Skip to main content

The Case of the “Offering of Life” in the Causes for Canonization of Catholic Saints: The Threshold of Self-Sacrifice


Catholic legal and doctrinal tradition defined two main cases for the canonization of saints: until very recently, sainthood was related either to martyrdom or to the heroic practice of virtues, ascertained through a well-defined judicial procedure. In 2017, Pope Francis renewed this ancient tradition by introducing a third case, consisting in the “offering of life”, namely the sacrifice of one’s life in the name of charity, intended as Christian love for the others. The “offering of life” is placed at the center of an ongoing process of mediation between papal authority, the judicial praxis of the causes for canonization, and ecclesiastic law. The introduction of this new type of sainthood can be explained in light of the growing difficulty to apply the two traditional grids of behavior established by the Church in the evaluation of the life of new kinds of persons who enjoy a widespread fame of sanctity, but are not conform to the strict jurisprudential criteria of martrydrom and heroicity. Therefore, the debate surrounding the “offering of life” entails a dialectics between the necessity of a rationalized set of models, providing precise—and thus evaluable—“narrative programs” (Greimas) and defining a circumscribed number of canonizable human types, and the unprecedented multiplication of instances of sanctity in the contemporary world.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. Massimo Leone, for example, states: “saints are among the most formidable communication media of Catholicism.” [25: 1]. Through saints, the Church proposes “models of spiritual perfection. By embracing such models, believers are able to conform to certain religious values.” Tilliette [41: 10] observes, moreover, that models of sanctity are the best embodiment of the “spiritual aspirations” of a religious group in a certain time and place and the clearest response to “its eschatological and moral preoccupations.” For a discussion of the valorization of saints as models after the Council of Trent, see [26: 13–20].

  2. Although the procedure for ascertaining sanctity evolved to include the historical–critical method as well, the cause for canonization remains intrinsically judicial in nature. See [35].

  3. In this paper, I use the word “sanctity” to indicate a saintly behavior and “sainthood” to refer to canonized sanctity. I also use “heroicity” as a technical term indicating the particular concept of heroism developed in Catholic doctrine and jurisprudence. On this concept see [34].

  4. On the social and political dynamics underlying canonization policies, see in particular [13] and [44].

  5. For instance, inquisitor saints killed by heretics and venerated as martyrs, such as saint Pietro of Verona [15: 15–16]. Another model which has lost its topicality in the twentieth century is represented by a kind of ascetism entailing extreme forms of self-mortification.

  6. This is the case for instance of secular, worker, and female saints, as well as non-European saints.

  7. (accessed August 21, 2019).

  8. See [42] regarding this point.

  9. Available in a Latin-Italian version [22].

  10. The constitution was supplemented with an applicative document containing “norms to be observed in Inquiries made by Bishops in the Causes of Saints” (Normae servandae in inquisitionibus ab Episcopis facendis in Causis Sanctorum, 1983). For a discussion of the reform launched by John Paul II, see [43]; for a summary of the modifications in the twentieth century, see [6].

  11. Detailed accounts of the history and procedures of canonization can be found in [29] and [12].

  12. The origin of Maiorem hac dilectionem is reported in [5: 19–23]. In 2017, the Vatican publishing house Libreria Editrice Vaticana issued a booklet containing the Italian version of the apostolic letter, preceded by a preface by Vincenzo Criscuolo [10], Relator General of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, and followed by an essay by Matteo Bartolucci [5], Secretary of the Dicastero, an interview with cardinal Angelo Amato [1], prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints (first published in L’osservatore Romano, August 26, 2017), and a second essay by Matteo Bartolucci [6]. These texts provide explanations about and reflections on the “offering of life”. Maiorem hac dilectionem is also available in various languages on the Vatican website (, accessed August 21, 2019), while [5] is also available on the website of the Osservatorio Romano (, accessed August 21, 2019).

  13. This is the case, for instance, of Saint Luigi Gonzaga and the priests and deacons of Alexandria mentioned in the Martyrologium Romanum on February 28, who are venerated “as martyrs”: Lambertini [22] explains that this “as” establishes a simile but does not indicate the proper form of sainthood of these figures, as they must be considered confessors and not martyrs per se.

  14. (accessed August 21, 2019).

  15. There are numerous similar examples. Piacentin [31] mentions the cause of canonization of blessed Father Titus Brandsma (1881–1941), martyrized in Dachau, as the factor that provided the impetus for revising jurisprudence on martyrdom.

  16. For a discussion of the semiotic notion of “subject” in general and the idea of a socially shared subjectivity in particular, see [17].

  17. Lambertini recognizes the legitimacy of the Christian’s flight from persecutors when possible and when it does not compromise the moral integrity of the martyr or physically or morally endanger his or her community [22: III/I, chapter XVI]. Along the same lines, Bartolucci observes that the Christian offering his or her own life is “a ‘hero’ in love and fidelity to Christ, because he follows Him down the path of the supreme gift of self, without respites, without regrets, without reservations, but with a conscious and free determination based on heroic charity, so overwhelming as to overcome the natural instincts of [self-]preservation. This does not mean that those who offer themselves totally cannot take all appropriate precautions to protect their lives even while persisting in the radical nature of their offering. Similarly, the potential martyr is authorized to try to save his own life” [6: 39].

  18. “The hero must always be the same, that is, he must never deviate from the path of virtue” [22: III/I, chapter 21].

  19. The documents which are particularly significant in promoting this kind of heroicity are the pontifical discourses held on the occasion of proclaiming the herocity of the virtues of canonization candidates, such as those collected in [37]. For an in-depth analysis of the conceptualization of heroicity in the early modern period (with a focus on Lambertini) and in the twentieth century, see [34].

  20. This is related to a growing preference for active models of sainthood, appliable in a variety of statuses, and a loss of interest for contemplative models, which had a great importance in the past, especially in reference to religious life.

  21. See also [32: chapter 2], regarding this topic.

  22. “It is certain that the heroic offering of life, inspired and sustained by charity, expresses a true, complete and exemplary imitation of Christ, and thus is deserving of that admiration which the community of the faithful customarily reserves to those who have voluntarily accepted martyrdom of blood or have exercised the Christian virtues to a heroic degree.” (Maiorem hac dilectionem).

  23. For an extended semiotic discussion of the epistemological principles underlying the classification of saints, especially in martyrologies and encyclopedias of saints, see [33].

  24. Fontanille also observes that “forms of life are the immediate constituents of the semiospheres” [18: 59].


  1. Amato, Angelo. 2017. Nuova via per la santità. Intervista di Nicola Gori al Cardinale Angelo Amato, Prefetto della Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi. In L’offerta della vita nelle cause dei santi, ed. Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi, 27–32. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

    Google Scholar 

  2. Armogathe, Jean-Robert. 2003. La fabrique des saints. Causes Espagnoles et procédures romaines d’Urban VIII à Benoît XIV (xviie-xviiie siècles). Mélanges de la Casa de Velásquez 33 (2): 15–31.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Barone, Giulia, Marina Caffiero, and Francesco Scorza Barcellona (eds.). 1994. Modelli di santità e modelli di comportamento: contrasti, intersezioni, complementarità. Turin: Rosenberg & Sellier.

    Google Scholar 

  4. Barro, Robert J., Rachel M. McCleary, and Alexander McQuoid. 2011. Economics of Sainthood (a preliminary investigation). In The Oxford handbook of the economics of religion, ed. Rachel M. McCleary, 191–216. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  5. Bartolucci, Marcello. 2017. Una quarta via per la beatificazione. In L’offerta della vita nelle cause dei santi, ed. Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi, 13–26. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Bartolucci, Marcello. 2017. L’amore più grande: dare la vita per i fratelli. In L’offerta della vita nelle cause dei santi, ed. Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi, 33–72. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

    Google Scholar 

  7. de Bonhome, Alfred. 1969. Héroicité des vertus. In Dictionnaire de spiritualité ascétique et mystique, doctrine et histoire, ed. Marcel Viller, vol. 7, 337–343. Paris: G. Beauchesne.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Ciciliot, Valentina. 2018. Donne sugli altari. Le canonizzazioni femminili di Giovanni Paolo II. Rome: Viella.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Criscuolo, Vincenzo, Daniel Ols, and Robert J. Sarno. 2014. Le cause dei santi. Sussidio per lo Studium. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

    Google Scholar 

  10. Criscuolo, Vincenzo. 2017. Presentazione. In L’offerta della vita nelle cause dei santi, ed. Congregazione delle Cause dei Santi, 3–4. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

    Google Scholar 

  11. D’Alfonso, Michele. 1976. La prova in genere e la fama di santità in specie nei processi dei Santi prima e dopo il MP Sanctitas Clarior. Apollinaris 49: 491–520.

    Google Scholar 

  12. Dalla Torre, Giuseppe. 1999. Santità e diritto: sondaggi nella storia del diritto canonico. Turin: Giappichelli.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Delooz, Pierre. 1969. Sociologie et canonisations. La Haye: Nijhoff.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Delooz, Pierre. 1979. La canonizzazione dei santi e la sua utilizzazione sociale. Concilium XV 9: 42–56.

    Google Scholar 

  15. Duquoc, Christian. 1979. Editoriale. Concilium XV 9: 13–23.

    Google Scholar 

  16. Eszer, Ambrogio. 1992. Il concetto della virtù eroica nella storia. In Sacramenti, liturgia, cause dei santi. Studi in onore del cardinale Giuseppe Casoria, ed. Antonio Moroni, Carlo Pinto, and Marcello Bartolucci, 605–636. Naples: ECS.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Ferraro, Guido. 2013. Cinque tipi di soggettività in semiotica (Five Types of Subjectivity in Semiotics). In Semiotica delle soggettività, ed. Per Omar, Massimo Leone, and Isabella Pezzini, 43–56. Rome: Aracne.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Fontanille, Jacques. 2015. Formes de vie. Liège: Presses Universitaires de Liège.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  19. Gangoiti, Benito. 1992. Verso un “sensus plenior” del martirio. In Sacramenti, liturgia, cause dei santi. Studi in onore del cardinale Giuseppe Casoria, ed. Antonio Moroni, Carlo Pinto, and Marcello Bartolucci, 589–604. Naples: ECS.

    Google Scholar 

  20. Geertz, Clifford. 1973. Ideology as a Cultural System. In The interpretation of cultures: selected essays, ed. Clifford Geertz, 193–233. New York: Basic Books.

    Google Scholar 

  21. Greimas, Algirdas J. and Joseph Courtès. 1982. Semiotics and Language. An Analytical Dictionary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press (original version Dictionnaire raisonné de la théorie du langage, 1979, Paris: Hachette).

  22. Lambertini, Prospero. 2010–2015 [1734–1738]. De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Canonizatione. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

  23. Landowski, Eric. 1989. Une approche sémiotique au droit. In La société reflechie Essais de socio-sémiotique, ed. Eric Landowski, 74–109. Paris: Seuil.

    Google Scholar 

  24. Lehner, Ulrich. 2016. The Catholic Enlightenment: The forgotten history of a global movement. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  25. Leone, Massimo. 2010. Saints and signs. A semiotic reading of conversion in early modern catholicism. Berlin and New York: De Gruyter.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  26. Leone, Massimo. 2012. Sémiotique de l’âme. Langages du changement spirituel à l’aube l’âge moderne, vol. 1. Saarbrucken: Presses Academiques Francophones.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Leone, Masssimo. 2018. Il martirio interiore: segni e testi del sacrificio di sé nel primo Cattolicesimo moderno. Lexia 31–32: 103–121.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Lotman, Jurij M. and Boris A. Uspenskij. 1971. O semiotičeskom mechanizme kul’tury. Trudy po znakovym sistemam 5:144–176. Transl. in English On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture. 1978. New Literary History 9(2):211–232.

  29. Misztal, Henryk. 2005. Le cause di canonizzazione. Storia e procedura. Vatican City: LEV.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Molinari, Paolo, and Peter Gumpel. 1979. Eroismo cristiano. In Nuovo dizionario di spiritualità, ed. Stefano De Fiores and Tullo Goffi, 478–488. Rome: Edizioni Paoline.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Piacentini, Ernesto. 1978. Concetto teologico-giuridico di martirio nelle cause di beatificazione e canonizzazione. Monitor Ecclesiasticus 103: 185–247.

    Google Scholar 

  32. Ponzo, Jenny. 2019. Religious narratives in italian literature after the second vatican council: A semiotic analysis. Berlin and Boston: De Gruyter.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  33. Ponzo, Jenny and Gabriele Marino. 2020 (forthcoming). Modelizing epistemologies: Organizing Catholic sanctity from calendar-based martyrologies to today’s mobile apps. Semiotica.

  34. Ponzo, Jenny and Eleonora Rai. 2019. Heroicity and sanctity in Catholic thought from early modern to contemporary age. Ocula, 20.

  35. Porsi, Luigi. 1992. Natura delle ‘cause dei santi’. Indagini storico-scientifiche o vere cause e quali? In Sacramenti, liturgia, cause dei santi. Studi in onore del cardinale Giuseppe Casoria, ed. Antonio Moroni, Carlo Pinto, and Marcello Bartolucci, 651–673. Naples: ECS.

    Google Scholar 

  36. Pozzo, Alessandra. 2018. Monaco/Martire. Le figure retoriche di un nuovo paradigma. Lexia 31–32: 151–173.

    Google Scholar 

  37. Ratti, Ambrogio. 1941. Inviti all’eroismo: discorsi di S.S. Pio 11, nell’occasione della lettura dei brevi per le canonizzazioni, le beatificazioni, le proclamazioni dell’eroicità delle virtù dei santi, beati e servi di Dio. Rome: La Civiltà Cattolica.

    Google Scholar 

  38. Rusconi, Roberto. 2005. Una Chiesa a confronto con la società. In Storia della santità nel cristianesimo occidentale, ed. Anna Benvenuti, Sofia Boesch Gajano, Simon Ditchfield, Roberto Rusconi, Francesco Scorza Barcellona, and Gabriella Zarri, 338–352. Rome: Viella.

    Google Scholar 

  39. Saint Mary Magdalen, Gabriel. 1949. Normes actuelles de la sainteté. In Trouble et lumière Etudes Carmélitaines, ed. Journet Charles, 175–188. Bruges: Désclée.

    Google Scholar 

  40. Testa, Enrico. 2009. Eroi e figuranti. Il personaggio nel romanzo. Turin: Einaudi.

    Google Scholar 

  41. Tilliette, Jean-Yves. 1991. Introduction. In Les fonctions des saints dans le monde occidental (IIIXIII siècle), 1–11. Rome: Ecole Française de Rome.

  42. Veraja, Fabian. 1975. La Canonizzazione equipollente e la questione dei miracoli nelle cause di canonizzazione. Apollinaris XLVII: 222–245.

    Google Scholar 

  43. Veraja, Fabian. 1992. Le cause di canonizzazione dei santi. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Woodward, Kenneth L. 1990. Making saints: how the Catholic Church determines who becomes a saint, who doesn’t, and why. New York: Simon and Schuster.

    Google Scholar 

  45. Zilberberg, Claude. 1993. Seuils, limites, valeurs. In On the Borderlines of Semiotics: proceedings from the ISI conferences 1991 and 1992 in Imatra, Acta Semiotica Fennica II, Helsinki, 379–395. Imatra: ISI.

Download references


This paper is part of the research project NeMoSanctI, which has received funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (grant agreement No 757314).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jenny Ponzo.

Additional information

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Ponzo, J. The Case of the “Offering of Life” in the Causes for Canonization of Catholic Saints: The Threshold of Self-Sacrifice. Int J Semiot Law 33, 983–1003 (2020).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Sainthood
  • Canon jurisprudence
  • Canonization
  • Threshold
  • Form of life
  • Self-sacrifice