Is it too easy to become a saint?

This week's cover: a new path to sainthood has prompted fears that canonisation could become too commonplace (Cartoon: Christian Adams)

On July 11, Pope Francis issued the apostolic letter Maiorem hac dilectionem. The title is taken from Christ’s words in the Gospel of John: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” In the letter, the Holy Father establishes a new path to sainthood: the oblatio vitae, or free offering of life in charity to others. This path has certain further requirements: that of having lived a virtuous life, having a reputation for sanctity, at least after death, and evidence of an intercessory miracle.

The letter explains that this, a third pathway, is “distinct from the Causes based on martyrdom and on the heroism of virtues” – that is, the death needn’t be for the Catholic faith, and the Servant of God’s virtues may be ordinary, rather than heroic. (Some outlets reported it as a fourth path to canonisation, citing a “saintly reputation” as the third mode of sanctity, but this isn’t strictly correct. The “saintly reputation” is for either martyrdom or heroic virtue, and is invoked only in the rare event that traditional proofs of one or the other can’t be established. The procedure is called “equipollent canonisation” or “equivalent canonisation”.)

Maiorem hac dilectionem corrects a misunderstanding of martyrdom that became common under Pope John Paul II, whereby dying in witness to the Catholic faith became confused with dying for the faith. A common example is St Maximillian Kolbe, the Polish Franciscan who died at Auschwitz. He was arrested for sheltering Jews and publishing anti-Nazi tracts, and offered to be starved to death in the place of a captured Polish soldier. He was beatified by Paul VI as a confessor, but John Paul opted to canonise him as a martyr. The unofficial title Paul gave him – “martyr of charity” – came to refer to saints canonised by John Paul who were similarly killed for their witness, but not necessarily for their Catholic beliefs.

This development caused controversy among canon lawyers, theologians – and Benedict XVI. In 2006, the German pope wrote to Cardinal José Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, suggesting that proper procedure wasn’t followed during his predecessor’s reign. He underlined that it was “necessary … to ascertain the odium fidei [hatred of the faith] of the persecutor” at the time of death.

These are the same objections that Francis encountered after beatifying Oscar Romero, the archbishop of San Salvador assassinated by a right-wing death squad. Some held that Romero was targeted for his alignment with the political left and not for his Catholic faith. They argued that his murderers didn’t express odium fidei and were probably Catholics themselves.

So the addition of this third pathway should be seen as some long overdue housekeeping. By giving the “martyrs of charity” their own official category, Francis restores the unique honour of true martyrdom while acknowledging the special grace of those who die as Christ died: to spare another, in an act of pure, unselfish love.

Still, there are sceptics. Canon lawyer Ed Peters fears that the definition of oblatio vitae is too broad: “This status includes tens of thousands of soldiers, policemen, firemen and countless others who, we all know… ‘voluntarily and freely offer their lives for others’.” Theologian Peter Kwasniewski puts it more bluntly: “Ordinary virtue, a reputation for holiness, and giving one’s life to a charitable cause that leads to premature death, do not seem like an especially ‘high bar’.”

That’s a fair concern. There is certainly a risk of trivialising the canon by the addition of too many names. The same charge was levied against John Paul II, who canonised and beatified more people than all his predecessors combined: 482 and 1,327 respectively. His “saint factory”, critics said, made it appear too easy to be canonised. As Kwasniewski notes, “The standards are ridiculously high because Blesseds and saints will be held aloft as universal images of Christ.” Not everyone who sacrifices their lives for the good of others will fit the bill.

But again, such men and women have in the past been canonised as “martyrs of charity”. The new rules therefore don’t make any new candidates eligible for beatification. If anything, they are going to make the process more strenuous. Martyrs don’t require a miracle; those in the oblatio vitae category do. Holy as those soldiers, policemen and firemen may be, it’s unlikely that they will all perform intercessory miracles. (And if they do, laudate Dominum!)

As with all laws, much will depend on precedent. The blogger Fr Ray Blake worries that canonisation will now become “a posthumous ecclesiastical decoration for merely the great and the good”. But that is up to Pope Francis and the Congregation for the Causes of Saints to decide.

In his letter to Cardinal Saraiva Martins, Benedict XVI made a distinction between physical and moral miracles in considering Causes. “The uninterrupted practice of the Church,” he wrote, “establishes the need for a physical miracle, since a moral miracle does not suffice.” Francis and the Congregation would do well to bear that in mind. If they take a conservative interpretation of Maiorem hac dilectionem, the number of new petitions should quickly return to normal.

But Fr Blake raises a concern that may be more pertinent. “There is a danger too,” he writes, “in the beatification or canonisation of an ideology or a faction.” This accusation was levelled at John Paul. His supporters responded that his “saint factory” was meant to give the laity timelier role models to emulate. But while all saints are exemplary by definition, there is always a risk of abusing the canonisation process by advancing too narrow an idea of what being a “good Catholic” entails.

It wouldn’t be surprising if, for instance, Francis used the oblatio vitae to advance the Causes of priests killed by South America’s dictatorships. As leader of Argentina’s Jesuits under the brutal Videla regime, he was accused of taking a conciliatory approach towards the junta. Clergymen who pressed openly for social justice were often imprisoned, assassinated or “disappeared”.

Those who sacrificed their lives for the rights of the poor and indigenous peoples wouldn’t qualify as martyrs, given that the Church-backed regimes didn’t express odium fidei. But some suggest that Francis could use the criteria set down in Maiorem hac dilectionem to flood the canon with left-wing saints.

Another candidate in the new category would be Berta Cáceres, the Honduran conservationist who angered her country’s elites by opposing foreign investment in ecologically destructive hydroelectric dams and mines. After her murder, she was hailed as the “Laudato Si’ martyr”. In Laudato Si’, his environmental encyclical, Francis said that Catholics have a “duty to protect the earth and to ensure its fruitfulness for coming generations”. To give one’s life for the cause of conservation would, then, qualify as a sacrifice propter caritatem – for charity – which the apostolic letter establishes as necessary for the oblatio vitae.

Currently there’s no good answer to those who worry that the new rules will lead to a rash of beatifications, except “wait and see”. But there’s little doubt that the gains will outweigh any potential risks.

For at least three years in a row, Christianity has been named the most persecuted religion in the world. One in 12 believers risks harassment, imprisonment or death. Some 30,000 of our brothers and sisters in the Middle East were killed by Islamist militants in 2015, while two million have been forced from their homes in northern Nigeria alone. North Korea’s estimated 400,000 Christians can be shipped off to prison camps for contacting missionaries, or even owning a Bible.

Not all who die in these regions while serving God and His people will qualify as martyrs. But shouldn’t their sacrifices be recognised all the same? Francis is helping the Church to acknowledge the dreadful realities of Christian persecution in the new millennium. As the veteran Catholic commentator John Allen notes, Maiorem hac dilectionem is “a gesture of solidarity with all those Christians around the world today putting their lives on the line on the basis of their faith – and, given the staggering number of such folks in the early 21st century, it could end up being among the most consequential moves he’s made.”

Indeed, the new rules couldn’t, alas, be more timely. Christendom is in exile. Communities that once enjoyed the protection of empire are now isolated and despised. We’ve never been so numerous; we’ve also never been so disparate and vulnerable. John Paul II recognised this, and strove diligently to raise up those who paid the ultimate price for living as Christians in a post-Christian world. Pope Francis is finishing his good work.

Though the Church has always venerated men and women who offer up their lives for the sake of others, it’s right that she should now afford them a special honour – one befitting their extraordinary witness to Christ Crucified.

Michael Davis is a freelance writer based in Boston

This article first appeared in the July 21 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here