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Motherhood and Personhood: The Canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla and the Figurativization of Catholic Norms


This paper considers the cause for canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla, a pediatrician who died in 1962 because during her pregnancy she refused medical treatment that would have caused her to abort. The acts of Gianna’s cause contribute to the creation of a specific example mirroring and sustaining the position adopted by the Church in the 1960s and 1970s in matters of abortion, motherhood, family, and right to life. These issues were particularly delicate in those years, when the Catholic Church was facing the rise of liberal and radical positions that contrasted with its doctrine; in particular, law n. 194 of 22 May 1978 constituted the first act of abortion legalization in Italy. In this context, the sanctification of Gianna had strategic importance for the Church as a way of presenting the faithful with the Catholic ideal of motherhood through a concrete example to follow. In this paper, I argue that the way in which the figure of Gianna is represented in the acts of her cause for canonization can be read as the figurativization of the axiology laid out in more abstract terms in Church texts with a normative value, such as the constitutions it issued during the Second Vatican Council and other official documents expressing the pontifical magisterium.

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  1. To cite only a few examples, see the document about abortion issued in 1975 by the CEI (Conferenza Episcopale Italiana) and signed by its president, cardinal Poma [2], the actions and writings of Carlo Casini, then magistrate and prominent exponent of the Christian Democracy party [3], and the works of the Jesuit moral theologian Giacomo Perico [4, 5]. In 1994, moreover, John Paul II founded the “Pontifical Academy for life” tasked specifically with implementing and promoting the Church’s position in matters of life ethics, including abortion (see, accessed 21 April 2020). Even though theological and doctrinal sources are undoubtedly important in shaping the Catholic ethics position, this paper focuses exclusively on pontifical and conciliar documents because they are characterized by a more direct normative character; indeed, the goal of this paper is not to contribute to the already-rich bibliography on the theological debates about abortion and sexual morals, but to explore the relationship between the norm and the judicial procedure of canonization in this respect.

  2. For example, the figures of sages and masters who function as models of the perfect realization of the values and ideals of life proposed by Eastern philosophies and religions, such as Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism, or certain historical figures who became symbols of a certain way of living (and dying) consistent with a certain way of thinking and a certain system of moral values, such as Socrates, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King.

  3. Regarding the regulation of canonization procedures, see [12,13,13].

  4. Founded in 1867, Catholic Action is a lay association focused on working together with the ecclesiastical hierarchy to educate young people and help the needy. The life of this association has brought together a large number of young people for social, spiritual and charitable activities [16].

  5. Regarding Gianna’s life, see [17, 18].

  6. For a discussion of the legalization of divorce in Italy, see [20, 21]. The results of the votes are available at this institutional webpage: (last accessed 22 April 2020).

  7. Regarding the Christian idea of personhood, see [22] and the paper by Graziano Lingua in this issue.

  8. This is a theological idea that dates back to the first centuries, see for instance the idea of the interior master outlined by Augustine of Hippo [23].

  9. I use “value” here in the sense defined by Greimas, in relation to an actantial model [24]: the Church presents itself as the “addresser” proposing “values” to be put into practice by “addressees” and designating those who deny such values as defined by the Church as “opponents”. The problematic node here lies precisely in the definition of values: as Perelman and Olbrechts-Tytecha have noted [1: 104–107], abstract and generic values such as "life" and “dignity” are universally shared, while the more detailed and concrete the definition of the value in question is, the less widely it is shared.

  10. Regarding the theological distinction between direct and indirect action, see [6, 22], and for a discussion of the idea of indirect abortion, see [8: 108–139].

  11. The text of the law is available at: (last accessed 23 April 2020).

  12. (last accessed 20 April 2020).

  13. In the technical language of causes for saints, “Servant of God” indicates a candidate for sainthood who is the subject of an ongoing cause for canonization.

  14. The Positio super Virtutibus [11] is a large volume organized as follows: it opens with a brief Presentation by the Curator, followed by a lengthy Informatio (193 pages) which summarizes the content of the witness statements and documents relating to the cause, tracing the most salient features of Gianna Beretta Molla's life and virtues and outlining the process of the canonization cause. The Decree of validity of the trial, dated 1986, and a table of contents of the witness statements follow. The Summarium is next, reporting the testimony collected during the cognitional process (which I will refer to here as Summarium I), then the Summarium presenting the testimony related to the Rogational process (Summarium II). This is followed by a collection of procedural documents (Documenta), preceded by a brief description and followed by “written statements presented during the interrogation and sworn statements” (including some by the Servant of God's husband), personal documents of the Servant of God (e.g. baptism certificate and diploma), extra-procedural documents defined as “statements for future reference not presented during the interrogations” (including a clinical report written by Ferdinando Beretta, doctor and brother of the Servant of God), “extracts from the writings of the Servant of God”, the judgments of the two theological censors regarding Gianna's writings, and finally a long list of bibliographical references presented as a “general list of publications in Italy and abroad on the Servant of God Gianna Beretta Molla”. There are also some postulatory letters with which the bishops and community ask the Holy See to canonize Gianna.

  15. “a great model of lay holiness […] a family mother who lived in our time […] sacrificing her own life to save that of her fourth creature, who was still throbbing in her bosom. Today, this heroic gesture of hers has a very special meaning in the face of the impressive massacre perpetrated in the maternal womb, at the first blossoming of a new life, a massacre widely legalized even in those countries that believe themselves to be at the forefront of Christianity!” (Informatio: 9).

  16. “A true model, precisely as the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council proposes, in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church […] (Lumen Gentium, 41)” (Informatio: 10).

  17. See for example Informatio: 75.

  18. See for example Informatio: 93.

  19. Regarding this topic, see [14].

  20. Concerning this category, see [15].

  21. See for example Informatio: 132; Documenta: 548, 565.

  22. See for example Informatio: 70, 17.

  23. The Catholic tradition is actually rich in “medical” saints, beginning with the evangelist Luke. While previously this expertise was merely one of the pertinent features in constructing traditional hagiographic figures that were first and foremost figures of religious people or mystics or benefactors, however, recently canonized saints are characterized by the emphasis that the Church places specifically on their scientific knowledge and the way they implemented it. The way they practiced their medical profession therefore becomes a fundamental constitutive trait in defining these figures, and as such they thus provide a concrete example of the way the ethical principles championed by ecclesiastical authority should be applied and serve to promote an ideal that harmoniously brings together faith and modern science.

  24. See for example Informatio: 135.

  25. For instance, one of her sisters testified that: “During the honeymoon she wrote to me complaining that she did not feel symptoms of pregnancy” (Summarium I: 110).

  26. See for example Summarium I: 44 and 45.

  27. Those who knew Gianna best, or who were more aware of her medical history, or who were in any case knowledgeable about pregnancy in general.

  28. Summarium I: 89.

  29. Summarium I: 57.

  30. See also Informatio: 15.

  31. Informatio: 74.

  32. There are actually a number of photos of Gianna in the mountains, or portrayed in dynamic moments of life, in the outdoors, see e.g. the book edited by her daughter [29].

  33. “Many considered even the sacrifice of her own life to save that of her creature to be an ordinary act, similar to that of many other mothers, and this was because they ignored the Christian spirit with which she accepted it and prepared herself for it. It was not a fact she merely endured or even accepted with resignation, but a free and generous holocaust chosen and sought out to conform to divine will” (Informatio: 95).

  34. For example: “finally, let us say that she was heroically obedient to the divine commandment not to kill, preferring to sacrifice her own life” (Informatio: 171); “Such a martyred mother, out of love for God and in obedience to his commandment that forbids killing, testifies and exalts the sublime heroism of a Christian bride and mother who, in respecting every life, which is always God's gift to mankind, sacrifices her young life to say ‘yes’ to the Christian duty of love” (Informatio: 171): 187); “There is a great need for this [Gianna’s] message or teaching especially today because, while all the doors have been opened to allow the entrance of principles that desecrate the family, they instead are closed to God in the name of false hedonistic and liberal principles. So, based on the same principles the gift of life is denied, or, worse still, a newly conceived life is killed. To value the sacrifice of our Servant of God, therefore, is to value life itself” (Informatio 191); however, see also Documenta: 565,568.

  35. Intended as “a semiosis between the syntagmatic form of a course of existence (on the expression level) and the set of congruent selections operated on the axiological, modal, passion and figurative configurations (on the content level)” [30: 260].

  36. On this subject, see Federica Turco’s essay in this issue.


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This paper is part of the 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).

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Ponzo, J. Motherhood and Personhood: The Canonization of Gianna Beretta Molla and the Figurativization of Catholic Norms. Int J Semiot Law (2021).

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  • Abortion
  • Person
  • Generative trajectory
  • Catholic magisterium
  • Sainthood