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.

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