polish fellow-saint (albeit slightly out of context) – “But was Father Maximilian Kolbe the only one?”

My hunch is that yesterday’s motu proprio was not necessarily so radical an act as it might seem. The existing quasi-category of “martyr of love” – which rightly recognizes a truly Christlike death, but nevertheless sits awkwardly as a species of martyrdom (on any traditional understanding) – is amdittedly unsatisfactory. The creation of a dedicated “offering up one’s life for others” category is much, much neater.

I’m not a gambling man, thank God, but I’d tempted to wager that it is precisely this that lies behind the new ruling. A close reading of the text itself (currently available only in Latin and Italian) suggests it is a rubberstamping of an idea that’s been working its way through the Congregation for the Causes of Saints’ committees for some time. (There is mention of a Plenary Session last September, for example.)

The document is, moreover, careful to distinguish this new category from martyrdom proper. There are, for example, no water-muddying mentions of “martyrs of charity”, or anything close. No mention, either, of St Maximilian himself – which, given that he is the most obvious exemplar of the kind of death the document seems to have in mind (to the point, indeed, of “Greater love hath no man” being the very text John Paul II preached on at his canonization), would otherwise be a remarkable omission.

A significant news story, to be sure. But not, I think, the groundbreakingly novel one it might at first seem to be.